Performance Management: 4 Questions Managers Should Ask First (Part 2)

In PART 1 of this article, I assert that, for decades, most organizations have been taking the wrong approach to managing employee performance. How can I make that claim? Because traditional performance management is based on the totally false notion that anytime an employee has a performance problem, the problem is with the employee. Most managers never stop to consider the possibility that they may actually be causing their staff’s poor performance.

We now know that an employee’s direct manager accounts for 70% of employee engagement, and employee engagement is directly correlated with employee performance. Bottom line: if your employee is performing poorly, the first place you should look for answers is in the mirror.

There are four fundamental conditions that must be in place for people to do their work effectively. Before managers begin blaming their employees for performing poorly, they should ask themselves four questions, each question is related to one of the fundamental conditions of work performance. PART 1 of this article offers the first and second fundamental conditions of work performance and the related manager self-reflection questions. This article, Part 2, exposes two more fundamental conditions of work performance and offers some ideas on how to take advantage of this new knowledge.

The Fundamental Conditions of Employee Performance (Cont’d)

Question #3. SYSTEMS – Where did the process break down?

There exists a phenomenon in which any reasonable person, when placed in similar circumstances, will consistently make similarly poor decisions. In layman’s terms, this is called a “vicious cycle”. There are also “virtuous cycles” that consistently reinforce and produce positive outcomes. Being able to spot these vicious and virtuous cycles is called “systems thinking.”

Vicious Cycle
In his landmark book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge explains systems thinking, and how leaders can apply it to dramatically improve individual and organizational performance. Senge highlights the arms race between the US and the former Soviet Union as a classic example of a vicious cycle. When the Soviet Union added more war machines to its arsenal, the US president essentially had three options: 1) do nothing and most assuredly lose the next election, 2) go to war, or 3) build the US’s own arsenal in response. Obviously, the third option was the “least worse” option, but it provoked an equal, amplified response from the Soviet Union. This perpetuated a costly, vicious cycle.

Limiting Cycle
Promoting people to their level of incompetence is a common practice that I have seen played out many times. This practice creates a “limiting cycle” which negatively impacts both individual and company performance. Here’s how it works. A start-up software company, for example, grows rapidly because of the innovative products their engineers are able to quickly develop and introduce to the market. Customers line up in droves to buy the company’s innovative products. Flooded with new business, the company hires more engineers. The original engineers are naturally promoted to oversee the new engineers. But do these newly appointed engineering managers receive any leadership training? There’s no time! And besides, they’re engineers – they don’t really like managing people anyway, so they’re not too keen on learning any of those airy-fairy “soft skills” of leadership.

The company has now successfully diverted their most experienced and talented engineers away from what they’re best at—software development—and put them in leadership positions that they have no natural talent for, or interest in. As a result, the engineering managers micro-manage the newer engineers who, because of this, are not nearly as empowered, engaged, or productive as their predecessors were. Product development times increase, and the company begins missing their sales and earning targets. Convinced that they made some “hiring mistakes,” the company fires the newly-hired engineers and then repeats the process by hiring another batch of new engineers, hoping for a better outcome.

Throughout this process, the management team was convinced that the newer engineers had a performance problem, when in fact, the root of the problem was poor leadership.

The Three Cycles of Blame
Perhaps the most common instigator of vicious cycles is blame. Blame spawns three common, deadly cycles: the Cycle of Inaction, the Cycle of Ignorance, and the Cycle of Infighting. I describe each of these vicious cycles in detail in the popular article Creating a Culture of Accountability, Not Blame. The reality is that nothing productive comes from blaming people for mistakes. Instead, blame perpetuates and amplifies individual and organizational performance problems.

A big part of creating the right conditions for people to perform effectively is look beyond the simple, and often incorrect, explanations of poor performance and to look beneath the surface for systems (or processes) that encourage or reinforce undesirable actions and consequences. Poor leaders ask, “Who’s at fault?” Strong leaders ask, “Where did the process break down?”

In the words of the master systems thinker, Peter Senge, “more often than we realize, systems cause their own crises, not external forces or individuals’ mistakes.”

Poor leaders ask, “Who’s at fault?” Strong leaders ask, “Where did the process break down?” Click To Tweet

 

Question #4. CARE – Do I care about the person more than I care about what they produce for me?

Managers often mistakenly believe that their primary responsibility is to produce results. Consequently, we get micromanagers who are willing to grind every ounce of production from their people—managers who strangle the “goose”, so to speak, to get its “golden egg”. Leaders may be ultimately accountable, or answerable, for the results, but their responsibility, or duty, is to lead and develop the people who are producing the results. It follows then that managers must be predominately concerned about the people they lead. As my favorite leadership guru Simon Sinek often says, “Leaders are not responsible for the results, they are responsible for the people who are responsible for the results.”

This doesn’t mean managers should be complacent about the results, or that they shouldn’t push their people to do better – quite the contrary. Think about it… which of your school teachers could bring out the best in you? Odds are, it was the one who believed in you the most and who pushed you to realize your potential. As a result, you asked for and accepted their feedback with gratitude. You allowed them to push you to higher performance because you knew they saw your potential better than you could see it in yourself, and you didn’t want to let them down.

It’s the same in every area of performance. Think about your coaches, your parents, your mentors, your bosses and even your spouse. The people who bring out the best in us, and who help us reach our potential, are the ones who care about us enough to see our potential. Leaders outperform people who only know how to manage, not because they care more about results, but because they care more about the people they lead.

Leaders see performance AND potential. They acknowledge and address past performance, but they choose to focus instead on what people are capable of doing. People who only know how to manage can only see one-dimensionally—past performance.

Caring about the people you lead more than the results they produce is a prerequisite to leadership because it enables leaders to bring out the best in others. Only when managers begin to truly care about the people they serve will they begin to really see their potential. It doesn’t work the other way around. You can’t see someone’s potential until you first care about them.

The people who bring out the best in us are the ones who care about us enough to see our potential. Click To Tweet

Creating Optimal Conditions for Performance

Most of us have spent years or even decades working in environments that assume that if someone is having performance problems, it’s because there is something wrong with them. I can’t recall a boss ever telling me “If one of your staff has a performance problem, you should first check that you’ve created the right environment for them to thrive in.” It’s too bad they didn’t. I could have avoided making a lot of leadership mistakes if they had, and I would have improved my team’s performance in
the process. My personal experience is consistent with the finding that only 22% of employees feel that their manager helps them improve their performance.

We have so many examples in our natural world that illustrate how the right conditions are essential to achieving desired results. The apple tree analogy I shared in PART 1 is one such example. Before you begin assessing your employee’s performance, I invite you to contemplate the four questions I posed in parts 1 and 2 of this article.

When an employee has a performance problem, first check that you’ve created the right environment for them to thrive… Click To Tweet

An Essential Conversation About Performance

Its human nature to miss, or ignore, information that indicates a problem with our own performance. This is why it’s important, even essential, that managers initiate a conversation with their staff about how they can help each other reach their potential. Here is an example of how a manager might begin this conversation.


Modern research tells us that the quality of leadership that employees receive has a significant bearing on how well they perform. I want you to be successful, and I want our company to be successful because I believe in what we are doing. We are going to need to help each other to create this success. Here is what I propose:

  • I need you to be honest with yourself and with me about your performance. If you don’t feel like you are performing as well as you should, I’d like you to talk to me about it so we can figure out why and what we can do to help you perform better.
  • If you see something that I am doing, or not doing, that is preventing you or other team members from being successful, I want you to tell me about it.

If you can do those two things, this is what I’m going to do for you:

  • If I don’t think you’re performing up to your potential, I am going to honest with you and bring to your attention a) areas where I think you can make better use of your talents, and b) areas that might be preventing you from being successful.
  • I recognize that I am not a perfect leader and that I need to continue to learn to be a more effective leader. I promise you that I will continually try to improve my leadership ability so that our team and our company can reach our potential.

When managers acknowledge their essential role in creating the right conditions for employees to thrive, employees who say their boss helps them reach their potential will become the norm, rather than the exception.

Michael Timms

About Michael Timms

I help organizations develop leaders at all levels through succession planning and management training. I’m the author of Succession Planning That Works, the ultimate succession planning guidebook & toolkit, and I speak about how to develop leaders and engage employees for higher performance.

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