I hope that you agree with me that, whether at the individual, team, managerial, leadership, or overall organizational level, ‘people performance’ is crucial to business and career success. Yet, despite all good intentions, too often we see performance results (at all levels) falling short of desired performance expectations. So, based on my experience working with top performers in successful organizations, I thought that I would discuss a few ideas that I believe are important to positive performance change.
Admit that performance could be better
We cannot change what we do not acknowledge. I firmly believe that 20% of all organizations, leaders, managers and employees are above-average performers and the remaining 80% are average or below average performers. To me this is an unacceptable ratio. I don’t think that most of the 80% group would knowingly prefer to be there, but so many of them are doomed to stay there simply because of their beliefs. In the majority of instances, these people believe that their performance levels are actually acceptable and, being unaware of their lack of competitiveness, they don’t believe that they need to change. Others within the 80% believe that their performance can’t be changed, and thus they often make excuses for their poor performance results in order to justify their maintenance of the ‘status quo’. And yet some, when not being held accountable, cannot be bothered to put in the effort required to change. The 80% group couldn’t be more wrong.
We need to be aware of the impact of confirming biases, which influence us to mistakenly accept information that reinforces our inaccurate beliefs, excuses and justifications and enables us to reject information that doesn’t. While we could possibly overcome a confirmation bias by acquiring a trusted independent opinion about actual performance, another approach would be to simply admit that performance, at any level, can be better. Once done, we can then move forward to actually doing something about performance. Remember, the difference between average (and below average) performers and top performers is that; top performers believe that their performance can always be enhanced, they continually want to learn how to further develop their performance capabilities, and they want to apply what they have learned.
Change the language
We need to replace the phrase ‘performance improvement’ with performance enhancement. The word enhancement is not only positive, it also encourages change because it does not imply a judgement regarding whether current performance is good or bad, it simply suggests that performance levels can be elevated. Conversely, the word improvement can be perceived as critical and threatening (invoking a negative neurological reaction), and as a result may create resistance to any suggestion of performance change. With the absence of a perceived threat, people will be more likely to embrace those change initiatives that will bring about enhanced performance.
Understand that effective people performance is a result of both technical and non-technical skills
When we neglect non-technical skill development (especially at the managerial and leadership levels) we significantly reduce the likelihood that we will grow overall performance capability. For above-average performance results to be achieved (and sustained over time) it is essential that a person’s technical and non-technical capabilities match with what is required; to perform in their specific position, to work effectively with their manager, to be a contributing member of their team, and to ‘fit’ into the overall organizational culture.
For CAES, our main non-technical skills categories are:
a) cognitive capability
b) thinking preferences
c) concentration, attention and distractibility
e) productivity traits
f) communication skills
g) interpersonal skills
h) emotional intelligence, and
i) a range of specific leadership and managerial capabilities (applied when appropriate).
In addition to first fulfilling the technical requirements of any role, all of these categories must be addressed in a performance based evaluation and enhancement program, especially regarding leadership and management development initiatives. While technical skills establish a foundation of specific knowledge and credibility, effective leadership and management is dependent on the presence of suitable non-technical skills as well. Hiring or promoting technical people into more senior managerial organizational roles, when they do not possess the necessary non-technical capabilities, is a major contributor to undesirable performance results.
Drive multi-level buy-in and honest participation
“It will not work if people are simply ‘going through the motions”. For any effective performance enhancement program to be initiated and sustained senior management must first be on board. If these senior managers are not committed to performance change you will be wasting your time and resources. Senior managers must also actively encourage and lead multi-level performance buy-in and facilitate organization-wide participation. This is best accomplished by facilitating an organization-wide growth mindset, wherein people are eager to learn, they believe that their capabilities can be developed and enhanced, and they see change as being beneficial. To be successful, all levels of management must support the perpetuation of a growth mindset, to identify and enable internal ‘change champions’, and to isolate (better yet remove) change resistant fixed mindset personnel.
Identify desired performance results at every organizational level
“If you don’t know where you are going, you reduce the likelihood of ever getting there”. This may seem obvious, but it is interesting to see so many organizational leaders not specify their desired performance results. After determining the overall organizational strategic direction, the performance goals and objectives of each subsequent organizational level (cascading down to the individual) must be congruent. Failure to achieve consistency in top to bottom goals and objectives can create conflict, confusion and eventual inactivity, which in turn makes the effective implementation of the strategic plan very difficult.
Know current performance capability at every organizational level
“If you don’t know where you currently are, it is difficult to identify an effective plan of action to get to where you want to be”. It is critical that we are accurate in the evaluation of both technical and non-technical performance capability. Non-technical capability is complicated, so any capability assessment instruments used must be directly tied to the various components that contribute to performance, and must provide valuable insight into what you need to know rather than what may be inapplicably interesting and nice to know. Inaccuracies here will reduce the effectiveness of any performance enhancement programs from the outset, so choose your assessments wisely.
Create an evolving and ongoing Performance Enhancement Program
While accurate performance based assessment reports are valuable in identifying the gaps that exist between desired performance results and current performance capabilities, left on their own they are not effective in applying change initiatives (and will become inevitable ‘dust collectors’ on the shelf). Similarly, we need to go beyond relying only on education programs and in-class training sessions that, while informative, are not effective unless actively translated into practical action. People forget what they do not use. Instead, for real change to be sustained, we need to develop, commit to, and consistently apply, a realistic plan of action (ie: CAES Learning Plan) to reduce any identified performance gaps within our specific workplace. Knowing that most non-technical change initiatives have 30 to 60 day sustainability (people get busy with other issues), effective performance enhancement activities will only be sustained if they become integrated into people’s everyday workflow.
Understand Performance Goal setting
Within a Learning Plan, specific, time sensitive, measurable goals must be established. Unfortunately, it is often the case that, despite all good intentions, many of these performance goals are not achieved. We will be more able to overcome this when we understand that goal pursuit is mostly an unconscious activity that must be regularly ‘triggered’. This ‘triggering’ requires that:
a) a person is committed to the goal and the goal is supported by the organizations’ management
b) the goal is simple, clear and easily remembered
c) the goal fits with other goals, since conflicting goals will be abandoned
d) the goal provides a clear direction from where you currently are to where you want to be, and
e) the goal is realistically actionable.
Optimally, when an individual is able to establish their own goals (either independently or cooperatively with their manager / team) they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated to pursue them. It can be helpful to limit the Learning Plan to three measurable major goals (and perhaps one stretch goal) per quarter which are supported by a realistic number of congruent monthly / daily goals. As well, it is critical to review the quarterly goals each quarter, and also to evaluate the contribution of the supporting goals on an ongoing basis (and revise them when appropriate). Finally, these goals must always be consistent with the ‘next level’ overall departmental and organizational goals.
Develop an ‘ask for feedback’ culture
Ongoing feedback is essential to Learning Plan goal evaluation and adjustment, and thus to effective performance enhancement. There is enormous value in moving from an environment where uninvited feedback is given (or feedback is not provided at all) to one where feedback is requested. This is because when asking for feedback; both parties will feel less threatened, the feedback will be given faster and more regularly, it can be more specific to what you need, and you can reduce the influence of biases by freely getting feedback from different people. Again, the facilitation of an organization-wide growth mindset will be conducive to initiating and sustaining an ‘ask for feedback culture’.
The key is to make asking for feedback a part of daily work rather than a scheduled ‘key conversation’ (ie: performance reviews, conversations regarding formal goal setting, goal evaluation, career development and compensation). Doing so not only informalizes the activity and creates comfort, but it also helps to ingrain performance enhancement activities into the everyday workflow, hence elevating multi-level commitment, effectiveness and sustainability.
We call it a learning plan for a reason. Even when specific goals are met, performance enhancement should be viewed as a never-ending ongoing learning process. And should performance gap reduction initiatives fall short of the performance targets, it is essential that we investigate why, learn from the experience, and adjust the process. As long as we continue to move forward towards these targets we are creating the opportunity to elevate performance and eventually achieve our performance goals. Nobody should be ‘punished’ for not achieving performance goals provided they can show that they have learned from the process and they can present ‘next step’ corrective action. ‘Punish’ those people who make excuses, justify poor results or abandon performance enhancement initiatives when the ‘going gets tough’.
Require accountability for performance change
While we always hope that people will hold themselves accountable for achieving performance results, without additional accountability to others, performance enhancement initiatives can often be set aside in favour of more pressing issues. We need to ensure that that each higher managerial level is actively and consistently involved in the enhancement process (even Board of Directors for CEO’s). Again, a culture of asking for feedback will facilitate a level of informal accountability, but there is also value in formalizing performance enhancement initiatives within the Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) structure. It can be helpful to consider utilizing ongoing external support and performance coaching. Experience has shown that, these external personnel can not only bring ‘fresh eyes’ and a different outlook to the process but, should a trust relationship be established, they can often acquire and utilize more sensitive information that the parties may be reluctant to openly disclose to other internal organizational personnel.
Act on it
If you are like most organizations, your performance enhancement efforts should have been addressed long ago. The good news is that it’s never too late to enhance performance!