Your Employees Are Underperforming…They Just Don’t Know It

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By Charlotte Dillon

As an executive, criticism is an essential part of your job. Your role is to get your team working as efficiently as possible. This means reminding employees of impending deadlines, hounding them to finish tasks, and firing off nit-picky memos. It’s important work, but it comes at a high cost: employee confidence.

Hard and fast criticism might seem the quickest way to get your team to work better. But if negativity is all they hear from you, you’re harming your company’s productivity.

Unconfident employees are less likely to approach you with out-of-the box ideas, teach themselves a new coding language, or apply for that promotion where they would excel.

Confident employees are productive employees. The problem is, most people aren’t as confident as they should be, since they don’t accurately perceive their abilities and competency.

If they’re not cognizant of their capacity, they probably aren’t working at it. If they’re under-confident, they’re underperforming.

Here’s the good news: confidence isn’t fixed. By applying a couple of positive psychology tools, you can boost their confidence and their productivity.

The Confidence Discrepancy

The average person’s self-assurance is lower than it should be. A Cornell University study quizzed college students on their scientific reasoning skills. Before seeing how their scores, subjects predicted how many questions they got right.

They all underestimated themselves. By about 20%.

Researchers agree that this discrepancy is caused by a lack of encouragement, starting as young as elementary school. Society discourages young people to take risks, be vocal, and make mistakes—especially young girls, which explains why women experience an especially high confidence discrepancy.

It’s clear that negativity is holding everyone back, preventing both women and men from recognizing their potential.

Your employees are capable of a lot. They just don’t believe it—especially if you heap on pure criticism.

The Solution? Positive Psychology

Perception really matters to workplace performance. Let’s say you hired the smartest employees in the world. But only 25% of job success is predicted by IQ. The remaining 75% of workplace success is predicted by an employee’s social support, optimism, and their ability to see stress as a challenge instead of as a threat.

This means that most of workplace success is determined by your employees’ perceptions. And if they perceive themselves to be less capable than they are, they’re going to be less successful.

As psychologist Martin Seligman describes, positive psychology focuses on changing our perception of situations to live happier, more fulfilling lives. It offers a number of tools to help you help your team recognize their capabilities.

Your job as an office manager is to foster an environment that allows employees to feel as confident and productive as possible.

Here’s three positive psychology tools to get you started.

1. Send specific, thoughtful thank-yous

Positive emotions don’t last long. Our inherent negativity bias means that we’re likely to remember bad experiences over good ones. That means that if you give someone a critique and a compliment, they’re more likely to remember the critique.

Your job is to counteract the negativity bias. It takes a lot to overpower the negative feelings associated with a bad experience, like a bad review or a failed pitch.

So how do you cut the bitterness of negative work experiences? Try expressing thanks.

Robert Emmons of The University of California writes that even though positive emotions wear off quickly, “gratitude makes us appreciate the value of something, and when we appreciate the value of something, we extract more benefits from it; we’re less likely to take it for granted.”

By expressing gratitude for your employees’ work, they’re less likely to take their capabilities for granted.

Remember that true gratitude involves more than having an intermittent employee appreciation day or summer Fridays.

If you want to really overpower the negativity bias, try complimenting a particular task or project your employee did well. Did they stay later than they had to? Did they complete a project much faster than you expected?

Send a short email that recognizes what they’ve done. Specificity lets them know you’re not taking them for granted, and ups their confidence.

Maybe they’ve been overlooking all that hard work they’re doing, instead focusing on the negative aspects in their life. Specific compliments can bring their confidence up to where it belongs.

Can’t oversee every detail of your company?

Crowdsource compliments.

Shopify uses a technique called Unicorn that allows people to share little successes (that come with a cash bonus). It puts power in the hands of employees by making them feel recognized for the little things they do.

2. Have employees practice gratitude

Studies consistently reveal the power of of gratitude, and not just for the person on the receiving end. It has massive neurological rewards for the person sending thanks, including reducing levels of anxiety and depression, as well as increasing happiness and confidence.

Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, takes these findings into the workplace. As a workplace productivity consultant for major companies, he has employees write a two-minute email praising or thanking someone every day for 21 days.

Achor had Microsoft’s then-CEO Steve Ballmer implement the two-minute email as a companywide policy, across many teams. Here’s what he found:

“This dramatically increases (employees’) social connection which is the greatest predictor of happiness we have in organizations. It also improves teamwork. We’ve measured the collective IQ of teams and the collective years of experience of teams but both of those metrics are trumped by social cohesion.”

It has two effects. First of all, it lets the recipients of compliments feel good about the things they’re doing in the workplace, which increases their confidence quotient. It also allows the sender of the compliment to tap into the neurological benefits of sending thanks.

And a happy, confident employee is more productive. So foster an attitude of gratitude. Cheesy? Yes. Useful? You bet.

3. Invert the office To-do List

The To-do list is a major source of office stress. At the end of the day, looking at an incomplete list of tasks can be a brutal blow to confidence.

One way to minimize it is by encouraging employees to keep an “Anti-To-do List” rather than an anxiety-inducing to-do list. The Anti-To-do list, or a “done” list, has people write down what they have done, not what they plan to do. It’s a positive psychology tool that entrepreneur Marc Andreessen is famous for using. Here’s what he says about it:

“I love this technique. Being able to put more notches on my accomplishment belt, so to speak, by writing down things on my Anti-To-do list as I accomplish them throughout the day makes me feel marvelously productive and efficient. Far more so than if I just did those things and didn’t write them down.”

Employees get the endorphin rush of feeling they’ve completed something, which also increases their confidence in their own abilities. They’re less likely to sell themselves short.

Andressen writes his done list on paper, but there are a number of ways you can go about implementing this in your office. Try using an electronic version of a daily standup so you get to see what your teammates have completed throughout the day.

Investing in Confidence

Time is a precious resource in the office. It’s easy to think that the best way to accomplish office-wide goals is to get your employees focusing on the immediate tasks at hand. But investing in confidence-building is invaluable.

Taking time out to reflect and appreciate work that’s already been done has incredible benefits. In fact, making this kind of reflection a habit can rewire our brains to become more emotionally intelligent.

It’s a virtuous cycle. Gratefulness encourages the brain to make and release serotonin and dopamine, and brain starts to look for more things to be grateful for.

This kind of positive feedback creates an emotionally intelligent workforce that’s confident and as productive as possible. When they know how much they’re capable of, they’ll work better, and your short time investment will reap dividends.


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