Why Some Managers Fail at Getting Effective and Efficient Performance

To succeed in business today, everything must constantly be scrutinized. As such, leaders and managers are forced to evaluate and reevaluate performance; specifically the performance of their people and its impact on the company’s bottom line. For some, their role is rewarding and the path forward is clear. For others, they are left wondering how to get direct reports to deliver the performance needed to achieve necessary business outcomes.

Effective performance is not something that only lucky managers can achieve from their employees. It’s also not something you’re born with. For those who find themselves challenged to get desired performance from direct reports, it’s likely they have fallen victim to some common traps. Here are two traps that failing managers can fall into:  

Using ineffective management practices: In management, just because something doesn’t work doesn’t mean managers won’t continue to use it. So many practices have been institutionalized through the years that it’s no wonder managers think nothing of adopting them. Ranking is one such practice whose intention is to drive motivation to be the best but in reality it devalues the performance of all those who aren’t at the top. What managers don’t understand is that, among other things, it creates internal competition and doesn’t motivate the ones on the bottom to improve or those at the top to reach higher. Unfortunately, it often creates enmity between those ranked higher and those rated lower. The reality is that if you aren’t at the top, or close to it, this process becomes demotivating as they realize they will never be able to perform better than those above them. Another common, and unintentional practice, is when managers use the ‘you did a good job but’ approach when providing feedback or attempting to correct poor performance. When managers provide reinforcement for the things employees did right but then end it on a note of what more they can improve, employees forget the good and focus only on what they did wrong. If this is done often, employees hate to hear the good because they know some criticism is likely to follow. They also begin to suspect that the only reason you say something good is to set them up for bad news.

A frequent mistake in correcting behavior is to "sandwich" the problem behavior between two compliments. Managers are often taught that saying something positive before mentioning the problem makes the employee more responsive to the negative and by ending with a positive it protects the person’s ego. What it does, in fact, is to dilute the message at best and provide positive reinforcement for the problem behavior at worst. Break this bad management practice. It may make you feel better about the correcting but has a very unreliable impact on the performer.

These methods even if done with the best of intentions are demotivating and usually result in employees doing only what they are required to do.

Unintentionally rewarding negative behavior: When managers don’t understand positive reinforcement as a scientific concept many problems usually occur in an effort to build a positive culture. For example, the worst advice you could ever give or get is: Always be positive! While it sounds good and many people strive to eliminate negativism from their relationships, we know that if you are positive at the wrong time, you will get more of the wrong behavior. Behavior that you want more of needs positive reinforcement; Behavior that you don’t want, does not.

A question to ask that will help you avoid rewarding negative behavior is, "What does the person want?" If bad behavior gets him what he wants, you can count on the fact that he will do it more often. For example, I have heard people say that "All he wants to do is argue." If that is true, then arguing with him will only increase argumentative behavior. Positive reinforcement is a powerful interpersonal tool. Use it well and it will result in healthy, productive relationships. Use it poorly and it will make you and those you work with miserable, unhappy and unproductive.

To create a productive and happy work group, you must:

  1. Know the reinforcers of those who work with you – everyone is different
  2. Establish yourself as a positive reinforcer – pair yourself with the delivery of meaningful reinforcers
  3. Reinforce incremental improvement – the smaller, the better
  4. Don’t stop – continue as long as you want performance


Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.