Hating The Sin, Not The Sinner – Why Managers Struggle With Performance Discussions

Mar 1, 2023, Written by Jim Miley

performance discussion with employee

So many business owners and managers struggle with employee performance improvement discussions.  Outside of my employee performance discussions over the years, I have had the opportunity to work with client’s employee performance.  It’s the client meetings that are most eye-opening as I get to observe from a more objective position.  It’s like the difference between watching a competitive sport from perfect seats versus being in the game.  

I’m able to see the nuances of the situation with both the manager and employee having worked with both.  I can feel the tension rise and fall in their conversations and more easily follow the dialogue with specific word choices.  Body positions, non-verbal cues, and vocal inflections are all so obvious when you’re not rushing to make the play…. or reply with the appropriate response to an employee’s passionate rebuttal.   

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

Most business owners and managers will say they’re pretty good at navigating performance improvement discussions or whatever label fits; “performance management, coaching, corrective action, etc”. 

It’s the 80-20 rule.  80% of a given business leader’s performance discussions probably do go well so they feel pretty effective, but the 20% that don’t go so well is where the damage is done.  Without awareness of how poorly that 20% of serious discussions are going, business owners and managers lack motivation to focus on improvement and the damage continues to show up in poor performance and turnover.  

A Gallup poll of over 1 million US workers found that 75% of workers who voluntarily left their jobs did so because of the boss and not the job itself.  “People leave managers not companies… turnover is mostly a manager issue.” 

Hate the Sin, Not the Sinner

A great opportunity to improve performance improvement discussions is embodied in this cliché.  When employees don’t perform the way we want them to, business leaders often take it personally.  I hear managers express feelings sprouting purely from emotion in response to the actions of their staff.  It’s not uncommon for a manager to say they believe the employee is intentionally underperforming.  Generalizations often follow regarding the person’s abilities or integrity and disappointment in having to continue dealing with them.  

It can be a fine line between focusing on a behavior that we would like to see change versus generalizing that behavior to our view of the whole person.  Once you allow yourself to generalize specific behaviors into an overall view of someone else as a person, you are well into “hating the sinner.”  

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.
– 1 John 4:20

The word “hate” may trip some people up thinking, “I don’t hate anybody;” but you get the idea that expanding an undesirable behavior to include disliking the person is akin to the Biblical reference.  Instead of hating the behavior, you begin to hate the person by seeing the behavior as a personal insult aimed at you.  

Facts and Behaviors Do Not Lie

You might think that as a manager your opinions and feelings are valid, but the point is your opinions and feelings may lie to you where facts and behaviors will not.  

You might be wrong about why you believe someone is acting a certain way. It is very possible your opinion is not fully informed as there are facts that you don’t know.  You may be on point 80% of the time and feel pretty good about your intuition but what about the 20% of time where you assume things in error?  

Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?
– Matthew 7:3

Don’t make that mistake.  

The opportunity for managers is to actively work the discipline of focusing on behaviors over feelings.  What is the behavior you would like to see change?  Put your feelings aside and ask these questions.

  1. What action(s) would I like to change?
  2. Is there any opinion or personal criticism of your described change(s)?
  3. Why would you like to see the behavior(s) change?
  4. Are there any opinions, feelings, or personal criticisms of the reasons to change?

After you have answered these 4 simple questions, review your answers for any personal opinions or criticisms of the person.  Change any opinions or criticisms to objective facts and behaviors.  

I encourage you to go through this exercise anytime you are working on performance management discussions with your staff.  You will likely be surprised how much your feelings about things need to be scrubbed before a serious conversation.  

Pray on the substance of what you need to discuss with other people where they may become defensive.  Let your compassion and care for others be evident by not attacking them as a person and only talking about behaviors they can control.  

By applying this discipline to preparing for performance improvement discussions, you are simultaneously disciplining yourself to love your brother or sister.  It is right to be gracious with your employees and peers by your words and deeds which is how you can show them brotherly love.  

By practicing this discipline, you will improve your success in coaching employees to desired performance.  Natural byproducts will improve business performance and reduce unplanned turnover.  There is no downside.  

Hate the Sin, Not the Sinner. 

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Jim Miley

As a Business Coach, Jim brings a broad background of operational and sales management skills and expertise to help small business owners grow their business and reach their highest potential. He has 30 years of field-proven professional experience.

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