“Don't sacrifice your productivity: Take initiative."
“Be a team player."
“I'm looking for a self-starter."
Sometimes business owners and managers use these subjective phrases to describe how they want employees to behave, or the skills they want them to possess. But according to Rex Conner, author of the book What if Common Sense Was Common Practice in Business? and owner of performance consulting firm Mager Consortium, using imprecise language can be a recipe for business disaster.
When you instruct employees with phrases that don't mean anything, you can introduce subjectivity into the processes by which people are paid and evaluated. Thanks to a lack of clarity, conflicts can increase, causing productivity to plunge.
Pitfall Areas: Recruitment and Performance
This problem often starts at the beginning with the first job description you publish about a position.
“Virtually every job description uses subjective language to describe the role's requirements," says Connor. “It's easier, for example, to say you require 'three years of experience' than to define the specific expertise the job requires.
Career expert Susan Heathfield agrees. "Employee job descriptions should clearly identify and spell out the responsibilities of a specific job," she says. "Poorly written employee job descriptions, on the other hand, add to workplace confusion, hurt communication and make people feel as if they don't know what's expected from them."
—Elle Morgan, marketing manager, Small Improvements
Employers can also get into trouble by listing certain soft skills as prerequisite, because asking for someone with “strong communication skills" or someone who is a “good cultural fit" can pose a dilemma for applicant and screener alike. How, for instance, does a candidate know if their definition of “strong communication skills" is the same as the hiring manager's?
Evaluating soft skills can be equally tricky during the performance management process. Telling a worker who is not meeting productivity expectations to “take more initiative" is unlikely to achieve the same results as “initiate 10 new customers into the sales pipeline by the end of the quarter." As you might have gathered from this example, a good rule of thumb for transforming requirements from subjective to objective is to add parameters or measurements of full productivity.
Creating a Common Performance Language for Productivity
Connor advises business owners to interject a common performance language into their organizations. A common performance language is built using observable requirements for each skill in question.
“Observable performances go a long way in taking the subjectivity out of soft skills so they can be demonstrated, trained and evaluated like any other skill," says Connor.
How do you tease out an observable requirement or performance? Think of it like this: How would you separate your employees into two groups? Would it be those who met a given performance requirement and those who didn't? How would you tell?
The building blocks of a common performance language include:
Every worker has tasks to accomplish. If you define each person's tasks with objective and clear standards, then it makes it harder to question how to evaluate their performance.
Here too, a lack of specificity can be the enemy. "Vague descriptions not only result in unclear outcomes, they can also result in an unfair picture of an employee's performance," says Elle Morgan, marketing manager at employee feedback platform Small Improvements.
"To get the most out of objectives," she continues, "outline the actions employees must take to meet the goal, and what success will look like when they get there."
Connor's advice? Have every worker understand how to apply three components involved in human performance: skill, will and hill.
As Connor describes them, skill is the ability to perform a task; will is being free from motivational barriers (i.e. they can't be punished for doing the task right or rewarded for doing it wrong); and hill is being free from obstacles (i.e. workers have what they need to do the job in terms of authority, resources, knowledge and equipment). Consider proactively communicating the common performance language to everyone in the organization.
You can construct all of your systems to recruit, train, develop and evaluate your people using the same language and performance objectives. Does this require a little extra effort upfront? Absolutely. But it may pay off in increased productivity and job satisfaction, and a significant decrease in conflict in the workplace.