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Does Your Puppy “Wet” On The Floor? - Five Elements to Performance Management

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Author: Richard L. Williams, Ph.D.

Perhaps you have heard the phrase, "Push the Envelope." Well, in this article that is exactly what I'm going to do. Rest assured, I'll do it as carefully as possible, because I was criticized for calling three women "ladies" in Minneapolis; I was criticized (also in Minneapolis) for asking the only gray-haired person in a workshop if experience is a good teacher; I was criticized in Washington DC for being too nice to people; and I was criticized in Philadelphia for not being "explicitly clear" that a librarian could be both male or female. So, in pushing the envelope here I'll proceed cautiously.

My youngest daughter and her husband recently purchased an eight-week old puppy. With the smell of freshly installed carpet still in the air, these new parents quickly sought advice about the fastest way to house-train their new addition. While observing this process it brought to mind an analogy I've used in leadership, performance coaching ( and performance management workshops. It's this analogy that needs prudent wording in this article.

What would you think about this training technique for the new puppy? Each time the puppy has an accident in the house ("accident" is polite for something much less pleasant), what if my daughter gave the puppy a doggy candy treat? How long would it take the puppy to realize that accidents are a good thing and being housebroken is an optional activity? Clearly, it would not take long and the results would be odoriferous (polite for smelly).

Now any wise reader would certainly ask, "Why would any normal, rational or sane owner reward a dog after it had an accident?" And that is, indeed, an appropriate question. But, before answering that question, let me pose another similar situation.

What would you think about this training technique for a new or existing employee? Each time the employee has an accident we reward him or her with managerial silence and a paycheck. And for this analogy let's define "accident" as any behavior that either contributes to low performance or is considered inappropriate by organizational standards and practices. So in other words, an employee is late for work or has work performance that is substandard by a reasonable standard of measurement. Then, following these behaviors, the employee's supervisor says little or nothing to the employee, and the paymaster gives the employee a paycheck. How is this situation any different than giving a puppy that wets on the new carpet a doggy treat?

When I've asked this question in a workshop it has usually been greeted with stony silence while the participants comprehend the implications and meaning of the message. I believe there is no difference in the two analogies: rewarding a puppy for inappropriate behavior is no different than rewarding an employee for inappropriate behavior. In both cases the dog and employee would have little incentive to improve.

The Truth About Performance Management. Managing the performance of others is a combination of experience, knowledge, technique, communication and courage. If any of these five elements are missing or neglected, managing the performance of others is difficult at best, and ineffective at the least. The answer I was trying to get from the gray-haired manager in Minneapolis is that yes, experience can matter, providing the person learns from it. The more experiences a manager has in dealing with others (assuming the person learns from experiences), the better able he or she ought to be in understanding not only the variety of situations a manager must deal with, but also the differences there are in people. I wasn't able to get the answer that day from the gray-haired manager because of an objection from a human resource "professional," but I'm sure it would have been, "yes," the more experiences a manager has the better equipped he or she ought to be in dealing with the performance of others.

The second element of performance management is knowledge. I have observed hundreds of managers as they work with their employees: both to sustain good performance and improve sub-standard performance. And it is clear that both general and specific knowledge about how to manage others and deal with people is a great advantage. In particular it's interesting to observe a wise and experienced manager as he or she works with a "problem child." (That's polite talk for an employee who is driving the manager nuts!) I think any manager, gray-haired or otherwise, can become wise and experienced by learning from mistakes, and reading the wisdom of others in books and articles.

The third element is technique. There is no question that using time-tested and proven techniques to manage and coach others are far more effective than doing what comes naturally. The natural technique of managerial silence permits an employee to "wet" on the floor. All too often it's a natural technique that causes a manager to over-react to a small problem with a big correction. And it can be a natural technique that fails to help an employee understand his or her involvement in a situation. Clearly, knowing and using effective techniques are requisite skills to manage the performance of others.

The fourth element is effective communication. My clinical psychologist colleagues have said that ineffective communication is a prime cause for divorce. Likewise in the business world, poor communication is also a prime cause for problems with performance management. Many organizations promote an individual contributor to supervisor because he or she is a "good worker" and has mastered the skills of working hard. Unfortunately for a supervisor, working hard is not as important as being an effective communicator. The manager who takes time to listen, motivate, provide performance coaching (, and lead his or her employees oftentimes dwarfs the manager who is the strong silent type. Effective communication is the foundation of effective supervision.

The fifth element of performance management is courage. In my consulting practice of coaching the coach, I have seen managers who have years of experience, have acquired much knowledge, know the techniques, should be good communicators, but who lack the courage to engage employees in uncomfortable discussions. These managers avoid potential confrontations like the plague. Consequently, these managers practice a deadly game called self-resolution. This is where a manager believes that by leaving a problem or situation alone long enough it will somehow solve itself and not be a problem anymore. In truth, rarely do problems self-resolve. Actually, most employee problems get worse, not better over time. This means that the absence of enough courage to engage the employee in a discussion about performance improvement can create other more costly and difficult to resolve problems. Time without intervention can make things worse. Having the courage to intervene early in an employee performance situation with experience, knowledge, technique, effective performance coaching (, and communication is the best way to manage the performance of others.

Does your puppy "wet" on the floor?

About the author

Dr. Richard L. Williams is a business consultant specializing in performance coaching (, quality improvement, team development, leadership development and organizational development. He can be reached at

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