Doubtless you're very perceptive, have high emotional intelligence, and have a keen awareness of people's feelings, but if you're not careful your ego can get the best of you. You need to realize that you can never fully read people's intentions and thoughts. "Recognizing the limits of your knowledge is a much safer strategy than letting the little you know lead you into danger," writes Steven Berglas, an executive coach and a former faculty member of Harvard Medical School's Department of Psychiatry, in Harvard Business Review.
Berglas writes in HBR that his favorite Albert Einstein quote is, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." If you believe you can deduce a lot of information about your employees from "little knowledge," like behavior, actions, and body language, you can suffer from what Berglas says is a "delusion that you know people better than you actually do."
Berglas says a phenomenon known as "behavior engulfing the field" is responsible for the way humans judge a person's "inner self" based on observing their actions. For example, "when someone loses an important document, we say they’re disorganized. When they show up late, it's because they're inconsiderate," Berglas writes. On the other hand, he continues, we leave ourselves out of the judgments--when you're late you don't say you are inconsiderate, but explain how you were "stuck in traffic."
So the next time an employee is chronically late to work and leaves early, gets into arguments and upsets the team dynamic, or loses sales that should be a cinch, make sure you empty your mind of bias and preconceived notions based on their behavior and follow the two steps below.
Stick to simple words
The worst thing to do is to start making sweeping generalizations about employees' personalities based off their behaviors. If your employee has not been completing projects and leaving them half done, don't say they have a corner-cutting, lazy, sloppy work ethic, Berglas says. Instead, Berglas says now is the time to take a lesson from Winston Churchill: "Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all." Berglas suggest saying something like, "I'm perplexed by what looks to be a pattern of cutting corners--missed deadlines, and leaving early. Is there something else going on?" If it's appropriate, give your employee a second chance.
Unless the employee has done something morally unacceptable, disrespectful, or hurtful, you should start out with empathy. Berglas says that "expressing empathy in a self-effacing way is the key to mastering emotional intelligence." But if you start out by saying "You need an attitude adjustment," the employee will close himself off. Berglas says if you start out with, "I sense you have been out of sorts for some time," your employee will likely open up and tell you what's been going on, and the two of you can help work toward a common goal.