Performance management is often a dreaded term among leaders. It has an association with arduous Human Resources (HR) processes and uncomfortable conversations with team members.
Following formal performance management processes as a leader is time consuming, draining and doesn’t feel productive. These processes are followed closely to ensure that employees are treated fairly and that the company is not left vulnerable to legal action for unfairly dismissing an employee (if it comes to that).
Is Formal Performance Management Really About Performance?
Formal performance management is often not necessarily about performance against targets. It can also be about behaviour and working well with a team.
In many organisations, performance management is seen as a way to “manage people out” of the business. The formal process can last for many months of additional meetings and performance conversations, and involves some sort of “Performance Improvement Plan” which sets the standards for the team member to meet within a certain time frame.
A major problem with the whole process is that once it becomes formalised, it has a strong negative stigma.
When people hear that someone is on a formal improvement plan (which is meant to be confidential, by the way), the initial instinct is to think that they are doing a bad job, they have behaved badly, or that their manager does not like them and wants to get rid of them.
Performance Management Should Be About Improvement
There are a few problems with the negative stigma surrounding performance management.
Unfortunately, people talk. Even though performance management is supposed to be a confidential HR matter, people seem to find out about it anyway. This can ruin somebody’s reputation in their workplace.
Second, labelling someone as a poor performer can reduce their confidence. This can have the effect of creating a downward spiral (or self-fulfilling prophecy) where performance declines further due to the team member’s feelings of stress, insecurity and inadequacy.
At some point, I think that we have lost our way with performance management. At its core, it should be about improving performance, not about labelling them or getting them out the door.
From what I have observed over my career, once the formal performance management starts, the end is nigh. Team members rarely recover, often choosing to leave or continuing to struggle with the additional burden of the arduous process, with their reputation and confidence in tatters.
Turning the Focus to Improving Performance
I believe we can reduce the requirement for formal performance management through good leadership.
In the rest of this article, I will cover the 5 Cs that I feel are really at the core of improving performance. Let’s forget about the formal HR process of performance management, and go back to solid leadership and management.
The 5 Cs are simple and include Clarity, Context, Consistency, Courage and Commitment!
1. Clarity comes first
Nobody can perform well unless they know what it means. Clarity is about setting clear expectations, goals or targets so that people know what the rules are.
Clarity may involve setting expectations about the following aspects of a team:
- Performance targets, using specific metrics. Examples are sales, issues resolved, calls answered or the number of widgets designed per month
- Setting clear deadlines for important work or regular activities such as reporting
- Behaviour standards, with clear guidelines about what is acceptable in your team
- Ways of working, including what tools should be used, when we should use them and how they should be used. This also includes communication, with clear guidelines about how team members are expected to communicate and collaborate.
Depending on the role your team members play, you may also have other factors to include. For example, if your team provides support after business hours, you might need to set some clear expectations about work start and end times or a roster arrangement.
How Clarity Will Help You
Clarity helps you avoid ambiguity. Being clear means that team members know what the rules are, and they know what is acceptable.
If you put effort into being clear about your expectations up front, you go a long way to avoiding problems down the road. Many issues arise in teams because of unclear expectations about roles and responsibilities, and this helps you to avoid them.
Without setting clear expectations you have plausible deniability, where team members can reasonably claim they didn’t know what you expected of them. This leaves you in a situation where you will struggle to hold people accountable.
Listen to Thoughtful Leader Podcast #70: How Team Alignment Will Help You Get On (and Stay On) the Right Track.
2. The Context can make the difference
In general, I believe that team members are trying to do the right thing. It’s very rare to find a team member who is actively coming to work every day to cause problems and make life miserable.
This is why it’s very important to understand the context behind performance problems in your team. It’s easy to label people as useless, stupid, lazy or rude. Often, people’s work and life circumstances contribute to poor performance.
Maybe Diego is going through a messy divorce at home. Perhaps Katie is having some ongoing health problems. It might be that Ling is being bullied at work by someone from another team.
If you can develop an understanding of the context, you can respond more appropriately. Jumping into formal performance management is not likely to help somebody who is already struggling.
Developing rapport and building relationships with your team members will help you to become aware of the issues they are facing. Having an open and honest conversation can often be the starting point to fixing performance problems, without needing to get more formal about it.
3. Consistency matters
The third aspect of improving performance is all about showing consistency.
Team members become very confused if you ask for something one day, and then change your mind the next. Or if you treat team members differently even though they are in similar roles.
Consistency is about reinforcing your expectations in a sustained manner. This takes effort, because you need to be sure that you’re paying attention to the messages you are sending.
One of the best ways to show consistency is to provide feedback and coach team members on an ongoing basis. This can be a great way to course-correct if they are going off track.
Consistency is important because without it, team members don’t know what the rules are. If something is important one day and ignored the next, it all becomes very confusing.
Consistency may also require cooperation
While it’s important to be consistent in your own behaviour and expectations, sometimes you also need help from others around you. Your people will be engaging with other teams and managers, and if they aren’t on the same page, consistency can be a problem.
For example, I’ve run into a situation in the past where I was coaching my team to provide a specific standard of reporting.
The only issue was, the reports also went to my manager and he didn’t have the same expectations.
This meant that the message was inconsistent. I wanted one thing and my manager wanted another. What I needed to do was to align more closely with my manager so we could both ask for the same thing.
After all, team members are going to listen closely to the person who is most senior… and in this case, it wasn’t me!
Be aware of any cooperation you might need from other people in your workplace, and get them on board with you early. Otherwise, they might just undermine the expectations you are working so hard to make clear.
Team members have every right to become frustrated in an environment where expectations are not applied consistently. And when you fail to be consistent, you only have yourself to blame if team members don’t do the things you’d like them to.
4. Courage is critical
If you have clarity and consistency, you need to have the guts to follow through. This is courage.
You need courage because reinforcing expectations and providing feedback about performance can be uncomfortable. Each time you offer advice or ask people to work differently, there is a degree of confrontation involved.
If things are really going off track, you might need to have a difficult conversation to work on the problem. Many managers will avoid confrontation rather than tackle the hard discussions. Unfortunately, while avoidance can feel more comfortable in the short-term, it will only lead to bigger problems down the road.
To find your courage, try the following:
- Think long-term: What will happen in the future if this performance issue is not resolved? Could it get even worse?
- Look for inspiration: Ask yourself, “What would a great leader do?” Often you know the answer, it just requires courage to take action. There is nothing really stopping you from being one of these great leaders!
- Remember – people are watching you: You are a role model. People look to see how you will respond to this challenge. Are you going to let people down?
- Talk it through with a trusted colleague or mentor: Don’t go it alone. Test your thoughts, work on a plan and gain support to execute it.
5. We need Commitment to get results
Recently a Thoughtful Leader reader (Mark) told me a story about a situation in his government workplace where a manager in his new team was showing toxic behaviour towards team members. He didn’t want this in his department, so he started having some difficult conversations to address the situation.
Unfortunately, this manager didn’t respond, and made no change to his behaviour. This led to formal performance management, involving the HR department.
The process went on for many months, with no improvement in performance or behaviour. In the end, the manager showing the toxic behaviours resigned from the organisation.
Obviously the best result would have been for the manager to adjust his behaviour and become a productive member of the workplace. In this case, it didn’t happen and he decided to leave the organisation.
Mark told me that this quickly created a better environment for the remaining team members, improved Mark’s reputation and made a positive step towards improving the workplace culture.
Commitment is required to keep pushing forward
Imagine what would have happened if Mark had given up? The situation would have been allowed to continue, as it does in so many workplaces.
Many managers aren’t prepared to commit to the process of improving performance, instead choosing to turn a blind eye to the problem.
Mark showed the commitment to achieve the outcome he needed, which was to remove the toxic behaviour from his department. It wasn’t going to be easy, and he needed to be prepared to stay with it for the long haul.
Whether you’re coaching somebody to help them improve their skills, or managing a difficult behaviour issue in your team, you need commitment to make sure you keep pushing for the goal.
Performance management should be all about improving performance, not just getting people out the door. Ideally, the aim should be to help people improve and work well in their teams, rather than stigmatising those that aren’t performing well.
No matter what aspect of performance you’re trying to improve, the 5Cs of Clarity, Context, Consistency, Courage and Commitment will help you get the best out of your team!