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Have You Found Tough Love to Build Performance?

Guest Post by Mark Deterding.

Servant leadership is many things, but one thing it is not is “soft”. Servant leaders have high expectations, both for themselves, as well as for their team.

There’s only one way I know to make things better in your organization. Create and share clear, reasonable, and measurable expectations and performance goals. Then measure performance and hold people accountable.

Performance feedback gets much easier when the importance of clearly defined purpose, values and behaviors, and clear performance expectations are well understood. Once you’ve set and communicated those key parts of the organization, building performance gets a lot easier.

When expectations are clear you don’t have to debate them. The conversation shifts to whether or not people are doing what they’re expected to do. I no longer lose sleep when I have to let someone go because of his or her performance. If I’ve done my job of making expectations clear and reminding the person of them and giving them feedback on their performance, then they reap the consequences of their actions.

I never fire people. They fire themselves by not performing or behaving badly. I just deliver the message.

Servant leaders understand that feedback is a vital aspect of building performance. People need to know where they stand, what is going well, and where they can improve.

Everyone craves fair, candid, and caring feedback about his or her performance. The sad truth is that many people have never gotten that kind of feedback. And many leaders have never learned how to give it.

Your feedback is fair when expectations are clear and reasonable. Fairness is also about consequences. People will accept correction and discipline if they feel that the praise or punishment fits their actions and if they feel that everyone is treated fairly.

Your feedback is candid when you tell the truth and describe things accurately. This is honesty, but it’s not “brutal honesty.” It’s compassionate honesty. You should tell the truth, but never be hurtful on purpose.

Your feedback is caring when it’s delivered in the spirit of servant leadership. Tailor your feedback to the individual and the situation. Make sure your feedback will help the team and the individual team member do better next time.

Giving fair, candid, and caring feedback is one of the ways you serve as a leader. Here are some keys to getting it right.

Provide frequent feedback. If you are around your people a lot, you will be there when things happen that need improvement or cry out for praise. Seize the moment.

Have regular one-on-one meetings with your team members. Set aside time to meet with individual team members every week or two to discuss their performance, behavior, and goals. Treat the one-on-ones as high priority meetings.

Results should always be measured against clear and agreed upon performance and values expectations. If you don’t do this it’s impossible to be fair.

Feedback should be candid, clear, and focused. Give feedback on specific behavior or performance. That means things that can be observed or measured.

Explore and acknowledge their viewpoints. Do this early in the conversation. You may discover you have the facts wrong or that there’s a good reason for what happened. Start by telling your team member what you’re going to discuss and why it matters. Then wait for them to speak.

Celebrate successes. The purpose of feedback is to improve performance and behavior. Too many bosses think that means “correcting” team members and nothing more. But legitimate praise is the most powerful tool you have to do more good things. Catch people doing things right. Then praise them for it.

Develop game plans for improvement in areas where necessary. Some things can be changed after one feedback conversation, but many will take time. When that’s the case develop a simple plan and review progress at every one-on-one.

Follow up. The purpose of feedback is to get performance or behavior to change. Your work isn’t done until that happens. After the conversation, follow up to make sure that the changes you agreed to have happened.

These principles apply to our leadership in all aspects of our lives, not just in the professional realm. As a parent or friend we can serve others as well by effectively providing fair, candid, and caring feedback. It will build performance, and as a servant leader, that is our job!

“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” ~ Proverbs 27:17


Mark Deterding is the founder and principal of Tribune Leadership Services, LLC. As an executive coach and consultant, he works with high performing leaders to help them develop core servant leadership capabilities that allow them to lead at a higher level and enable them to achieve their God-given potential.



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