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Why Do Some Managers Ignore Poor Performance?

This is a really good question, asked by Jill Christensen – an employee engagement expert, best-selling author, and keynote speaker – on a LinkedIn Group post. Here are the top 4 answers (in order of popularity) and some of the comments made about each:

  1. HR & senior management failure – HR is not doing its job to get poor performance on the corporate agenda and get the message to middle and senior managers. Managers fear that termination is the only solution (and finding a replacement may be difficult), so HR needs to give them ways of improving performance. Senior managers allow Managers to ignore poor performance. There isn’t enough “authentic leadership” to create a “culture” of leadership skills (eyeroll here).
  2. They don’t know how – Managers are not equipped to handle workplace conflict resolution. Managers lack lack the skills, courage, or confidence to address the issue of poor performance, and do not know how to address it properly and completely.  Managers do not have experience in how to mentor people to improve performance.
  3. Fear – Managers, like other people, dread having difficult conversations. They fear conflict, damaging relationships, and exposing themselves to the judgment of others above and below. Managers, like many others, avoid conflict.
  4. It takes work to manage performance and follow through as necessary.

After 30+ years as a management consultant, I say that answer #4 nails it for me!

All Managers know a few basics about the costs of poor performance:

  • Every individual’s performance contributes to organizational performance.
  • Ignoring low performance is a disservice to the employees who must compensate for poor performers.
  • Not handling poor performance undermines your own role as a Manager.

Managers also know it takes work to manage performance, and not just poor performance. To manage performance, a Manager must:

  1. Specify what “performance” is, in every case, with every person and team. Work with your group to define and update statements of measures and results. Specify what needs to be delivered to in-house and external users, customers, and collaborators. Get specific. Then: Make all “performance” clear to all.
  2. Make clear assignments. WHAT are the results and deliverables each person will be accountable for completing? WHEN are those results and deliverables due? WHO will be accountable for fulfilling each assignment?  WHY does each assignment matter to the group, and to the organization?  Then: Make all assignments clear to all.
  3. Follow up on a regular schedule: Update the status of performance assignments, in terms of percent completion, for example, and discuss barriers, problems, and ideas for improvements. Then: Make all performance status clear to all.

What does it mean to make all of these 3 things – [A] Performance measures, results, and deliverables; [B] Assignments for those completions; and [C] Performance status “clear to all”?  It means: Make it public (gasp!).  This is easiest if you use two indispensable elements of good management.

One, an indispensable management tool: Use a visible scoreboard or display for tracking assignment information (What-When-Who-Why).

Two, an indispensable management practice: Hold regular group “performance-update” meetings with the whole team. Those meetings are where you clarify [A] What performance is, [B] What assignment specifics will get us there, and [C] What our follow-up meeting agenda and schedule will be. Note: One-on-one discussions are insufficient for managing performance.

So, why do some Managers ignore poor performance? Because doing A-B-C, plus maintaining visual displays and facilitating performance-update meetings, is work and it takes time. And we all know that Managers are Really Busy.

Stop Managing People, Step 1

Curtis, a successful manager of three Supervisors and their 25 team members, says, “Don’t use your judgmental mud pit as a basis for giving your people assignments – or for evaluating their performance either.”

You already have an opinion about each of your people, right? Come on, of course you do. As one former client told me, pointing to people in his work area, “That one does shoddy work, the guy over there is more interested in getting a promotion than in completing his assignments on time, and Miss Princess in the blue blouse thinks she is too good for this kind of work.”

This former client admitted to me that he assigned people tasks and projects based on those assessments. “I’m not going to try to fix them, so I don’t give the Princess anything that needs deep thinking, for example. But I do give them evaluations that show my opinions, because I want to avoid the conflict and personality stuff. I just give them a decent review and accept who they are.” Which means, of course, that his people do not get useful feedback on their actual performance.

You may not be quite that opinionated, or use your opinions to guide your delegation of work. But Curtis’s four rules for giving people assignments and evaluating their performance might be useful to you anyway. He focuses on making agreements with people for work assignments that each person or group agrees to do, complete, and deliver. It is the agreements he manages, not the personalities or personal opinions. Curtis’s rules, in short, are:

  1. Formulate the assignment. Get very clear about what you want each person or group to produce or deliver. Don’t rely on assumptions that “they know their job”, or your expectations that they will always use the right standards for each software application. Spell out your requirements and give people creative leeway where you can.
  2. Discuss the specifics. Delegation or assigning is not a one-way conversation. Review the specifics of the assignment in 2 phases with the individual or group involved. The first half, “what-when-why”, covers the assignment, due date, and importance of the work. The second half, “who-where-how”, covers the relevant players, the locations of resources (human and other), and ideas about ways the objective can be accomplished. Make sure it’s a two-way dialogue – you want both sides to learn something in this conversation.
  3. Ask and Agree. Giving an assignment can be as simple as asking for what you want – “Will you do this?” – and sets you up for the confirmation of an agreement. Don’t settle for a head-nod: get a Yes. Then summarize the terms of success so you – and they – have confidence that a performance agreement has been created. (Curtis reminds us we don’t need to be shy about using the term “performance agreement”.)
  4. Track and Follow Up. A regular schedule of group meetings is the perfect occasion for reviewing the status of those performance agreements. You’ll need a visible “tracking scoreboard” listing every project, who is accountable for it, and the due dates of key products or deliverables. Curtis confesses to using post-its in each meeting to note the status and updates for each assignment. “That way”, he says, “the lead person can keep things current for her team. And keeping the tracking scoreboard in our meeting room helps too, so everyone can see and update things.”

Curtis’s advice? “Bottom line, let go of the judgments and work with your people to create a game for accomplishment and accountability. The personalities are interesting, but they aren’t what gets the work done right, or done on time and on budget.”

When a Team is – And Is Not – a Team

A corporate trainer, I’ll call him Edwin, was complaining about having to update his middle-management training curriculum. “I have to do another Team Training,” he said, “and the bosses want me to include games and activities and other kinds of “fluff stuff”. Seriously? It’s a joke. Teams don’t work like that.”

I agreed that the word “team” is probably over-used, usually with a little bit of a halo on it. Some managers refer to “my team” or “our team” instead of saying “my staff” or “our department” – just because it sounds better. Sort of like the way people say “leader” because it sounds better than saying “manager”.

We talked about his old Team Training programs to see how to keep what he thought was valuable, and what he could do to improve them. “There are 3 basics I emphasize in those programs,” he said.

  1. A Team has a stated “team purpose” – a goal, a commitment, something that gives the group a reason for collaborating and coordinating internally as well as working with others.
  2. Team members work together to create a structure for coordination:
    1. Clarify who is the Team Leader, and which team members have primary responsibility for sub-goals or projects.
    2. Determine how decisions will be made. Which things does the Team Leader decide? Who else gets to make other kinds of decisions? How will those decisions be communicated to the rest of the team?
    3. Design a framework for how and when team members will communicate with one another. Weekly meetings, with an agenda? Regular consultations among subsets of team members? Or some other reliable pattern?
  3. Team members review and revise this structure of agreements as needed. If things get bogged down with internal or external problems, it’s time to get together and refresh the framework – as a team.

“Teams are not built on a foundation of focusing on individuals,” Edwin explained. “That is the biggest pitfall. Americans are especially fixed on being individuals first, and having their individuality be the centerpiece of their attention.

“Teams need a focus on the group: they need a reason for working together, and to agree on a structure of responsibilities, decisions, and communications.

“The purpose of a team is not to resolve conflicts, boost morale, or fix someone’s personality traits that are aggravating other team members. Team members might need to learn how to collaborate more effectively, or improve skills in communicating directly and honestly. But really, a team is a team for a reason: to make something happen, or to move something forward. It is not a family or an exercise in social studies.”

Thanks, Edwin. Now I realize there are many fewer “teams” than I thought. Not every group is willing or able to do those 3 things to become a team. The attraction to focusing on people, personalities, and interpersonal drama is compelling – and more familiar to us than defining a group purpose or creating a framework for interacting productively.

Hmmm. Maybe he could add a couple of games or exercises that help people practice doing those 3 things? Just a thought.

What You Want & By When: Managers, Leaders, and Schedules

One manager in a recent MBA class was provoked by a discussion about the importance of using schedules, and offered her opinion on the difference between leaders and managers. “I want to be a leader,” she said, “not a manager. What does scheduling have to do with leadership?”

Good question, actually. We were talking about a powerful way of getting things accomplished: making agreements. For the uninitiated, an effective agreement goes like this:

  • Request: Will you send me the Customer Survey Report by noon tomorrow so I have time to prepare for the Board meeting? (note the specific “what I want”, “by when”, and “why it matters to me”)
  • Response options:
    • Yes, I will do that. (acceptance creates an agreement)
    • No, I can’t, but I can have Karen do it first thing in the morning. (a counter-offer can create an agreement if it’s accepted by the one making the request, who, in this case, must now rely on Karen)
    • No, I can’t because the report hasn’t been finalized by IT yet. Sorry. (the decline bars an agreement on this request)

Our MBA-Manager did not want to be bothered with such mundane things as using a schedule, creating deadlines, or holding others to account for keeping their word. Perhaps she feels that leaders are too lofty for such things.

That is why my LinkedIn page has the header “Leaders Speak the Future. Managers Make it Happen.” The ability to ask “By When?”, however, and to follow up with someone who agrees to perform a task by a specific “When”, is not limited to managers only. But it does have more to do with a commitment to accomplishment than it does with being a Hero.

When we practice saying By When we’ll have something done, and asking others By When they will have something done, we develop a muscle that is particularly useful for producing results of any kind. Without that, you’ll have a conversation like the one I had with Stuart a while back:

  • Me: I’m giving a talk and hosting 3 panels at a conference the last week in May. If you have any research findings I could use to prepare for that, I would appreciate it.
  • Stuart: I haven’t gotten out my latest series of fact sheets yet, but feel free to bug me if you haven’t seen anything.
  • Me: OK, consider yourself bugged. I’d like an update by Friday May 8th at the latest.
  • Stuart: If you are relying on my memory, you are likely to be disappointed. So if you don’t hear from me, you may want to email me.

Seriously? They guy uses his memory instead of a calendar? And it becomes my job to “bug him”? Well, not much of a manager, but not exactly a leader either. Would you follow him up a mountain trail at dusk? No, me either.

I’m going to practice using By When even more often in 2017. It keeps me on track for what I’m committed to and what I’m interested in developing, plus it chases away some foolishness with people who aren’t serious about integrity or accomplishment. Say it with me: By When?

Getting Clear about “Difficult People” – Don’t Make it Personal

There is a LinkedIn post about “Difficult People”, which was really about difficult relationships – and how to deal with them ever so gently. Yipes! My clients had very specific examples of what they mean by “difficult people”, and weren’t interested in being gentle! The gentle example suggested saying, ‘I don’t like your approach’, ‘Your style doesn’t fit here’, or ‘I’m aware that we seem a bit stuck. What are you noticing?’. Soft stuff.

My notes from clients say that difficult people are the people who:

  1. Must be continually reminded or “micromanaged” to get their work properly or on time;
  2. Are argumentative, unfriendly, or otherwise disagreeable, causing trouble at work;
  3. Resist using new methods and procedures in their work;
  4. Gossip and make others look bad, or blame others for their problems, and being unpleasant to work with;
  5. Are chronic complainers, taking up the time, attention, and energy of others;
  6. Do only the minimum work necessary, or don’t do their assigned work, making it hard for others to get their work done; or
  7. Expect someone else to motivate them or tell them what to do, which slows things down and makes it harder to get work done.

So there’s no need to be touchy-feely about it. Maybe what’s needed is a conversation about results – meeting deadlines, behaving respectfully, and producing quality work

I heard one manager tell a meeting of his entire staff, “Some of us, perhaps without knowing it, are not operating as part of a team. Sometimes we aren’t always producing what others need from us, or we’re waiting to be told what to do, or being unpleasant to others. I think we can create a better atmosphere here.”

He went on to lead a discussion on the following 3 topics:

  • How can we be more supportive of each other?
  • How can we do our work well, while also being aware of how our work fits in with what others need to reach our goals?
  • What does it mean to be cordial and positive at work?

He wrote people’s answers on a big whiteboard, then asked, “What will make these ideas work?”, writing down their solution ideas. He closed the session by asking them, “Are you – each one of you – willing to make an agreement with me that you will put at least one of these ideas into practice, starting today?”

As his staff members studied the list, hands started going up. Within 2-3 minutes, every hand in the room was in the air. He told them this would be included in their monthly review meetings, to see if their workplace “atmosphere” was improving or needed more work. He transcribed his lists of their best answers to his topic discussion questions and implementation ideas , and posted them – framed – in the rest rooms. They followed up at meetings, but soon didn’t need to do that anymore. The “atmosphere” improved without worrying about anyone’s approach, style, or values. Whew!

 

What’s the Source of the “Productivity Deficit”?

The Marketplace newsletter has an answer for a question I hadn’t thought to ask: “Why are workers less productive?” It seems the output produced for each hour of labor worked (aka non-farm business productivity) dropped in the second quarter of 2015. It’s the third quarter in a row with a decline in US labor productivity. Innovations like smartphones and 3D printing are great, but aren’t doing much for productivity.

Their recommended solutions? More investment in plants, new technology, and training employees to use new technologies. Businesses just aren’t making a lot of those investments these days.

But is that really the problem? My observation is that there is an awful lot of “waiting” going on in organizations. People are doing non-critical work or housekeeping tasks instead of gaining momentum in the “output” they are responsible for producing.

  • Marge, a cost-savings analyst, is waiting for the Maintenance Manager to give her the latest numbers so she can finish her quarterly report.
  • Andrew, an engineer, is waiting for his boss to give him the OK on a project working with the IT team to develop a new application for Engineering and Operations.
  • Chuck, a supervisor, is waiting for the service schedules to be posted so he can give his crew – and their customers – their assignments for the coming week.

I suggest there is a “Communication Deficit”. Each of these people has a “really good reason” for why they can’t make a clear request – and get a good promise – for What they want, When they want it, and Why it matters.

  • Marge can’t get a definite promise from the Maintenance Manager “because he works in a different department and has a boss of his own to satisfy”.
  • Andrew can’t get an OK from his boss because his boss is out of town, not responding to all his email, and doesn’t realize that Andrew can’t move forward without that OK.
  • Chuck says, “I’m a little afraid of Helen. She manages the scheduling and has a nasty temper. My crew understands that I’d rather wait.”

Most people don’t see the need for making agreements to support their work productivity. (Note: Request + Promise = Agreement). But agreements do give us some certainty and that helps us schedule our work more effectively which increases our productive time. Plus, with practice we can increase that certainty and become more reliable in making agreements – and in encouraging others to have conversations that produce agreements with us.

Full disclosure: I’m guilty too. I received an email today from an associate, with links to 3 documents, saying “these drafts are pending your review”. She then reported what she was working on, and said, “I should have something for you by Friday.” Did she mean she wanted me to review those 3 drafts by Friday too? If I want more certainty, and productivity, I’ll have to create clearer agreements. Lesson learned.

A Recipe for Little Changes – Organizational and Personal

Talking to two very different people this past few weeks, I was surprised to see how much their conversations had in common. The first was Elayne, a manager in a manufacturing facility, who dreaded making a change in her HR department.

“I don’t know how to update our employee timesheet system,” she said. “I mean, I know I can just substitute the old email templates for the new online reporting system. But how do you deal with the resistance ? Some people just won’t do it, and I’ll have to chase them down and have one-on-one begging sessions with them.”

The other was Darren, a father of four. “I wish I could improve weekends around our house,” he said. “The kids are doing a million different activities, and my wife and I spend time chauffeuring them around. Personal time to go to the gym is out of the question.”

I told them the “recipe” I had developed for making a change, whether personal or organizational:

  1. Get clear on what the change is, i.e., what needs to stop happening and what needs to start happening. Be sure to include timing, such as “a by-when date” or a recurring day like Saturdays.
  2. Schedule a time to meet with the key players – people who will be affected by the change – such as the different groups of employees, or the wife and kids.
  3. Have one or more discussions to clarify the change, and make a list (maybe on a flip chart?) of all the negatives – problems and challenges, sometimes called “resistance” – and all the positives: solutions, opportunities, and benefits. Allow “counteroffers” and “bargaining” on some points.
  4. Revise the definition of the change, including the timeline for implementing it, in a way that recognizes the input received from all those key players.
  5. Review the newly updated plan with the key players and establish agreement about what will be implemented, and how, when, and by whom each element will be done.

Elayne held four meetings – one with all the plant managers and supervisors, and three others with groups of employees who had been there more than 5 years. “It was actually kind of fun, with the guys teasing each other about revealing their overtime statistics. And we didn’t need second meetings: I just took the results of all the meetings and summarized them, then emailed everyone the link for our new timesheet and the date to start using it. We got 89% on-time submissions the first time around -amazing!”

Darren told me, “Our first meeting was noisy, but I wrote down the 4 problems and the 2 “good ideas” they offered. The second meeting was a week later, after they had time to think about it and talk it over with each other and with friends. We created a workable solution that included a car-pool arrangement with some of their friends’ parents and a change to my daughter’s dance-class schedule. I’m starting my new Saturday gym program a week from tomorrow. And my wife will be joining a Sunday afternoon book club. Peace reigns.”

Simple? Yes. Easy? Not necessarily. It takes willingness to practice The Four Conversations in the sequence above: (1) Initiative – have it well formulated before delivering it; (2) Request + Promise = Agreement on when to meet and discuss the proposed change. (3) Understanding – a dialogue to identify problems and benefits, along with what will be done and by whom; (4) Update the change statement using the language and ideas obtained from key players; and (5) Meet again to create an agreement for implementation that includes Who does What by When.

It may not be easy, but it can be done.

Time to Talk? Efficiency vs. Effectiveness

The idea that time is “speeding up” is very popular, says the latest issue of The Economist – and they also say it’s very hard to prove. But the growth in computing power, along with management tools that increase efficiency by reducing delays in processes, have made it seem like time itself really is going faster.

Lonnie is a senior manager with a time complaint. He said, “I had a schedule that was out of control. I’ve asked my assistant for help, but she can’t seem to handle it. So I decided to be more efficient with my time.” Here’s what he had done by the time I met him, 3 months after he started practicing “efficiency”:

  • Tracked where he was spending his time: over 30% of his day was spent on communications by email, phone, and in meetings.
  • Identified the work he felt was really the most important, and that needed more attention: the most neglected high-value job was preparing product & program plans and proposals for his VPs, peers, and staff.
  • Practiced “efficiency” by scheduling his product development planning as the first job of the day, cutting down on his meeting attendance, and leaving the email to be handled after lunch.

This helped him meet some deadlines, especially for the VPs, but, he said, explaining why he needed help, “I still have much email, too many unnecessary appointments and meetings, and I’m interrupted all the time.”  I asked Lonnie about his assistant. Why wasn’t she able to filter the email and appointments and reduce his interruptions? Had he really made a good request?

“I told her I wanted help with my schedule problems,” he said. “But nothing changed.” Uh oh. He “wanted help”? We designed a real request, and he practiced saying it before he delivered it.

“Melissa, I request that tomorrow you start reviewing and screening my emails three times a day, eliminating all meetings on my schedule where I am not absolutely needed to attend, and preventing any phone or drop-by interruptions in my work between 8:00 and 10:15 AM. Is that something you can do?”

Lonnie made the request, and was surprised by Melissa’s response. “She gave me a big smile and told me she was glad to know specifically what would help me get hold of my schedule, and that of course she would start doing those things.”

Two weeks later, Lonnie was out from under the burden of calendar chaos, and had learned the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiency: improving the process for getting things done; Effectiveness: getting the right jobs done to meet goals. He laughed at himself, saying, “Of course, if I had made an effective request to Melissa in the first place, I could have saved 3 months of being Efficiently Ineffective”.

Attitude Can Cause Blindness and Ignorance

 

After years of saying that a consultant’s job is not to change people’s attitudes, I might need to eat my words. Here’s what I learned from reviewing a Harvard Business Review case: a bad attitude can blind an employee – even a good one – from seeing who to communicate with and who needs certain information.

The issue was that an employee – let’s call him Roger – was appointed to lead a team-building program. The goal was to improve communications between two groups who were not communicating. I’ve seen this happen often in organizations: engineers, maintenance, IT, or operations people just don’t speak the same language, so they just don’t bother trying to communicate. Roger’s assignment was to improve the situation with a team-building program.

Roger was going to keep doing his regular job and do the team-building program too. That meant he’d keep reporting to his regular boss, but for the team-building project he would report to Eileen, who was the VP reporting to the company president about internal improvements.

But Roger didn’t like Eileen: there’s the attitude. So when he started leading the team-building program, and he started hearing from the participants about problems with the company’s processes and equipment, he told them to fix those problems themselves. “Go back to your work areas and use these team-building ideas to solve those problems,” he said.

What he should have also done, of course, is to make a good list of the problems, locations, and people involved, then report all that to Eileen. Instead, he literally ignored her – that’s the ignorance. True, Eileen might not have cared about solving those problems, but she deserved to know. Roger’s lack of respect for Eileen’s competence (i.e., his attitude) kept him from even considering communicating with her. So what do we do about attitude-induced ignorance?

I’d say that when Eileen delegated the training program to Roger, she needed a better agreement with him about what kind of feedback he should provide. She had asked him to keep track of the number of people who attended each session, because she wanted to be able to report that more than 80% of the employees in both units had attended the training. But she hadn’t said anything about what other feedback she would like.

If Eileen had noticed that all human beings come equipped with attitudes and mental roadblocks, she might have requested some useful feedback on how to really improve relations between these two groups. But then again, maybe Eileen had an attitude too. So I will keep supporting people to make clearer, smarter agreements. Working with attitudes is very sticky and it doesn’t cure ignorance.

Getting Other People to Do Stuff

A recent review of manager comments on their workplace communication was very revealing: they didn’t get the idea of dialogue. Two-way talking was not recognized as a tool for getting things done on time and on budget. Here are two samples of their management “conversations” for getting people to perform:

  • “I think we need to get these customer responses reviewed and organized, then prepare a plan for how to improve our customer service and support processes.”
  • “Let’s identify what we need to do in order to improve our in-house communications, and then we can prioritize the ideas and start solving the issues one at a time.”

Neither one of these statements – and they are statements, not conversations – should give the manager any confidence that something will get done, much less with any urgency. An “Initiative Conversation” is simply a proposal for a good idea. Both of those statements qualify as proposals. But a proposal may not get anything into action, much less produce a result.

That’s why the next step would be an “Understanding Conversation” – a dialogue that gives the other people involved a chance to talk about the proposal. They can contribute ideas and clarify the specifics and expectations for actions and results. They can have a conversation to develop the proposal, including timelines and connections to other projects, in a way that increases the odds of success. Managers who seek input from others are much more effective in having their proposals move toward action.

Going a step further, “Performance Conversations” actually produce the action. The manager launches the dialogue to clarify which people will do the specific tasks and produce specific results. This dialogue is a tool for clarifying assignments: Who will do What + by When it will be performed + Why it matters. That sets up the possibility of people being accountable for keeping their agreements to perform.

Initiative conversations are a good start, but no manager can count on getting reliable results by just proposing a “good idea”. If we practice engaging other people in dialogues that build alignment on specifics and agreements for action, we are more likely to be successful in making something happen.