When individuals develop habits that disrupt performance or culture, leaders are responsible for restoring productivity and unity. The most common tool managers use is correction through verbal feedback—telling someone how they need to improve—which can be effective when done properly.
But verbal feedback is tricky: it risks damaging the trust and psychological safety of the team, and the skills required to pull it off are rarer than you might expect.
There is no method for giving verbal feedback that works every time, for every person, in every situation. On the contrary, even the most carefully crafted message can backfire by generating frustration and resentment, making matters worse. It’s no wonder that giving corrective feedback is among any leader’s most dreaded and emotionally taxing duties.
Because of those downsides, even experienced VPs and CEOs regularly postpone difficult feedback conversations or avoid them altogether, leaving behavioral problems unresolved. This creates a lose-lose situation. If they happen at all, poorly executed conversations leave team members feeling demoralized, unsure about their objectives, and afraid of future contact with management.
Meanwhile, if the disruptive behavior is ignored, it will continue to frustrate other team members and create a much larger problem. As the team loses faith in management, morale declines, gossip and back-biting become more frequent, turnover increases, and even your best performers may lose motivation.
Luckily, there is a better way. Structured “cultivation” of healthy workplace behavior is often more effective than critical feedback, and carries far less risk.
Using a method I refer to as ‘cultivation’, you can address most behavior and performance issues without explicitly talking about them, which is ideal for anyone struggling to give effective feedback or looking for a reliable approach to improving workplace behavior. The idea is to substitute a more desirable behavior for the disruptive one. The process can be broken down into three steps:
The key to cultivation is identifying a specific positive behavior that will naturally compete with the one you don't want.
Here’s an example. Imagine you run a coffee shop, and you have an employee who spends too much time on their phone during work. As a result, they fall behind on tasks, don't provide acceptable service to customers, and make small but frustrating mistakes on drink orders. You might reasonably conclude that the solution to all three problems would be for them to get off their phone.
Not necessarily. ‘Less phone’ doesn’t automatically mean ‘better performance.’ The employee might stop using their phone only to start distracting their coworkers with gossip instead. Getting rid of a disruptive behavior only produces positive outcomes if you replace it with something better.
In other words, there are an infinite number of behaviors you don’t want from your team. Offering only a single example of what they shouldn’t do provides no guidance about what they should.
Back to our example. What you actually want here is for your employee to focus on the task at hand, serve more customers, and produce higher quality work. These are the outcomes that increase value.
If an employee knows only what you don't want, their safest course of action is to do nothing at all. Erasing an unhelpful habit creates a behavioral vacuum which must be filled with a new behavior. If you don’t actively cultivate a better behavior to take its place, another disruptive one may take root.
Behavior is like a garden: the point of pulling weeds is to make room for flowers.
As with any process of cultivation, you need to provide opportunities for the new behavior to take root and mature over time. You’ll need to design situations in which your team member can practice the replacement behavior.
Going back to our coffee shop, you might challenge your distracted barista to set a recurring timer to check on customers every 10 minutes. This behavior naturally competes with the behavior of looking at their phone because you can’t reasonably do both at the same time.
The timer serves as behavioral training wheels, prompting frequent opportunities to engage in the desired behavior of providing more attentive service. Your goal is to help them establish behavioral momentum.
You’ll need to get creative to come up with the right training wheels for each new situation. Just remember that the point is to encourage the individual to start doing more of what you want without directly saying (or indirectly implying) that they have been disappointing you. The benefit of cultivation is that it allows us to improve behavior while avoiding critical feedback and its associated risks.
Start by clarifying the value-generating actions you want your employee to pursue, using language like the following:
Notice how we are providing immediate clarity and setting up opportunities for positive change, without offering a single word of constructive criticism. Cultivation allows us to initiate improvement without causing someone to feel like a failure. The result is a much more constructive and pleasant overall experience, both for you and for the person you’re developing.
Now that you’ve identified the replacement behavior and created opportunities for practice, the final step is to make sure it sticks. It’s well-established that habits form only after a behavior is repeatedly followed by “reinforcement.”
Reinforcement means providing immediate positive consequences after the desired behavior is performed, psychologically linking it to a desirable experience or outcome for the employee. While we are often not consciously aware of it, reinforcement is integral to any learning process and constantly influences our behavior.
So, to reinforce the desired behavior, you must provide a strong positive consequence immediately afterwards. The more positive and the more immediate the consequence is, the faster the new behavior will become a habit.
Getting reinforcement right requires thoughtfulness. In particular, make sure the reward you plan to use will be reinforcing from the employee’s perspective. What you see as a reinforcer might not feel like one to somebody else—if your employee has dietary restrictions, a gift card “reward” to a restaurant they can’t eat at will hardly function as a reinforcer.
As for timing, I really do mean that reinforcement must be immediate, ideally within 5 seconds of a desired behavior taking place. That means it can be helpful for you to be physically present so that you can offer reinforcement right away, while the neurons are still warm. That said, late reinforcement is far better than no reinforcement at all.
The most fundamental and most essential form of reinforcement is genuine gratitude. Offering a meaningful “thank you” or “great job” as soon as you see someone doing what you’ve asked of them is a powerful way to reinforce their effort and progress. Even if the behavior is less than perfect, it’s important to help the individual establish the roots of their new habit. You will refine their behavior later on by reinforcing many small improvements over time.
Of course, offering praise and gratitude is itself a habit that you’ll need to develop. I recommend using the following model to help you construct messages of gratitude:
“Hey, I appreciated you doing [behavior], because [impact]. Thank you!”
Valchemy’s Engine app was built precisely for the purpose of helping team members offer this kind of reinforcing and supportive gratitude to one another. When you notice someone doing a great job, Engine allows you to send them a message recognizing their contribution. This not only serves as social reinforcement, it also leads to follow-on effects: Engine awards the recipient virtual tokens that can be redeemed for other forms of reinforcement, strengthening the effect and accelerating behavioral growth. Here are some examples of actual gratitude messages sent using Engine, written by individuals who have learned the process of cultivation:
Adjust the language to feel natural and personal, but make sure you always specify the behavior and the positive impact when sharing gratitude.
It’s worth noting that reinforcement is a precise and technical concept with some counter-intuitive aspects that aren’t covered in this brief overview. If you would like assistance designing an effective reinforcement strategy for your team, feel free to reach out by email, and stay tuned for an upcoming article dedicated to the nuances of reinforcement in the workplace.
Whether you choose cultivation or opt for the riskier conversational approach, it’s going to take time to achieve a lasting shift in behavior. In the cultivation process, steps two and three (prompting and reinforcing) need to be repeated several times in order for the new habit to bloom. Sometimes as few as three repetitions is enough to create a self-sustaining habit, other times it can take weeks.
But the advantages start right away: by following the three steps, you can clarify expectations, boost motivation and positive morale, and begin cultivating more constructive behavior—all without ever having to say those dreadful words, “Hey, we need to talk about your performance.”
That said, there are cases where verbal feedback will be required, particularly in emergencies when there is an imminent threat to someone’s safety or employment, and in other cases where the threat outweighs the interpersonal risks of verbal feedback. But these are particular kinds of situations; here, the purpose of verbal feedback is to hit the brakes so we can deal with the crisis, not to improve performance.
Verbal feedback alone typically won’t lead to reliable long-term change, even when delivered skillfully and successfully with no hard feelings. Your employee might wholeheartedly agree to improve, and mean it…and the desired behavior might still fail to show up (or might appear briefly only to vanish a few weeks later). Regardless of how change is initiated, reinforcement is necessary for habits to form.
Human psychology is complex, with countless variables influencing our behavior at any given time. Many times, I’ve watched as executives and managers become unnecessarily frustrated as they have the same difficult feedback conversation with the same person over and over. It rarely leads to change. New behavior almost always requires some degree of cultivation to become routine: clarify the desired behavior, create opportunities for practice, and reinforce repeatedly.
I hope these ideas are of use to you in your day-to-day work life. If you would like assistance learning or applying these concepts, please feel free to reach out. I'll be happy to help you transform your culture and bring out the best in those around you.
It can be helpful to conceptualize conflict as ‘incompatible expressions’ of needs — rather than an incompatibility between the needs themselves.
While this may seem like a trivial distinction, it offers a profound implication; if needs themselves cannot be incompatible, then conflict resolution can be infinitely easier than we make it, and more of our apparent dilemmas, stalemates, and ideological deadlocks can be overcome to the mutual satisfaction of all parties. We need only to be patient enough to find the answers that meet the collective criteria.
The benefits of this approach extend far beyond resolving the conflict at hand; it pays massive dividends to the organizational culture and to your personal relationships when you earn the reputation of a values-focused collaborator — a source of mutual success rather than an enemy to be avoided or defeated. In order to resolve conflict in this way, we must start from the origin of all conflict — values.
We are a problem-solving species. When faced with a problem, we almost cannot help but to immediately start thinking about solutions. Unfortunately, a single individual's perspective is inherently incomplete; we never know more than a fraction of the total relevant information, and the criteria we use to evaluate potential solutions is usually based primarily on our own needs and values. Without input from others, the solutions we generate will tend to fall short.
Human civilization appears to be on a trajectory of increasing specialization. As individuals become increasingly specialized, the already-small fraction of the total relevant information each of us possesses will become even smaller, leaving us even more dependent on other specialists to fill in the gaps. And as we become more interdependent, relationships and rapport grows increasingly important along with the requirement to satisfy a greater number of stakeholders when generating solutions to a given problem. All this to say, as our species becomes an increasingly complex network of specialists, values-focused collaboration will only become more essential to success.
The valchemy protocol organizes the diverse perspectives of each member of the group so as to reveal the complete criteria so that we can arrive at the solution that leverages the unique insights, and satisfies the unique needs of each member of the collective.
The cost of this protocol is that it challenges us to resist the urge to become attached to any solution prior understanding the needs of the interdependent group and considering a larger fraction of all possible solutions. The reward is that and we are often happier with the final outcome than had we implemented a solution based on one person's thinking alone. We can only choose from the options available to us, and being that we are not omniscient creatures, until we speak to someone else and are exposed to their collection, the only options available will be the collection of solutions we can think up ourselves, thus our options will remain limited, and we may fall for the illusion that when we look at our solutions, we are seeing all possible solutions. Given that no human is all-knowing, this simply cannot be true.
Therefor, we must start any conflict resolution process with the most important step; we must identify what values are in play, so that we do not unnecessarily narrow the pool of potential solutions to just the handful that are on the table. We must always remember to establish everyone's values — therein lies the miracle of real collaboration.
Imagine you own a small coffee shop downtown; space is at a premium and the shop always feels crowded. You've done your best to provide a break area — some chairs, a table, a mini-fridge and a microwave — but it's hardly a quiet or relaxing place, and two of your employees have just come to you expressing their preference for a larger, nicer break area where they can take their breaks more comfortably. Unfortunately, you don't see how more space can be freed-up without negatively impacting the operation of your shop. A conflict is born.
Now, as the owner, you have the authority to explain that you wish you could give them a nicer break area, but there just isn't any space that can be given up without causing issues; every nook and cranny is already used for business-critical storage or equipment. While this may not be an unreasonable position to take, this solution is low-quality in that it fails to satisfy the needs of everyone involved; the staff leaves without any improvement in their rest area, and you leave feeling guilty about disappointing your staff, or perhaps you feel unappreciated for the break area you have already worked hard to provide for them.
To illustrate how such conflict is better handled using the valchemy collaboration protocol, we must start by identifying the values in play. What are the needs that aren't being met?
Now that we have a clearer picture of the true criteria, new possibilities and ideas naturally emerge. It makes sense that the staff would suggest increasing the size of the break room; after all that solution solves all three of their needs. Unfortunately, that particular solution doesn't work for you as the owner, so here are some other possibilities:
These are the kinds of creative solutions that become possible when we build from the values up. And remember those aforementioned cultural and interpersonal dividends? Imagine the kind of impression you leave when you say "Sorry, I just don't think that will work" compared to the impression you leave when you negotiate a staff discount at the nearby restaurant. There are implications beyond just solving the immediate problem; the approach you use represents the kind of leader and person you are for your team. Which kind of impression would you rather leave? Which kind of leader would you prefer to work for?
It's something of a divine act to choose one's Values — one's ultimate priorities in life — because by their very nature, your Values cannot be chosen for you; they are the deepest principles by which you genuinely wish to live. Our Values define who we wish to be and the sacrifices we are willing to make in the pursuit of that which truly matters to us, personally.
Put simply, your Values are the things which matter more to you than anything else in the universe, and they describe the kind of person you want to be.
While the clarification of one's Values is a critical step, it's not enough to simply know what your Values are. The real challenge begins after our Values are clear; when we begin the lifelong practice of bringing our behavior into alignment with our deepest priorities. What good is it to know your Values if you do not embody them with your actions?
When our Values and actions do not align, we move away from things that matter to us. We rob ourselves of a sense of purpose and a life worth living, and we cause great suffering for ourselves and others.
However, when we see our Values clearly and align our actions accordingly, we begin moving toward what matters and are rewarded with the vibrance of a life with direction, meaning, and purpose.
Beware, that sometimes, moving toward ones Values can also be painful, but when done with the spirit of your Values, it becomes a noble and worthwhile pain.
At the end of the day, your Values describe the person you want to be, the kind of life you want to experience, and the impact you wish to make on others during your brief existence. If you spend your time wandering from your path, you may miss out on a deep and meaningful journey.
While Values only really exist at the level of the individual, a team of people working together toward a common goal must collectively agree on the fundamental assumptions about how the team must behave in order to succeed.
These assumptions are what we call Team Values, and if these assumptions are effective, the more team-member behavior aligns with the Team Values, the greater a team's ability to create momentum and increase the probability of success.
For example, say your team runs a dog shelter; you may have a Team Value to create a calm and joyful environment based on the assumption that such an environment is most likely to result in more adoptions than an environment that is chaotic, where dogs are stressed and prospective families feel too anxious to connect with the dogs.
Everyone on the team must be clear about the Team Values, why they matter to the overall mission, what takes priority, and how they can align their behavior with the Team Values in order to accelerate progress toward the goal.
Start with your personal values by taking 5 minutes to write down whatever comes up as you read through the following questions:
Keep going until you notice a pattern, then choose 4-6 items that feel the most important to you, in this moment. Don't worry if you're not sure whether these things are Values, it takes time to refine one's list. The smaller the number, the more you can focus your transformation.
Now, if you are working in a team, go from person to person and share your Values. It's not unusual to notice yourself beginning to see familiar faces in a new light. Look for commonalities and consider focusing the team around the Values that the group shares — Even if there is only one.
Next, dig into all of your assumptions about what your team must prioritize in order to succeed. This may require some in-depth conversation and perhaps even passionate debate. Be sure to fully explore all of the assumptions in earnest with the goal of getting buy-in from the entire team about what matters for the success of the team.
Over time, old assumptions will be challenged by new information and new team members. Be open to these conversations because getting your fundamental strategic assumptions right is critical to your team's success; if your assumptions about how to succeed are wrong, it won't matter how well you implement them.
As you explore your values, there will be a point where you settle into a greater sense of clarity about yourself, your team, and your mission. Notice how this feels. In particular, notice how it compares to feeling aimless, distracted, and wandering.
Congratulations — you have just completed the first critical step in the process of becoming a Valchemist.
The hardest part about living in harmony with our values, is that we will constantly fall short. Unfortunately, our own human nature works against us in many ways, and while this is frustrating, it's important to recognize this as simply part of the human experience. What is important is to continue returning to your values, especially once you notice that you've drifted off-course.
We have evolved many hedonistic drives which organize our behavior to avoid immediate pain and pursue immediate pleasure. These actions often move us away from our Values, which by comparison often require us to sacrifice those short-term gains and endure discomfort today for the promise of future progress. The two are at odds, and hedonism is more often the victor when values are not kept in constant focus.
One way to counteract this problem is to artificially increase the short-term reward for behaving in alignment with our Values. By supplementing the Values-consistent behavior with more immediate rewards, we make the Values-consistent behavior more attractive to our hedonistic drives, so that it can better compete with the undesirable behavior that only serves our immediate urges — precisely what the Valchemy Behavioral Engine was designed for.