One of the most frustrating things for a manager or small-business owner is to see a smart, talented employee underperforming.
Often, this happens because people faced with tough challenges tend to revert to a primitive mindset, which bestselling author Christine Comaford calls “the critter state.” They react to problems by fighting, running, or freezing, rather than intelligently responding.
They become scared or uncertain and use just a fraction of their brains and abilities as they regress to the low-risk, uncreative behaviour they see as “safe.”
Comaford, author of the recently released book “Smart Tribes,” has made a career using neuroscience to help people and businesses change such self-destructive behaviour.
She shared a few essential tips from the latest neuroscience research and her own years of working with companies on how to motivate employees to work harder, smarter, and with greater purpose.
Ask questions instead of making statements.
“Most leaders give orders all of the time, and then they complain that they have a culture of order-takers,” Comaford says. “Well, they created that.”
When leaders are asked a question, their impulse is to give an immediate answer. That trains employees to constantly ask questions instead of trying to solve problems and find solutions.
Instead of just answering a question, she suggests asking employees what they would try, who could be looped in, and what could go right or wrong. That puts their brains into problem-solving mode rather than a state in which they’re more inclined to freeze or fight back, or ignore the problem entirely.
Be extremely clear. Don’t leave people to “figure it out.”
It’s extremely easy to think that employees know everything that you know, and that they can figure out what you want. Often, that’s not the case. Uncertainty leads people to waste time, get nervous, and revert to that critter state, says Comaford.
The more detail you put into a request, the better. Say exactly what you want — in which format, on what terms, and by when — instead of being vague.
Make accountability central to your culture.
“The problem with accountability is two-fold,” Comaford says. Oftentimes, businesses don’t have clear structures. People may not know exactly what they’re accountable for or the consequences of underperforming.
There’s nothing more important in business than having employees do what they say they’re going to do. When someone doesn’t follow through, always find out why, Comaford advises.
The first time they drop the ball, if there’s no personal issue, figure out additional structure to make sure it doesn’t happen again. In practice, this may mean additional check-ins or status reports at specific times every week. If it happens a second time, ask if you’ve put too much on their plate, and work to reduce the number of low-value tasks they spend time on, Comaford suggests.
Consequences don’t need to be adversarial, but they do need to be there if you want behaviour to change.
Use these three phrases to knock employees out of a critter state.
There are three things you can say to an employee that can help you influence them in the right direction.
The first: “What if?” Says Comaford, “When we preface an idea or a suggestion with ‘what if,’ we remove ego, and we reduce emotion.” Rather than stating a position, invite people to engage by throwing a few ideas out there and letting them respond to and build on them.
Using “what if” is like “a leader throwing a beach ball into the middle of a concert. The people will bounce the beach ball around and make it their own,” Comaford says. “We’re throwing that beach ball out there and enabling people to brainstorm more easily.”
The second phrase? “I need your help.” That invites an employee to temporarily swap roles with their boss, to think like a leader, and step up, often to a level they may not have thought themselves capable of.
The last one is, “Would it be helpful if …” Success breeds bigger expectations, which can be terrifying for people. By taking the focus away from an intimidating task and focusing on solutions, people start to move forward.