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 2. Reconsider Those 1:1 Meetings

My last post was about how to “stop managing people” by focusing on managing agreements with people instead of the people themselves. Two different worlds: people are human, and agreements are communications. You can manage the communications.

Then I talked to Markus, and he told me another way managers focus on people: One-to-One meetings, or 1:1 meetings. “Managers complain they don’t have good teamwork,” Markus said, “and then they focus on individuals by meeting with them alone, apart from their team members. Don’t they see what they’re emphasizing by doing that?”

Good point. The 1:1 meeting is necessary for hiring new people, or placing current employees into new positions within the organization. And 1:1 meetings are also useful for traditional “performance reviews”: the annual reflection on what happened and where things are going with an individual.

But 1:1 meetings are not for ongoing “performance management”. Here’s why. Hiring or re-positioning employee requires matching an organization’s skills and capabilities with the organization’s strategic and operational needs.  The 1:1 manager-to-individual meetings for hiring or re-positioning a person are likely to include discussion about the person’s skills, what kind of work they like, and where they want to go in their career and development. That’s fine: this conversation is about the person, which is personal.

But performance is a whole other idea: the root of the word “perform” is “to deliver thoroughly”. So, it’s applied to people who are already in position, who have agreements to deliver some product, service, and/or communication – and who are going about their job of delivering products, services, and communications that will satisfy those agreements. In that world, we measure performance by whether the agreement was fulfilled. It’s not about the person, it’s about delivering per agreements.

Let’s say that you’re my Manager and I have an agreement to give you a summary report every Friday morning, showing the status of my week’s sales calls: who I called on, and when; how long we talked; what results were produced in terms of dollars, service agreements, and product purchases; and what next steps we have agreed to take with a by-when for each one.

When I give you the report, you can see what I delivered this past week. Our agreement was that I would get at least 14 sales calls completed, bring in a certain dollar amount, and close three new service agreements. Did I do that?

  • If so, I delivered thoroughly – 100% performance to agreement.
  • If I did 80% of what I agreed to deliver, then my delivery-performance is 80%.
  • Or maybe it’s 150% on the dollars-produced agreement, but only 20% on product purchases.
  • Or, what if I don’t bring you that report at all? Or, what if you discover that I have misrepresented my actions and results on that report in some way?

Whatever the results, this view of performance is good information to have: where I’m a high-performer (sales dollars) and where I’m not (selling products), and whether I can be counted on to deliver on our agreed performance deliveries thoroughly. But it’s not just good for you to know, it’s good for the whole team to know. Those agreements aren’t private between you and me – they are part of our team’s work, and should be visible to all of us so we can support one another and learn how to do better.

I’ll let Markus weigh in here: “I have three teams to manage, and each one has between 6 and 10 people in it. My meetings are never 1:1, except when I have a Problem Child. I work with the group and we decide: what do we need to deliver, to whom, and when? Plus, what do we want out of doing that, and what do we need in order to make it happen? We decide as a team which of us will do what, and then we hear the results as a team. We all learn how to do better next week.”

I’m with Markus on this. Ultimately, the Manager’s job is to work with their team(s) to define the work to do next – preferably as “delivery” rather than “doing” – then ensure that good agreements are established to produce all intended results and that “delivery performance” is tracked for each of those agreements. This is more work than many managers do, but it also improves performance all around. Markus says it also saves him from costly performance “mistakes” and avoids the annoyance of his having to micro-manage things. Who doesn’t want that?

Productive Communication Works!

My first email to Kelly began, “You sat in the back row of the program I led in your hospital last week, and I wondered if you have used any of “The Four Conversations” to solve your budget problem.”

It had been a day-long training, reserved for only manager-level people because the VPs probably wanted their underlings to speak freely about their work lives. We used the last part of the day to talk about “special problems”, where some participants revealed their biggest workplace challenge and the rest of us suggested which conversation(s) might help improve the situation.

Judging by the reaction of the crowd, the most interesting problem was Kelly’s. She wanted to get her team’s portion of a Departmental budget transferred to her direct control. As soon as she said that, about half the room gasped and turned to look at her. Then they burst into applause!

It was so great that she saw the program as an opportunity to take charge of this issue for her team, and not wait passively for someone else to handle it. She gave very few details, but she didn’t need to – the whole room (except for me) knew who the key players were and how risky it seemed to talk to the VP involved. I didn’t even ask her which Department, or why her team needed this. But Kelly was obviously sincere about giving her team members a greater role in implementing decisions they saw as important to fulfill the hospital’s mission: health and wellness service quality, affordability, and compassionate care.

“I’d love an update on what you learned, and who you talked with about this,” I wrote, “plus, of course, whether you’re succeeding in getting the budget authority transferred to you.”

Kelly responded promptly, saying, “The day after the program, I scripted out a Closure Conversation and made a request to set up a new agreement. Here’s the 3 things I said”:

  1. “Adam, you were going to transfer my team budget to me by the end of last month, but I don’t see it on my system yet.” (Kelly acknowledging the factual status of the matter)
  2. “I know you are busy with a million things, and I need your expertise in getting this done properly.” (Kelly appreciating the man who is responsible for making budget transfers)
  3. “Please let me know if you can make the transfer before next Wednesday, and whether you need any other information from me or my team members on our plans for implementing the AXIS system.” (Kelly requesting a new timeline for the transfer)

She concluded her email with, “Adam has already created a cost center and will transfer the budget tomorrow morning!”

A week later, she emailed, “I actually have a quite a few other places where I am practicing the use of these conversations. My team is heading into a strategic planning process and yesterday we had a huddle. I started by restating the invitation (my Initiative conversation), then we spent 20 minutes in an Understanding conversation about the steps we needed and how long each one would take. I closed with a Performance conversation, asking them if they will be attending and participating in all three strategic planning sessions we scheduled. Everyone agreed to be in the game. Thanks for your support on all this!”

Thank you, Kelly, for making things happen in your workplace. It’s so much more powerful than being resigned to waiting, or complaining about “other people” who didn’t do what they said. Productive communication doesn’t require authority, influence, or motivation. Amazing what you can accomplish with straight talk, isn’t it?

Maybe It’s Not Them – Maybe It’s You.

“Morale seems to be dropping around here. It’s the millennials – they have no work ethic.” That was Molly’s explanation for her biggest workplace problem. She manages a department of 14 people, and wasn’t getting the kind of positive participation she expected from them.

“I tell them what we need, what to do, what results to produce, but they seem to be slowing down, not speeding up”, she complained. “They should be more productive to help get this company more competitive. A little enthusiasm would be nice too!”

After Molly mentioned getting the company more competitive, I asked if she talked to her people about her vision or that goal. “Not really,” she said. “They should know we’re not in this business for fun – we’re here to have the company be successful.”

This was not a problem of Molly making unclear requests, or failing to explain what to do. It was bigger than that: the people in Molly’s department did not connect their work assignments to the larger vision of business success. We talked about how to get people related to the “big picture” of their work. Here’s the 3-step solution we created together:

  1. Call a department meeting to talk about the company – the organization as a whole. What is the company’s mission? What is the vision for a successful business? Molly got some documents that talked about those things and made up a list of what she called “Five Big Ideas” for discussion: the market, customer profiles, competitors, sales, and local business rankings.
  2. Write the list on the board, read it aloud, and ask people to talk about where they see these things in their daily work and what they mean to them. Invite questions and comments from everyone, and take notes on the board – visible to all – whenever new ideas or definitions are introduced.
  3. Save the last half-hour of the meeting to ask the group three questions:  First, how would you change your work habits in light of this conversation?  Second, is there a particular “Big Idea” you think is most important?  Third, in what ways would you like to continue this conversation?

The meeting started off slowly, maybe because people were shy, or because the subject was unfamiliar. It picked up, though, and Molly was amazed at what the meeting ultimately produced. Their energy grew as they talked – they were learning more about the business they were in, and they were learning about each other in a new way as well. Then the group chose two of the “Five Big Ideas” as being particularly important to them: customer profiles and local business rankings. People wanted to see more data on those two areas, and to understand how they were measured. They talked about what their department could do to make improvements in those areas.

The group had several more meetings about these ideas, looking at ways to see how they were impacting “big picture” results that benefited the company. They also agreed to track and review those impacts every time the statistics were available, and to add a new topic to their weekly staff meeting: all new assignments would be associated with some aspect of improving “big picture” business success.

Molly gave up her complaint about millennials. “I really did think they were lazy,” she confessed. “I’ve been here eleven years, and I assumed that everybody in this department knows our business goals and connects them to their work. Now I see that part of my job is to engage people in talking about how we can be more successful – and checking to see how well we are doing at that.”

“It wasn’t a problem of them losing energy. It was me – I was not keeping their fires lit”, Molly said.  Management lesson learned.

Lack of Integrity – It’s a Loose Connection, Right?

I have a nodding acquaintance – I’ll call her Liza – who says things like, “I’ll get back to you on that this week”; and “I will ask Nate to call you tomorrow;” and “I’ll text you about dinner plans.” Then nothing happens: she doesn’t deliver. Her mouth is not connected to her brain. It’s not connected to her Do-Due List or her Calendar either. Or maybe she doesn’t have a Do-Due List or a Calendar to help keep her brain connected to her word.

Liza is not somebody I interact with – she belongs to a colleague of mine. I wouldn’t put up with it. After the 2nd time she failed to do what she said, I’d have to say, “The last two times you told me you would do something like that, you didn’t deliver. You kept me waiting and expecting, and now I don’t trust that you will remember your promises.” She would be upset, maybe, but at least we could stop pretending that she cares about keeping her word.

I hear about Liza from my colleague, who doesn’t want to cause a conflict, or create bad feelings. So, it’s better to put up with someone whose word is meaningless and just keep letting her get away with it? No thanks.

Connecting my word to my behavior is on my mind because we are moving – downsizing to a smaller home in another state – and there’s a lot to handle. I am using those two tools (a Do-Due List and a Calendar) to manage our transition. The individuals in my ever-changing set of Outlook contacts are of many types and flavors, and I want to say proper Goodbyes, Hellos, and other conversations that honor their value to me. Same with organizations: cancel memberships, stop payments, open new accounts, etc.

I keep my Do-Due List on a journalist’s notepad. When a page gets too messy to read, I copy the still-undone To-Do’s and Due-To’s onto a fresh page and toss the old one. The Calendar is a printout of our 3-month transition schedule; one of those months is now gone. If it gets too messy with blue-inked notes and red-inked stars, I’ll just reprint it.

These documents help me avoid overtaxing my memory, and possibly create chaos or hurt feelings or wasted time and effort. Out integrity is costly – at work, at home, and among friends. If I connect my promises (the agreements I make with others) to my Do-Due List and my Calendar, then people won’t roll their eyes when I tell them I’ll do something. And they won’t say what people say about Liza: her word is worthless.

Ouch! I’m going to review my Do-Due List and Calendar right now to be sure it’s up to date!

It’s Valentines Day – But What do You Do When You Hate Someone at Work?

A good friend – let’s call her Katy – shared with a group of us the other evening that there’s a woman she works with who is “awful”. She didn’t go into details, but said she was unwilling to even have a conversation with “Cruella” to clean up the bad vibes. And Katy said, “There’s a lot of other people at work who agree with me about her.” Uh oh.

So not only does she dislike this lady, but she is participating in gossip about her, gathering evidence about what a horrid person she is. I don’t know whether Cruella is incompetent, or wacko, or just plain mean, but I do know there is a cycle of misery in that workplace: Katy and the haters aren’t happy, and Cruella can’t be too pleased either. What can turn this cycle around?

Some of us suggested using one of the 4 ingredients in a Closure Conversation, i.e., one of the “4 A’s”:

  • Acknowledge the facts of the matter;
  • Appreciate them for what they have contributed;
  • Apologize for any mistakes or misunderstandings; and/or
  • Amend any broken agreements.

Katy could probably have used any one of these “A’s”, but I didn’t think she would. She seemed pretty dug into her position that this was a hopelessly unpleasant situation. In fact, she was hoping Cruella would lose her job soon. And she was working on a personal project to “take back her power”, and to get healthier (she had a nasty cough that night). So there.

Then a note landed in my email. It was addressed to everyone who was in the discussion the other night:

All,

Today I took some ground in my “taking back my power” project. I acknowledged the co-worker I told you about for the success of the project she has been managing. Yes, I did go talk to her! I pointed out several specific accomplishments of the project – the number of people reached, the materials and services provided to our community, and the huge impact we are having by delivering on the promises of our mission.

She said, “I couldn’t have done it without my team.” But I wouldn’t let her deflect the acknowledgment.  I said, “Yes, and you are the one who managed it.”

She was very guarded when I first approached her, as one would expect, but she was genuinely grateful for the acknowledgement. She said thank you. I will keep looking for other ways to acknowledge her.

Katy

Wow! That’s better than a Valentine, right? I’m betting this will change the atmosphere at work – for Katy, the other gossipers, and, especially, for Cruella. Plus, it probably also improved Katy’s health – is that cough is gone yet?

Gossip is a killer (see the 1/23/2017 blogpost) and damages workplace integrity along with reputations (everybody’s). It was great to see such a perfect example of someone who was swept up in a stab-fest take charge of the cleanup and rehabilitation of those involved. I predict good things here.

Last word from Katy: “Thank you for your much needed “gentle” nudge – aka – kick in the butt.” Last word from me: “That’s what friends are for.”

Change Champions: Commitment, Respect, and… Closure   

Intentional change requires a goal, a schedule, and at least one success measure. But change is still a challenge, whether it is a big reorganization or a small change to one little practice or habit. Just like New Year’s resolutions, we often rely only on creating a solid plan for success. News flash: that is not enough.

You – as an executive, a consultant, or an individual with a goal – need a Change Champion, sometimes called a “committed listener”. You need someone who agrees to having regular “closure conversations” to track the pace and direction of a proposed change. This person understands the goal, the schedule, and the success measure(s), and is committed to a successful outcome.

In organizations, the rule is that an effective Change Champion must have – or cultivate – genuine respect in every area of the organization that is affected by the change. Organizational Change Champions are willing to track the progress of a change – sometimes in partnership with a change-implementation consultant – and to see it through to the end. One consultant I know held a meeting with the 4 executives developing a change plan, but none of them wanted to be “hands-on” for the implementation. The consultant told them he would have to meet with them once a week throughout the whole 12-week change timeline. They agreed, reluctantly, but admitted at the end that those meetings were key to the change’s success.

Another consultant met with managers and supervisors in each area affected by the change and asked them where organizational changes had gone wrong in the past. She took their lists of pitfalls and communication breakdowns back to the senior managers and, after reviewing it, they chose one person as their best candidate for Change Champion. This gave the consultant a partner, someone to review the change’s progress and to make course-corrections as needed.

To make a personal change, your Change Champion needs to be someone you respect – someone who will listen to, and care about, your promise for change, and someone you don’t want to disappoint. This gives you a partner in checking progress, a resource for advice and guidance, and perhaps someone who can provide direct assistance. A friend of mine told the leader of her fitness class that she wanted to trim up her waist but couldn’t afford a personal trainer. The class leader became her “committed listener” and gave her extra advice during and after classes until she reached her goal.

Whether organizational or personal, effective change requires regular “closure conversations” – scheduled talks with a Change Champion – to check on where things stand with respect to the goal, the planned schedule, and the measure(s) for success. Because, after all, without a conversation for real-time tracking, you aren’t giving your own commitment the respect and attention it deserves.

Start 2017 with an enhanced ability to produce results by taking The Four Conversations online course. Specially priced in January for just $29.99 (usually $79.99). Purchase it today.

Ring Out the Old. Ring in the New.

Three people have now told me they are clearing out quite a few “unnecessaries” from their Outlook contacts and Facebook friends list. Interestingly, they have all attributed this purging to the “changing times”, especially visible in the last few months. I didn’t pick up any signs that this downsizing of friends and acquaintances is a product of fear or anger. A few quotes from these conversations suggest they are interested in making more substantive changes in the quality of their lives:

  • “My in-box had too much politics and disagreement for me,” Dan reported. “I have real work to do, plus I have a couple of charity projects that matter to me. Some of the emails I’ve been getting are asking me to join protests or movements that I don’t have time for. And frankly, some of them seem just mean or self-righteous. Count me out – I don’t want to be that kind of person!”
  • “I was caught up in getting a bigger set of friends,” Eva said. “I thought having a large Facebook group would show that I was popular and had influence. But I don’t like what I am seeing on my Home-feed page, where everybody who is in my circle gets to post their thoughts. Some of their comments embarrass me, and I don’t want my real friends to think those people speak for me.”
  • “All the turbulence in this last election cycle has been ugly,” Kim told me. “I just feel it’s time to do some housekeeping and clean up my circles of friends, associates, and acquaintances. If I delete the connections to people who are doing the most whining, criticizing, or arguing, it will make room for something new in my life. Like maybe, more positive conversations and more personal peace.”

Perhaps a little “un-friending” can be useful, to rearrange who we interact with and to give ourselves a more purposefully designed set of relationships.

Another friend mentioned that he was changing the media he reads. “I found an article that included a Media Quality Chart,” Alex said, “and when I clicked on the chart, I studied it for about 15 minutes. Then I decided it was time to update the kind of media I was looking at every day. I want a bigger picture of what’s happening. I want to know what is true and what is fake. And I don’t want so much drama in my life – the sob stories and fear-based news headlines are confusing and can be exhausting.”

It sounds like some advice I got from a wardrobe consultant once: “If you want a new silk jacket, you sometimes have to toss out an old polyester one.” Embarrassingly, she also took a suede shirt of mine out of my closet, held it up high in front of me and said, very slowly and deliberately, “This is not where you are going.”

There’s a kernel of truth in those ideas. It’s okay to get rid of things – and relationships – that no longer reflect who we want to be or where we want to go. Eliminating what we do not need might just create a space for something more true to our commitments and aspirations. Bring in the new!

Supervisors: Neglected Knights of the Organization?

Pity the poor Supervisor. They don’t get invited to meetings of the Management Team. But they aren’t seen as completely trustworthy by the people they supervise, either – even if they had worked together with them for many years before moving up the hierarchy.

When someone leaves the “front-line” level of employees and moves up to the Supervisor level, they may also cross a line of confidence. From below, the Supervisor is perceived as having moved up to “management”, and presumed to be in cahoots with that “enemy of labor”. From above, the Supervisor is like a Medieval Knight – someone responsible for keeping the rowdy masses in line and paying attention to their jobs.

One client – Shirley – has found what I suspect will prove to be a good support structure for her Supervisors. She is setting up a monthly Supervisor’s Round Table to discuss the issues they learned about from the Organization Analyst’s Assessment she sponsored for her organization a few months ago. These Supervisors oversee the Front-Line staff, and this version of the communication assessment lets them see which issues are unique to that group. The “Big Three” communication issues for their Front-Line staff were:

  1. Equipment or systems are outdated, and/or some materials and supplies are insufficient.
  2. Changes are implemented without discussing them with the people whose jobs will be affected by the change.
  3. There are significant differences in the quality of work people do.

Since they got those Workplace Communication Assessment results, Shirley arranged for a half-day session where the Supervisors and Front-Line employees together reviewed the results and discussed the issues that were their biggest barriers. They also learned about which of the four conversations would help them address those issues. Interestingly, each of those issues calls for getting more practice in using “Closure Conversations” more effectively.

The plan for the first meeting of the Supervisors Round Table is to review the list of issues that were reported most often, and see if they are still big problems in their departments, or whether some of them have shrunk a bit. Shirley will facilitate the meeting, bringing copies of the Issues List and supporting the discussion. Subsequent meetings will have the Supervisors review their issues – and solutions – as a group, and develop ideas for solving whatever remaining issues they see. They also may host a follow-up Workplace Communication Assessment after a few more months to see what issues have moved up to take over the “Big Three” positions.

The biggest payoff for these meetings is not solving problems, but doing it together as a group of people who hold similar positions in their organization. They each have somewhat different responsibilities, due to the different circumstances and personnel in their areas. But being able to talk about their challenges is definitely the best benefit from their regular get-togethers to share and compare. Imagine: what if Supervisors weren’t the “neglected middle” employees, and had their own group to meet with? They could become a force to be reckoned with!

A Non-Apology is Not a Closure Conversation

A new conversation is now officially open: When is an apology an actual apology? The answer: When it creates a sense of closure for all involved. This week’s most famous non-apology failed that test.

“I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize,” he said. Why isn’t that an apology?

Because he did not say exactly what he was “wrong” about. His statement sort of referred to “whatever” it was that he had said, which he later clarified as “locker room talk”. So he apologized for his locker room talk – is that an apology?

Not yet, because he didn’t say to whom he was apologizing. To the audience? To the people who listened to the tape, or read about it? To all woman-kind? To Americans, for causing an international embarrassment? Not clear.

One other misdemeanor was his follow-up: “That was locker room talk,” he said a few minutes later. “And certainly I’m not proud of it, but that was something that happened.”

Something that happened? There’s no ownership there – it just happened, it’s in the past for heaven’s sake, and that’s that.

There has been some discussion about the need for “contrition” and insistence that the word “sorry” must be included in an apology. I’m not sure we need to see any kind of atonement, or that a certain vocabulary is required.

When you can say exactly what mistake you made, and own it completely that you did it – it didn’t “just happen” – and apologize to those who were affected by it, you can add whatever extras are true for you, including making a promise not to do it again or offering reparations to those who are hurt in some way.

But the basics are:   Apology = For what + To whom + Personal ownership.

“I was wrong and I apologize” isn’t a Closure Conversation because it isn’t enough to create closure. I know that because this non-apology happened several days ago and it’s still making headlines, still moving people from one voting line to the other, and still a topic of discussion at the coffee shop. And I know that because I was just there and I overheard it. Case closed.