Talking About “Performance” – But Which Kind of Performance?

A friend – I’ll call her Sidnie – has a job that pays her by the hour, and she shared her commitment to “doing quality work”. She asked, “Should I bill them for the hours when I know I’m not 100% – like first thing in the morning when I’m handling email and stuff? And should I bill them for time when I am working more than 40 hours a week, when the extra hours are focused on making sure I’m doing quality work?”

This put us squarely into a conversation about different kinds of performance. What does her boss – or in Sidnie’s case, all three bosses she reports to regarding the three different aspects of her job – really want from her? Do they want her to work as economically as possible? Do they want her results to meet certain standards? Or were they going to evaluate the results of her work in terms of how well they could be put to use in other locations or situations? These are three different kinds of performance, and are measured at different parts of the stages of work: Doing, Done, and Delivered:

  1. Efficiency & Productivity are “Doing” measures of performance, counting how many resources – people, hours, or materials and supplies – are needed to finish certain tasks. If it takes you 2 hours and 1 cup of soap to wash two full baskets of laundry, and Mary Sunshine can do the same job in 1 ½ hours with ¾ cups of soap, then Ms. Sunshine could be said to be more efficient and more productive.
  2. Quantity & Quality are “Done” measures of performance that are applied not to actions, but to results – whether products, services, or communications – to determine whether they meet some specified standards. If the quantity standard, for example, is to get 4 loads of laundry done in two hours or less, then both you and Mary Sunshine blew it. If the laundry you washed has no streaks, spots, or discolorations, but the laundry Ms. Sunshine cleaned has several unremoved stains and places where dark colors bled into white fabrics, then her work has a quality problem.
  3. Effectiveness & Impact are “Delivered” measures of performance: when the cleaned-and-dried laundry is folded and returned to Madam Customer, it will be her reaction that determines the effectiveness or impact of the work. If she says to you, “Thank you, that’s fine,” then the work was sufficiently effective, with a positive impact. If she says to Ms. Sunshine, “Look at these stains! Take it all back and do it properly!” or, “I will not pay for this – you have ruined my white pants!” then Ms. Sunshine has scored badly on the effectiveness and impact scale.

Sidnie was not sure of what her boss(es) wanted, which is not unusual. Most employees do not clarify this, thus do not know whether one kind of performance is more important than the others. Sometimes the bosses do not really differentiate either, which means the workplace is directed by guessing or by learning the personal preferences of higher-ups.

Our conversation did clarify two things, however. Sidnie will track her work hours without subtracting any hours she has judged as “doing unimportant work”, or “not being as sharp” as she thinks she could have been. Starting now, if she is working, Sidnie will count the time as work-time.

Second, if Sidnie doesn’t know what her boss(es) consider to be “quality work”, then what is she doing in those extra hours she is investing in “doing quality work”? Most likely, she is using her own judgment on whether she has done a good job with the tasks she was assigned. Perhaps she is even correcting errors in cumbersome work processes or in other people’s products. Still, by her own estimate, it is work that is adding value.

I say, bill that time. But also schedule a conversation with your boss(es), Sidnie. It’s time to clarify what they really want you to be accountable for, what standards they use for “quality”, and what matters most to them about the work you do to support their business objectives. The understanding of what “performance” means deserves a conversation. Maybe some of your extra hours could be better spent on different tasks – or perhaps on kayaking down the river with your friends instead of working overtime.

When You REALLY Know it’s Time to Leave Your Job

There was an article on the internet a while back about how to know when it is time to leave your job. I talked with a young professional recently who told me her friend, Shane, was thinking about quitting. Shane’s problems included:

  1. Two bosses who aren’t as smart or experienced as Shane is;
  2. A boss who could – but doesn’t – do something about the way other groups operate inefficiently and cause delays, extra work, and inefficiencies for Shane;
  3. Bosses in the company who assign work to Shane without being specific about exactly what they want, and without mentioning the other people who have related assignments; and
  4. Bosses who evaluate Shane on work and timelines he cannot control, meaning that Shane’s accomplishments go unrecognized and unappreciated.

Many people would accept those excuses as valid, but an employee who is a chronic complainer about his bosses, and who blames other groups for their “unproductive” ways of operating, could be overlooking one big opportunity. Shane could take responsibility for altering the situation.

I know it might sound unsympathetic, but it really deserves a little investigation to find out what’s going on with those 4 complaints:

  • Does Shane have a habit of being judgmental and critical of others?
  • Does he usually expect higher-ups to smooth out his relationship with other groups instead of doing it himself?
  • Would it help if he asked for more specifics when he is given an assignment, and if he asked to know who else was assigned related tasks?
  • Maybe if Shane documented his tasks-and-times he would be able to make a case for his accomplishments and also make the inefficiencies created by other groups more visible to the boss. But without being able to show specific facts, he just sounds like a whiner.

Bottom line: You know you really need to find a new job when you have genuinely practiced having more effective conversations – and when you’re sure that nothing more will make the situation any better. Learning to make good requests (performance conversations) and give good feedback to others about your work realities (closure conversations) will do more to improve the quality of your work life than blaming or complaining. Don’t give up until you’re sure you’ve done your best to communicate effectively.

Consider a visit to – this personal communication assessment tool lets you see which conversations you’re already good at, and which you could practice improving. It’s quick, and better than another day of unhappiness at work.

Unreasonable Request Saves the Class

If you find yourself in a difficult position, make an unreasonable request – you might be surprised by the result.

On Friday, April 13 I received an unreasonable request from a colleague at Benedictine University. He asked if I would come to Benedictine and teach an Executive Ph.D. course on organization change the following Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.  He apologized for the lateness of the request, but explained that due to an accident, the person scheduled to lead the class could not come.

Initially I was surprised at the request given the short notice.  But, after checking my schedule, I realized I could do it and let him know.   And it turned out to be a fabulous time with some really great people.

I share this because I have found there are times such as these when people are faced with making an unreasonable request or giving an apology, and they don’t make the request.  My colleague could have decided there was no real point in asking someone to come since it was unlikely they could on such short notice anyway.  Instead, he could have apologized to the class, explained what happened and, given the short notice, it was not practical to find a substitute; they would have been disappointed, but they would have understood.

But he didn’t do that; he made an unreasonable request.  He asked for a large result in a very short period of time from someone he knows is busy.  He didn’t let his considerations about whether the request would be accepted or not stop him from making it.  And, as it turns out, he got want he wanted.

The Missing Conversation(s)

A program director in one of the colleges here at Ohio State is paying the price for not having the appropriate conversations with his boss, the dean of the college.

Kevin, as director of programs, is responsible for admissions into the undergraduate and graduate programs in his college.  In a recent conversation, he pointed out that registrations into one of the graduate programs was down almost 40%.  If, he pointed out, he was unable to substantially increase admissions in the next several months, his college would suffer a substantial loss in revenue and potential damage to its reputation.

When asked what happened, he indicated that the marketing campaign that had been planned was never fully or completely launched because the college’s communications director was, as he said “doing other things.”  I asked if he talked with the Dean about this, and Kevin said “Yes, I met with him on a couple of occasions and explained the situation and that if we didn’t get the marketing we needed, admissions would suffer.”

“Ok,” I asked, “but did you make a specific request of the Dean to have the communication director implement the marketing plan immediately?”

“No, the Dean knows this program is a priority, so I would expect him to put in the correction,” was Kevin’s reply.

“Well, has he put in the correction?’

“Not that I can tell,” Kevin replied dejectedly.

It is easy to blame the communication director and the dean for the current admission situation.  However, doing so ignores that one or more of the four conversations were missing.  Kevin appeared to rely on conversations for understanding to get the dean to take action, but never specifically asked for what he wanted done, when, or why though a performance conversation.  This is exactly the situation depicted in this Dilbert cartoon.

Further, even if we assume Kevin made a request, that he can’t tell if the dean has acted indicates a missing closure conversation in which he follows up with the dean.  It could be that the dean is willing to take a “hit” on admissions in order to achieve some other goal, but Kevin won’t know unless and until he has a closure conversation to get the current situation complete.

The results we get are a product of the conversations we have.  When we don’t get what we want or expect, the first place to look is at our conversations to see what is missing.

To Be More Effective, Keep A Due List

I was recently asked by a manager in one of my classes what she could do to increase her credibility.  I told “Keep a Due List and follow up on it.”

Most people have some form of a “To Do” list, which lets them know the things they have to do.  But credibility and a reputation for effectiveness comes from what you deliver to others and what they deliver to you.  When we know what we have due to others, and by when, we can better schedule the work we need to do in order to successfully deliver what is required.   That is one reason we stress the importance of including “by when” in all performance conversations.  Successful delivery to others increases their trust in us and enhances our credibility and reputation.

By the same token, when we keep a Due List of what other people owe us, and by when, it allows us to effectively follow up with them in a timely manner.  Following up lets people know we really did want what we asked for and that it was important enough that we remembered both what we asked for and by when.  As a result, our credibility increases.  Following up also builds accountability as people come to learn that we will be back to have a closure conversation with them.

Credibility and accountability are built and a key to building them is to keep, and use, a “Due List”.

To Be More Effective, Give Your Boss a Deadline

One way to effectively manage a boss is to give her a deadline when she doesn’t give you one.

One of the complaints I frequently get from managers in my MBA classes is that their bosses rarely say by when they want something done.  Bosses say things like “when you get a chance”, “this week”, or “when you are done with what you are doing.”  Unfortunately, none of these is very specific and each leaves the manager open to criticism for not getting it done when the boss expects it.  As one manager put it, “I am clear of the value of giving a deadline, but my boss doesn’t and if I push him for one, he gets irritated. Any suggestions for what I should do?”

Yes, there is something you can do – give your boss a deadline.  How do you do that?  By telling her by when you will get it to her and ask if that will work.  For example, assume your boss asks something like, “I want you to prepare a summary of regional sales by product line and store and send it to me and all regional managers”, in which she doesn’t say by when she wants it.  You can reply, “Sure, I can have it done and sent out by 3PM this Friday, will that work?”  You have just given your boss a deadline.

Due dates are key ingredients in performance conversations and you can give anyone a due date even when they forget.

To Be More Effective, Stop Making Stuff Up

One way to become more effective is to work on what is real, not on what you made up.

I recently showed the daughter of a good friend around the Ohio State campus.  She is interested in going to college, so I took her around OSU so she could get a feel for the.  As we walked, she explained she was thinking of going to a community college first to build up her resume and increase her chances of getting accepted to OSU.  My response was, “That’s a good theory you’ve made up about getting accepted, but why not apply directly to OSU first?  Then, if your application is declined, ask them what you need to do to get accepted.  At least then you will be dealing with what you really need to do, not some theory you made up.”

I don’t think my friend’s daughter is any different than the rest of us.  Rather than make a request that may be declined, we make up a theory that gets us off the hook for making the request.  Students in my classes frequently tell me they have to do some particular thing before they can take a class, or participate in a program.  But when asked, “How do you know, have you talked to the professor (program director)?”, they almost always reply “No”.

Think how much more effective people could be if they had performance conversations before they took action on the stuff they make up?

Did You Ask?

The June 12th Dilbert comic strip (below) gives a good example of the difference between an understanding conversation and a performance conversation.  Dilbert, probably like many of us, assumes that explaining what is needed to someone who’s job it is to do it should be sufficient to get it accomplished.  He is wrong.  If you want people to do something for you, you really should ask them.  Dilbert learned the hard way, but you don’t have to.

Does Authority Lead to Reduced Communication?

Having authority can contribute to the very problems managers believe are solved by that authority.  Why, because when managers have authority they don’t think they need to communicate as much.  This is particularly true when managers confront threats to the successful completion of projects they are managing.

Years of research indicates that managers who have authority over resources important to subordinates (e.g., pay, job assignments, vacation time) assume they do not have to persuade or convince subordinates of their assessment of a situation.  Managers are often blind to the fact that subordinates see things from a different point of view.  According to a recent study published in Organization Science, one result of this blindness is that when managers with authority confront a threat to the successful completion of a project, they engage in fewer and less immediate (e.g., face to face) communications than managers lacking that same authority.

In reviewing the results of the study, what is particularly interesting is that when compared to their counterparts without authority, managers with authority do not engage in Understanding Conversations or use complete Performance Conversations.  The study indicates that managers with authority do not explain why a particular event is a threat, explore how it might be resolved, or address subordinates’ concerns regarding the impact changing their work to resolve the threat may have on other work (an Understanding Conversation).  Furthermore, rather than get good promises from their subordinates, they assume their subordinates will “just do it”.  Unfortunately, 72% of the time the managers’ communications regarding a threat are ineffective and their subordinates do not respond as expected, requiring additional communication.  This additional communication can result in a loss of credibility and diminish their reputation.

One conclusion from this study is that managers use authority as an excuse for reducing their communication on the assumption that their subordinates will automatically accept what they are told and act accordingly.  We know from our work with The Four Conversations, however, that there is no substitute for appropriate and complete communication.

Effective Workplace Communication Requires Using the Right Conversation

How often have you heard (or made) one of the following complaints (or some variation thereof):

  1. We have a real communication problem here.
  2. They don’t tell us anything, and when they do tell us, it’s not much.
  3. They never give us enough information.

The absence or inadequacy of communication is one of the most frequently voiced complaints in the workplace.  Perhaps the only complaint more frequently voiced is some version of “there is no leadership”.  Interestingly, the complaint is always from people on the receiving end, never on the sending end.  In fact, if you talk to leaders and managers, they are likely to tell you they are “always communicating” with people.

So, when it comes to communication in the workplace we have this interesting conundrum: leaders and managers insist they are communicating, but people on the receiving end insist they are getting no or poor communication.  Is this simply an issue of misperception?  In some cases, but misperception does not account for all of it.  In fact, my research and experience indicates that misperception accounts for very little.  The bigger factor is that managers don’t distinguish among the types of conversations they are using and whether they are using the appropriate conversations.

There are numerous articles that offer recommendations on how to improve workplace communication.  One article, for example, proposes that managers change the style, method, content, timing, and frequency of their communications.  Another article recommends such things as avoid gossiping, getting overly personal, or raising controversial subjects.  Although these recommendations all contribute to more effective workplace communication, they all ignore one simple fact – not all conversations are the same.  If managers use the wrong type of conversation, or use the right one inappropriately, getting the style, content, etc. right won’t make any difference.  They will still be ineffective.

Many people erroneously believe that understanding is the source of action.  Understanding may be necessary for action (e.g., you can’t sum a column of numbers if you don’t know addition), but it is not sufficient to get people to act (e.g., knowing how to add doesn’t mean you will tabulate the column of numbers).  A result of this belief is that considerable attention is given to trying to improve the chances people will understand our communications.  The assumption being that if people clearly understand and comprehend the communication, then they will behave in the desired manner.

Check it out for yourself.  How many times have you “explained things again” when people didn’t do what was expected?  Or how often have your heard (or said) something like “What didn’t they understand?” or “How could they not understand this?”  I have found in my work with managers that when they don’t get what they expect, their explanations frequently become longer and more detailed.  They earnestly believe that people didn’t do what was expected because they didn’t understand something.  And if the longer explanation doesn’t work, managers blame the other person for being lazy, stupid, uncommitted, incompetent, etc.  Rarely do managers consider that they may be using the wrong conversation to get what they want, or that if they are using the right conversation, they are using it inappropriately. Understanding is only one of four types of conversations used by managers.

There is only one type of conversation that reliably gets people into action and that’s a performance conversation.  Performance conversations involve making requests and getting promises.  Although there are a variety of ways (styles?) one can go about making requests and getting promises, they all boil down to asking the other person to take an action or produce a result within a specified time period.  For example, “Will you schedule a brainstorming session of our lead designers for the last week of April?”

If what you want to accomplish is people taking a specific action or producing a specific result within some time period, then the appropriate conversation to use is a performance conversation.  On the other hand, if you what you want is to inform people, develop a plan for accomplishing a goal or objective, or have them understand something, then the appropriate conversation to use is an understanding conversation.  However, if you use an understanding conversation on the assumption it will lead to people taking specific actions or producing desired results, you and the people with whom you have the conversation are likely to be very disappointed.  They will not know what actions or results you want or by when, and you will not get the actions and results you expect.

And what do you think the result of this disappointment will be?  Well, among other things, they are likely to say “We weren’t told”, “The communication wasn’t clear”, or “We weren’t given the right information.”  In other words, they will blame “poor communication”.  You, on the other hand, may say something like “I don’t get it.  I told them everything they needed.  What more do they want?”  In other words, you will say there was sufficient communication.

Sounds like the very conundrum we started with, doesn’t it?