What We Learned: Fuzzy, Subjective Performance Language Can Cause Conflict

05/24/2019 9:55 AM | Paul Venderley

'Fuzzy' Image from the Preface of Goal Analysis by Robert F. Mager

Go clean your room.

That’s a job performance expectation that has probably been made of each of us at one point in our lives.  And it’s “fuzzy,” says Rex Conner, because “clean” means one thing to the child, and another to the parent.

Case in point:  for my boys, that recent request meant picking up the clothes and stuffed animals off the floor.  For me, it included taking the stuff off the ceiling fan.

If “fuzzy” seems an incongruous term to describe performance expectations, you can look to Dr. Robert Mager for precedence.  It’s a distinctive term he used to describe the subjective language that we encounter as others describe their expectations for performance.  “Provide good customer service.”  “Be a team player.”  These goals “are difficult – if not impossible – to achieve when stated in such vague terms,” says Dr. Mager.

For Rex Conner, co-founder and lead principal of the Mager Consortium, these “fuzzy” terms are the root of workplace evil, and it’s up to us to weed them out of corporate verbiage.

In his presentation: “Establishing A Common Performance Language,” Rex Conner shares a four-step process to “defuzzifying fuzzies.”

  1. State the fuzzy in terms of outcome, not process
  2. List observable actions
  3. Clarify the list
  4. Test the list

If this sounds easy, let me dissuade you.  It’s not.  Because you can’t complete this list alone. You need to work with the person creating the fuzzies in the first place.  During our chapter meeting, Rex had participants role play a defuzzification process: one person playing the employee, the other playing the boss.  The employees’ job was fairly simple:  work through the list.  The boss’ job was much more difficult; they had to explain what they meant.

This is another principle laid out by Dr. Mager: while it’s Training’s responsibility to support an employee’s skill and self-efficacy, it’s Management’s responsibility to provide an opportunity to perform and a supportive environment.  “Fuzzy” terms erode the supportive environment because employees don’t know what Management wants of them, causing workplace conflict.

Consider this idea with the “clean your room” example:

“You call this room clean?” you ask your child.

The kid nods.

"Your bed is still a mess."

"You're just going to make me go to bed after this anyway."

There are still toys on the ceiling fan!

“You never told me to clean that before!”

So now: you’re the boss.  How will you defuzzify your request to clean their room?

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