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MANAGING PERFORMANCE IN REALITY, PART 1

Pop quiz.  In the past five years, how many times have you received a performance review?  (If the answer is I’m still waiting for the one I was supposed to have three years ago, we all feel for you.)  In the same five years, how many times did you give a review to each of your direct reports?  (If you’ve been following the fine example of your own boss, don’t you feel terrific?)  What’s your guess about what generally happens out there in the real world?  Answer: your reality is the same as all the rest of us.  Congratulations.  Perfect score.

If, at best, feedback on performance happens sporadically or only when the HR police show up to beat you up, why do we bother?  Why do we build fancy electronic tools to make it easier and why do we proclaim that “our people are our most valuable asset” if the actual activity and time people put into this is minimal?  Here’s my conclusion after many years:  Managers have every intention of doing the right thing but the day to day business realities scream louder for their attention.  There is nothing malevolent here.  Just competing priorities.  (Re-read that.  It will come back to haunt you in a minute.)

Business leaders rarely talk in these terms but talent development has tons of ROI for you and your organization.  Just listen to what your SVP of HR has been saying all along.  Consider these factoids.

  1. The number one reason employees give for leaving a company is not enough quality interactions with their direct supervisors.  Within the top five reasons you will also find “not enough opportunities for growth or development”.
  2. Conversely, within the top five items regarding employee satisfaction and why people stay at a company is good rapport with their direct supervisor and interesting assignments.
  3. People want to please their bosses.  Knowing what is working or not in their performance and making some corrections creates better results and happier bosses and direct reports.
  4. Ongoing conversations about someone’s aspirations and career path followed up with challenging assignments and development opportunities keep retention levels high.  It is far less expensive to develop someone who already works for you than hiring a new person.
  5. If you (at the very least) and your leaders as a whole (best case scenario) create an environment of talent development you will attract and retain the very best people in your field.

The cost of managing and developing your talent?  It’s your smallest budget item.  Return on this investment?  Priceless.  Yet when it is time to cut budgets, guess which item is first to go?

Somewhere along the way organizations and leaders got it into their heads that managing and developing talent is an extremely expensive and time consuming event that occurs once or twice a year.  Those are the times that HR shows up to force you to write reviews and have one-on-one meetings with your direct reports and file some document that describes where this person is on the succession planning chart and get all your managers to do the same thing with their people.  And if you don’t complete these tasks you will suffer the wrath of those pesky HR folks.  After all, they have their metrics for success too.

But this is so cockeyed.  First of all, managing talent is not an event.  It is an ongoing dialogue about an individual’s current performance and future aspirations and assignments.

Secondly, the leaders and managers of the company own the talent review and development process.  Putting HR in the role of police is wrong on so many levels.  It presumes that you need someone to tell you to give your folks a review.  Can you imagine that being the case with other important activities?  You wouldn’t set targets and achieve results unless someone told you to?  You wouldn’t meet with customers unless someone told you to?  You wouldn’t create your product unless someone told you to?  But “our people are our most valuable asset” requires someone kicking you in the ass?  You explain that logic to me.

And third, employees are part of the problem.  If you want to understand the definition of passivity ask an employee who is frustrated that she has not received a formal review in ages why she doesn’t initiate the meeting.  “I’m waiting for my boss to approach me about it.”  Yikes!  Trust me, nowhere in that boss’ head is the thought, “Geez, I really owe Tanya a review”.  This is all part of that organizational wrong thinking about who is responsible and who owns the process.  As long as the orientation is that HR owns the review and development processes, managers and employees will sit on the sidelines until otherwise instructed.

(For the record, HR provides the tools and assistance needed to develop people much the same way that Finance provides tools and assistance when you need to build your budget.  They help but you own your talent and your budget.)

It all boils down to three simple guidelines.  1) It’s all about having an ongoing conversation.  2) Either party can initiate that discussion.  3) There is no heavy machinery involved (that might cause drowsiness when administered).

If you want a performance review, ask for it.  If you aren’t pleased with a direct report’s progress, bring him into your office.  If you observe someone in another group who is a rising star and you want to help, have a chat.  If one of your peers steps out of line, close the door and sit him down.  If you want a promotion, go talk with your boss.  No pencils, paper, computer programs or instruction manuals needed.

So we all agree.  Providing regular feedback and stretch assignments is a great idea and leaders need to step up.  The truth is most leaders would actually take care of their people if only they had the time.

Now for that “come back to haunt you” moment.  Wait for it…

Not having the time is a bullshit excuse.  I don’t buy it.  No one is going to convince me that you cannot scrounge up two hours a week to be spent having routine discussions with your folks.  I know you thought I was letting you off the hook by describing competing priorities in the heat of the action.  But the operative word here is priorities.  Can you honestly tell me that every single minute of your 12-hour day is filled with valuable, non-time wasting activities?  You don’t spend an hour most days doing something or another on-line that has nothing to do with work…and wouldn’t get you fired?  You never engage in unproductive idle chatter when people just drop by your office?  You never have a personal phone conversation during your work hours?  Again I say, bullshit.

I’m not suggesting that you don’t need these moments of distraction and respite at the office.  I’m just saying that if you can find the time to do these sorts of things then you can certainly find 15 minutes to have an informal update with one of your direct reports.  It’s all a matter of priorities.

So let’s talk about priorities.  We’ve already established that the time spent developing your staff is a great investment.  We’ve also acknowledged that most of your time is eaten up with the daily grind.  So what would it take for you to schedule time each quarter to meet individually with your direct reports…to make it a priority?

Try this.  You’ll enjoy these conversations.  You’ll feel a sense of accomplishment that goes beyond checking today’s boxes.  You will have made a difference in someone’s performance, motivation and commitment.  Make it a priority because it will be one of the best parts of your day.

I’m not implying that these are feel-good conversations.  In fact, many times they are quite the opposite.  The focus is not on whether this is a moment for praise or correction but rather on providing an honest appraisal of performance.  As one of my former bosses used to say, the absence of feedback is like bowling with the pins behind a curtain.  When you ask, “How did I do?” all you hear back is “Keep bowling.”  It’s your job to let your folks know if they are meeting your expectations.  If you don’t talk with them often enough, they’ll never know.  And then won’t everyone be surprised at that year-end appraisal?  You’ll be shocked to learn that your staff cannot read your mind and they will be amazed that they had so totally disappointed (or pleased!) you.  Taking a little time to recalibrate or monitor or high-five or deep-six will save tons of time and heartache down the road.

I know that I am stating the obvious here but this reminder may help motivate you to make these conversations a priority.

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