Performance Management: 4 Questions Managers Should Ask First (Part 1)

This time of year, many organizations are gearing up for the annual performance appraisal – a practice best described as managerial bloodletting. It’s a tradition that, like bloodletting, has been used for too long, and has provided overwhelming evidence that it does more harm than good. And yet, there are still organizations that continue to cling to this relic from the past, wasting an enormous amount of time and resources to accomplish such an archaic task.

Unless you happen to work for a truly enlightened boss, the focus of most performance reviews is to communicate to employees what they are doing wrong and what they need to do to improve. As the managerial bloodletting theory goes, this approach is somehow supposed to “inspire” employees to do better.

Maybe It’s Me?

If the results of performance reviews (or lack thereof) aren’t enough to convince business leaders that something’s wrong with performance management, then here’s another thought to chew on: traditional performance appraisals are based on a completely false premise. Performance management in general is based upon the notion that if an employee isn’t performing optimally, the problem is with them, and they are the one that needs to change. That’s like me concluding that there is something inherently wrong with my apple tree because it isn’t producing apples. Did I mention that I planted it in a shady spot, in mostly clay ground, and that I live in one of the wettest, most mild climates on earth? Hardly ideal conditions for growing an apple tree. No matter how much I tell the tree what to do, or how many times I put my apple tree on a “performance improvement plan,” virtually nothing I do can compensate for the poor conditions I’ve placed it in.

If you’ve concluded that I don’t really know what I’m doing when it comes to growing apple trees, you’d be right. Unfortunately, the same can be said about many managers when it comes to leadership. Research has shown that the average age people first become a manager is around 30. The average age most of these managers receive their first, substantial leadership training is age 42. That’s over a decade of “winging it” when it comes to leadership! During which time bad leadership habits are undoubtedly formed and subtly become a manager’s default practice. By the time managers finally receive any leadership training, they must not only try to learn new leadership practices, they must also try to unlearn their practiced, ingrained, bad leadership habits.

We now know that an employee’s direct manager accounts for 70% of employee engagement, and employee engagement is directly correlated with employee performance. When the people we lead aren’t performing up to expectations, wise leaders first take a look in the mirror and ask themselves the following questions. Each question is related to a fundamental condition of work performance. This article contains the first two of four fundamental conditions.

The Fundamental Conditions of Work Performance

1. CLARITY – Have I delegated effectively?

Ensuring that employees are absolutely clear about performance expectations is perhaps the most basic of management’s responsibilities and employee needs. Yet, about half of all employees are unclear about what is expected of them. That’s because their boss has failed to delegate properly.

The first key to effective delegation is to define the results, and let them choose the methods. (The other four keys are in this article).

Many managers have told me “I have defined the results, but they still botched it up.”

I then ask, “How do you know that they knew what you were looking for? Did you write it down in detail?”

I often hear, “No, but I shouldn’t have to. They should know by now.”

I respond, “And how’s that expectation working out for you?”

Being clear about desired outcomes almost always means writing it down. Desired outcomes should include an overall goal statement and specific success criterion that clearly describe what the future will look like when the work has been completed successfully. (Click HERE to download my Project Mandate form that addresses all aspects of effective delegation.)

“Effective delegation begins with defining the results, and letting them choose the methods.” Click To Tweet

The second part of that equation—letting people choose the methods—tends to be extremely difficult for most managers. This is because most managers can, in fact, do the work better than the person they are delegating it to. Managers have typically learned a very effective way to achieve results. That’s what got them promoted. But managers often feel compelled to force the methods that worked for them onto the person they are delegating. Doing so precludes the possibility that there may be a different, or perhaps even better way, to achieve the desired results. And it also might not allow the delegate to achieve the desired results in a way that best plays to their strengths.

There are times, of course, when the method must be prescribed for safety reasons, such as installing an electrical panel, or when there is no room for error, such as processing payroll. This is when the manager needs to put on their training hat. But there are many other times when it isn’t necessary to prescribe the methods. This is when managers must put on their coaching hat, asking probing questions to encourage the delegate to leverage their strengths, creativity, and problem-solving ability to achieve the desired results.

As Stephen Covey observed in his landmark book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, when managers prescribe the methods, they take ownership for the results away from the delegate. At a time when business leaders are often heard complaining that employees, and particularly millennials, do not take ownership of their work, managers must be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to provide employees with more discretion and decision-making authority. Doing so not only enables employees to take more ownership of their work, it also allows them to take pride in it.

Managers who take the time to delegate effectively focus delegates on the desired results, providing the essential condition of outcome clarity that employees desperately need to be successful.

2. STRENGTHS – Is this person’s work aligned with their strengths?

Many managers never consider the possibility that the people they lead may be doing work that isn’t aligned to their natural talents and strengths; but they should. Think of all the people you know who went to school for something completely different than what they ended up doing. Is that because they later discovered their true calling in life? More often that not, people end up in their current jobs for three reasons:

  • Practical. Pursuing careers that play to our strengths often doesn’t appear to be as practical as other career options.
  • Most money. In his book How Will You Measure Your Life, Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen stated that many of his students chose their career based solely on which one pays the most.
  • Experience. They take a job for reasons #1 or #2 “just for a couple of years” so they can pay off their student loans. But after a couple of years, their career follows the trajectory set in motion by the experience they acquired earlier in their career.

In my case, I specialized in human resources in grad school because I loved leadership and organizational behaviour. When I got a job in HR, I discovered that most of my work was related to recruiting, compensation, benefits, employment law and other administrative functions—far removed from the reason that I pursued a career in HR. But by the time I realized this, I felt that perhaps it was too late to change career paths. I suspect that my story is not unlike how many other people ended up in their

When people work in jobs that they have little natural talent in, the results are always the same: low productivity and low self-esteem. Asking employees to work on areas that they have little natural talent in is like asking them to get a personality transplant. It’s humiliating and counterproductive. Good leaders take the time to discover their employees’ strengths and then align their work to their strengths. When managers create a strengths-based work environment, they don’t try to shoehorn employees into rigid, static, job descriptions; they modify job descriptions to fit team member’s strengths.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is precisely what sports coaches do—they organize players to create lines that maximize individual talents and compensate for each other’s weaknesses. Facebook, for example, will sometimes hire talented individuals without any particular role in mind to allow them to match their skills with their project of interest.

Nobody wants to go to work to be a failure, but that’s exactly what managers set their people up for if they don’t take the time to uncover their strengths and align their work to their strengths.

Possibly the best argument for identifying and tapping into people’s strengths is that doing so unlocks the ultimate performance enhancing advantage: CONFIDENCE. Think about it… confident people outperform insecure people in virtually every context. Confidence is what separated our early ancestors who took on the woolly mammoth and won, from those who faded out of the human gene pool. And it’s what separates merely adequate performers from all-stars.

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that those companies which focus on strengths are up to 30% more profitable than those that don’t.

“Confident people outperform insecure people in virtually every context.” Click To Tweet


Preparing for Part 2

In PART TWO of this article, I will discuss the other two fundamental conditions of work performance. I will also share some thoughts about how leaders can implement them.

In the meantime, I invite you to ask yourself the two questions proposed above, and consider what changes you can make to foster an environment in which the people you lead can thrive.

For more information on this topic, check out our Delegation & Empowerment Workshop or download The Definitive Guide to Enlightened Performance Management White Paper!


  1. Lesley Boden on September 17, 2019 at 9:22 am

    Well stated Micheal. When i did
    Performance reviews I tried to follow this analogy. Thanks for well written article.

    • Michael Timms on September 18, 2019 at 9:46 pm

      Thanks Lesley, I’m glad you enjoyed the article and that it resonated with you.

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