How the ‘D’ Word Can Improve Performance

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Sep 21, 2018

Sometimes saying that you are “disappointed” is a very powerful statement.

Several years ago, I watched a hospital president speak with employees who messed up. It could have been a med error, tardiness for a shift, or poor treatment of a family member.

If an error occurred, she would invite the employee to her office and ask what happened. After the employee explained the situation, she asked if there was something she had needed or help she didn’t get. They had a two-way conversation. Then she asked what she would do differently in the future, and made sure the employee “got it.”

Then she would say she was disappointed — the “D” word. She didn’t say she was disappointed in the employee but in the situation and assured the employee she was certain it would not happen again. It generally didn’t.

“Speak softly and carry a big stick”

I took this as a lesson in quiet strength and a class act in leadership. I watched, time after time, the profound impact on the employee, from being invited to the office of the president, to wanting very desperately to not disappoint her again.

I’ve also watched leaders who speak loudly in situations of employee error as if in attack mode. In my experience, that is nowhere near as effective.

I like to tell groups I’m working with that no one really wants to come in to work and screw up. Usually everybody chuckles and nods. How an employee error is addressed makes a big difference. Addressing the problem, rather than heaping blame, goes a very long way to  preserving self-esteem.

If someone is disappointed in my work, I am humbled and want to do better. If someone starts attacking my work, I am defensive. Perhaps I am unusual, but I don’t think so.

Emotions in the work setting are real, but they needn’t be demeaning.

Think about how the “D” word might make a strong, yet caring point for you. Here are some of my thoughts about the wise use of the “D” word:

Use it sparingly — As with any technique, overuse minimizes the impact. If the leader is disappointed all the time, that sends a totally different message than what I advocate here. Many errors are not “disappointment” worthy. Think about what disappointment conveys: It conveys a set of expectations that were not met. I also think it conveys a message that the assigned task was very important.

Address the situation, not the person — It is not about the individual employee, but instead it is about the employee’s work product. Being disappointed says that you had greater expectations of the work product than what was produced. It says you believed that the employee could do good work, which is why you made the assignment. Employees really don’t want to let someone down, but unless they realize that their work did not meet expectations, there is little impetus to work harder in the future.

Make it a dialogue — As part of her dialogue with an employee, the hospital president entered into a mutual diagnosis to see why the result missed the mark. Was there something the employee needed? If so, why didn’t the employee ask? How could the error have been avoided? This becomes an opportunity to get to the root cause, which may lie outside the employee’s authority. Fixing this root cause will be helpful to avoid similar errors in the future.

Follow up — As with any constructive feedback it is hugely important to follow up with the individual to see how they are adapting or changing their approach to a situation that didn’t go well. When told that they disappointed someone – a parent, a boss, a hospital president – people generally feel badly in some way on the spectrum of regret.
Disappointment is emotional and at some point, people have to deal with the emotion. Having a future focus, a goal of doing what it necessary to improve, is a positive means of working through the emotion.

Learning and growing — This mutual learning, two-way dialogue fosters growth. Isn’t that more productive than conflict?

This originally appeared on Carol Anderson’s blog @the intersection of learning & performance.

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