Did you ever get this comment in your school reports, “Must try harder.”? I certainly did. With the passing of time and the benefit of hindsight I appreciate the intent and feel less of a sting from the barb, but it can still bring back memories… I used to wonder what on earth ‘try harder’ meant – spend more time on my homework? Listen more attentively in class? (I was usually starting out of the window, daydreaming, miles away). Maybe the teacher expected me to write longer essays, or reel off more facts, or practise more before tests – or was it all the above? I never quite figured it out. Because they never got sufficiently specific about what I needed to do to try harder. But I did form the opinion that hardly anyone, ever, got straight As from teachers.
And then I started work. Guess what: no straight As seemed to be handed out there either. Asking around, it wasn’t just me – it was simply the way things ‘worked around here’. We could all be better, we should all ‘try harder’ but for now, we weren’t quite coming up to scratch.
Several years later, I was contributing to the annual appraisal for a (supposedly more junior) colleague. I gave them straight As, as I thought they were the best I’d seen at every aspect of the job. My boss wasn’t having any of it: “You can’t do that! There must be something they need to improve on.” And a few of my As got downgraded to Bs. It would still rankle, but for the way events unfolded: the individual became a real high-flyer.
A few years on…same situation, different people, different employer, different country, and I gave straight As about a great performer. “Quite right too!” said my boss and the person was duly promoted. Hurrah. This employer was a talent magnet; not a pushover at all, in fact a very demanding place to work. Expectations were high – and so were the levels of autonomy and encouragement we were given. And we did ‘try harder’, hugely helped by having exemplars of what that actually meant in practice day in, year out.
Sometimes, some people really do earn straight As. And it’s essential to let them know that. More often, it’s a mix of As, Bs and Cs (or even Ds). And it’s essential to discuss these too. This isn’t school, they’re not about to sit exams but simply doing a job – and you’re not the ‘hard marker’. If you’re asking people to try harder, I’d like to ask you to consider a few prompts to reflect:
- Does each member of your team have clear goals to aim for? Do you regularly review progress with them?
- What does each team member do really well? Have you told them?
- What can each individual do to be more effective? Have you discussed this with them?
- Have you explained the specific behaviours required, and provided the opportunity to practise them?
- When was the last time you gave them feedback?