Improve Performance With Communication

A failure to communicate can be at the root of an employee’s or a company’s poor performance. “Communicating performance expectations directly with any employee is the best way to turn things around,” says HR coach Barbara Kurka. She offers five suggestions to help you handle situations where you need to communicate expectations and motivate employees more effectively.

“What we[‘ve] got here is [a] failure to communicate.” How many times have you heard that line quoted? I thought about it again while working on this column because it’s a famous movie quote and we are in that time of year when there seems to be an awards ceremony every weekend. I’ll have to admit that I needed to do some research to find the original source. It’s from 1967’s Cool Hand Luke. The speaker is a prison guard who just hit a prisoner, played by Paul Newman. He follows it by explaining to the other prisoners, “Some men you just can’t reach.”

Fortunately workplaces have changed a lot since the 1940s prison chain gang depicted in the film. What’s not changed is that a failure to communicate can be at the root of an employee’s or a company’s poor performance.

“Communicating performance expectations directly with any employee is the best way to turn things around,” says Barbara Kurka, an HR coach and HR business partner for media companies and other businesses. Kurka, who wrote an article entitled “From Dimly Lit to All Fired Up” that appears in the current issue of MFM’s The Financial Manager magazine, gives this advice to managers who come to her with the challenge of a promising new hire that is still showing more promise than performance after three-to-six months on the job.

So, what is the best way to handle those situations where you need to communicate expectations and motivate employees more effectively? Kurka offers the following tips:

Define your expectationsStart by evaluating how well you identified the standards that you are using to measure performance. That process beings with taking a look at the job description and confirming that it addresses the behaviors that the employee is expected to exhibit. It should clearly identify the competencies and skills that must be demonstrated and the results the company expects, such as increased sales, new business and getting along with fellow employees.

“If these expectations aren’t already reflected in the job description, or if there is no descrip­tion, put one in writing so you have a basis for your performance evaluation,” recommends Kurka. “If you’re unable to be clear about what good performance looks like, how can you expect the employee to know?”


Before moving forward, you also need to determine what the company is willing to invest in the employee’s success. Closing the gap between expectations and performance could require giving more of your time and guidance and/or a willingness to invest in training, coaching or mentoring. The flip side, of course, is starting over which also means significant cost and time lost.

Prepare for the discussionKurka points out, This may seem obvious, but all too many managers go into a performance conversation winging it. They figure they know the problems, so what else is needed? But without adequate preparation, the conversation is usually unproductive or counterproductive.” As a result, “The employee gets defensive, and the manager may say things not directly related to performance,” Kurka warns.

It’s important to outline the results you want and build your points based upon those results. Go so far as practicing the conversation; this helps no matter how many times you’ve had similar conversations.

Commitment to the process means allowing both quality time and privacy for the meeting. Close the door, silence computer “pings,” forward or turn off phones.

Kurka also recommends letting the employee know in ad­vance of the meeting what the topic will be. “Let him know this will be a dialogue, not a monologue.”  A good way to demonstrate this is beginning the conversation by asking the staffer what her or she thinks about his or her performance to date.

Listen —Pay careful attention to what’s being said,” Kurka stresses. This will allow you to determine such things as whether or not the employee understands what the job requires, whether or not he (or she) knows he’s not performing it well and if she/he is frustrated about it. Note also whether you’re hearing lots of excuses with no acceptance of responsibility or if the employee feels additional resources would help to improve his or her performance.

Kurka points out that letting the employee begin the conversation has a number of advantages. Most importantly, the employee feels he’s being heard, making him less defensive and more willing to work on improvement. This approach also makes it easier for you to evaluate if the employee ‘gets the pic­ture.’”  This also “gives you time to check your own assumptions about why he’s not performing. He may understand clearly what’s wrong and not know how to fix it. You can and should also ask questions to clarify your understand­ing of his self-evaluation.”

Advocate your position — Start by recapping of the employee’s point of view. Follow this by explaining where you see the gaps between what’s expected and what’s being delivered. This is where the employee needs to improve. Kurka recommends that you “Be clear about what he needs to do to succeed. Don’t make it personal; it’s about behaviors, not traits.”

Brainstorm a development plan — Wrap up with a mutually developed and approved plan that identifies the expected results, the resources available and the timetable. Kurka uses the acronym SMART to help you develop this plan: “specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based.” As she concludes, “Providing good direction and clear goals upfront and holding ongoing performance conversations will make your life easier and make you a better manager.”

As Kurka’s observations and advice illustrates, good communication skills are an important part of leadership and management, the underpinnings of the media industry’s continued success. MFM’s mission includes providing education to meet the needs of financial professionals in our industry, which means we make a point to include management topics in our programs.

Earlier this week we held the first of a three-part series of leadership webinars presented by industry veteran and accredited career coach Jane Moyer of New Century Leadership LLC. Her next program, another webinar entitled GreatHireis scheduled for Tuesday, March 12. The third program in the series, Effective Delegation, will be held on Tuesday, April 16.

At next week’s CFO Summit we will be focusing on “Talent Development and Succession Planning” with a session presented by Grace Killelea, principal at Grace Killelea Consulting. Grace’s 30-plus year career includes, most recently, serving as Comcast’s SVP for talent.

Media Finance Focus 2013, our 53nd annual conference, being held May 20-22 in New Orleans, will also include a focus on leadership, management and HR issues. This year’s theme is “Unmasking Secrets to Success.” Scheduled topics include sessions about the Affordable Care Act, labor relations, becoming a better manager, the Family Medical Leave Act, succession planning, safety, talent management and succession planning.

Our closing keynote presentation will be led by Bruce S. Wilkinson, president and chief leadership officer, Workplace Consultants Inc. whose topics include leadership and communication. Delivered with enthusiasm, stories and humor, his remarks should leave attendees energized and ready to put what they’ve learned into practice when they return to their desks.

In addition, we will again be awarding a Steve McIntosh Memorial Scholarship to an industry member with fewer than five years’ media industry experience as of Feb. 15. This scholarship includes a full conference registration and three nights at the Roosevelt Hotel, our headquarters hotel in New Orleans. We are hoping that programs such as this scholarship will help to develop the next generation of industry leaders.

With programs such as these we hope to contribute to the media industry’s continued success and limit the times our industry leaders will find themselves quote Cool Hand Luke’s famous prison guard. As that movie not-so-subtly points out, a failure to communicate effectively will ultimately result in a failed organization.

Mary M. Collins is president and CEO of the Media Financial Management Association and its BCCA subsidiary. She can be reached at [email protected]. Her column appears in TVNewsCheck every other week. You can read her earlier columns here.

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