How to Improve an Employee, According to Brain Science

June 27, 2016

So you're a manager, and like most managers, you want to get the most out of your employees. Your people are good, but there are a few things that they could do better that would bring them to the next level.

How do you help them accomplish that?

It isn’t as if the employee doesn’t want to improve, most people want to improve their performance. The challenge instead is two-fold:

  • You have to effectively give constructive criticism, which is harder than it sounds.
  • You have to provide them a way to improve.

Have no fret, there’s a solution. And it is also two-fold:

  • Rather than criticize, position the weakness as an obstacle the employee needs to overcome to achieve one of their career goals.
  • Give the employee a learning path.

Here’s how to do both:

1. Point out a weakness not through criticism, but as an obstacle to overcome.

The first step to improving an employee is pointing out what they need to improve. This sounds easier than it is – research shows most people hate being criticized and often criticism can be demotivating and hurt performance.

How do you get around this?

Position the weakness as something the employee has to overcome to achieve their goals. Rather than telling an employee they need to get better at public speaking, for example, ask them what they want to accomplish in their career. Once they make that clear (maybe they want to be promoted), explain how public speaking fits into that (presenting well goes a long way toward getting promoted, and that requires strong public speaking skills).

As part of a study ran by Case Western Reserve University Professor Richard Boyatzis, brain scientists from the Cleveland Clinic found this approach makes sense, scientifically. Using brain imaging, the researchers found that when a person talks about their goals, it activates the parts in their brain that opens them up to new possibilities and ideas, and makes them more willing to hear what improvements they need to make to get there.

Conversely, when you criticize someone, the opposite happens, the researchers found. Part of the brain shuts down, and people become closed off to suggestion.

So, if you know an area one of your employees needs to improve in, don’t simply tell them they need to improve in that area. Instead, ask them about their career goals, and then explain how improving in that area will help make that happen.

2. Give them a path to improvement via a learning plan.

Okay, so you’ve made your point effectively and the employee now wants to improve in a particular area. Most likely, you aren’t going to be able to take time out of your day to teach them that skill. Or, if you leave it up to them to search for solutions themselves, it probably isn’t going to be effective.

The end result then will just be the person accepting they have an area in need of development, but with no clear path toward improving it. That’s just going to make them more insecure and likely worse at whatever they need help in.

A more rational approach is to give them a learning plan, sourced from classes from your LMS. Now, they have a legitimate path forward, and can confidently improve that skill.

That’s it. It’s that simple.

Think about the result of this plan. Not only have you helped your employee improve; you are now effectively chasing their dream with them, which will increase their morale and motivation moving forward.

That’s some solid managing.

*Image from Star Wars.