Where Does Forgiveness Fit into Leadership?

I was in a meeting last week where several people were studying a popular topic: leadership. One person asked a question I had never heard before: “What is the role of forgiveness in leadership?

Seriously.

But as the discussion progressed, three questions came out, along with some interesting responses.

  1. Do leaders and managers need to forgive?

The word “forgive” literally means “to give as before”, i.e., prior to the time when that person or group did that bad thing or made that costly mistake. The mistake-maker did something and people are mad at him, or upset with him, or he feels embarrassed about causing problems for others. So there is some incident – caused by actions and/or communications – that requires attention to resolve and it likely needs some personal cleanup for the people affected. Fix it and forgive it.

Surely everybody needs to learn something about forgiveness. It’s a good practice to master. Why? Because stuff happens that can have negative effects on others and it’s always good to clean up the messes around us. So, leaders, being human beings, need to forgive people too.

  1. When is it appropriate for leaders to forgive someone?

Forgiveness from a leader may be appropriate when someone in, or something around, the workplace has been damaged in some way – especially if the “wrong-doer” or other people are upset about it. This applies to a broad scope of negative reactions or outcomes: Martha took offense and is pouting, or the project budget has been blown to smithereens and the project manager is frantic.

  1. What does it take to forgive someone effectively?

For a Leader-Manager in a workplace, forgiveness is implicit in the 4 parts of what we call a “Closure Conversation”:

  • Acknowledge what happened: Identify what was said or done and what the results and effects were on people, systems and projects – or whatever else was negatively impacted by the incident.
  • Appreciate the people: Even though someone did something “wrong” or “thoughtless” (etc.), people who work for you – or with you – need to be recognized as valued in some way, even if they did that dumb thing that upset people or blew the budget.
  • Apologize for any mistakes or misunderstandings: Did anybody do anything that caused – or could have partially contributed to the likelihood of that incident? It’s often best for those people to offer an apology, taking some responsibility for the situation and easing others’ guilt.
  • Amend the agreement or understanding: So, somebody (or multiple somebodies) made a mistake, they are still recognized as worthwhile people in the workplace, and apologies have been offered all around. Now, clarify how that kind of incident will be avoided or prevented in the future. What is a better course of actions and/or useful communications that will ensure more positive results?

Where is forgiveness in all that? Nowhere – it’s only there implicitly. For a Leader-Manager, those “Four A’s” above will create the conversations that close out any situation. But a Leader-Manager may also choose to explicitly forgive the wrong-doer, saying, “I forgive you” if that looks like a helpful thing to say. But those words are best offered as an accompaniment to the Four A’s, not instead of them.

Forgiveness can be a heartfelt experience, as is the need for forgiveness. If a Leader-Manager senses or sees that need, s/he should go ahead and say, “I forgive you”. Forgiveness, if it is offered, needs to be done as part of a conversation to complete all aspects of a potentially toxic situation. Heartfelt words alone won’t do the job to support effectiveness in a workplace. Fix it then forgive it.

Communicate – Don’t Accumulate

I know a guy – I’ll call him Russ – who is especially proud of the regard people have for him. He is pretty sure that he is admired, and that whoever spends time with him finds it a valuable and worthwhile experience. That is pretty much true, from my observation. People gravitate to him and he welcomes their company.

One oddity though, shows up when any of those people fail to keep the promises they have made to him – even about something as simple as refunding him for a purchase he made for them, or bringing him the book they promised to leave on his desk. The oddity is that he is unwilling to call them on it. He won’t dial their number or send an email to say, “Hey, did you send me a check for that seminar I paid for you to attend?”, or, “I thought you were going to bring me that book. When will you bring it over?”

Even when he sees them in the cafeteria or a coffee shop, he doesn’t mention it to them. Russ insists that, “It’s not worth it. What’s a couple of bucks?”

I asked him, “Don’t you get a little reminder in your brain when you see somebody who told you that they were going to do something, and they didn’t do it? How do you deal with that little nudge without mentioning that bit of unfinished business and resolving it with them?”

Russ laughed. “It’s not worth getting into it or mentioning their failure to come through. Maybe they just made a mistake. I just blow it off.” Maybe Russ would rather keep the relationship free of anything that could disturb their positive view of him. Or maybe he really thinks he can “blow it off”.

I disagree. Those little uncommunicated things are incomplete – and they accumulate over time, like barnacles on the bottom of a boat. They will be there forever in that relationship, little negative nags.

Russ is a shop owner, too, who is often is unwilling to tell his staff what he really thinks about their performance. I tried talking with him about using “closure conversations” to give useful feedback so they could improve. “No way, he said. They would only get upset, defend themselves, and offer explanations. I haven’t got time for that.”

Coincidentally, I just received a book in the mail titled, “Feedback (and Other Dirty Words)”. The subtitle is, “Why we Fear it, How to Fix it”. The author, M. Tamra Chandler, looks at the negative ideas around feedback and creates a fresh viewpoint, allowing us to reconsider feedback as providing value and being beneficial and supportive. Now I can see it as a way of getting those little negative nags out of other people’s heads as well as my own.

I can’t say how living with undelivered communications is for Russ – he doesn’t seem to mind carrying those barnacles. Maybe they don’t slow him down or crop up in his head as brain-litter, or worse. They do for me. Brain litter is a distraction that takes me away from what I’m doing, thinking or creating, and gives me a flash of annoyance to realize that it’s still there. I started, some years ago, using that flash of annoyance as a reminder to close out that incomplete item, but I still need the reminder sometimes. Those barnacles bother me, and as much as I wish they would go away by themselves, they do not.

I’m going to send a copy of “Feedback (and Other Dirty Words)” to that manager.

How Important is Appreciation as a Part of Employee Feedback?

One client, Amos, managed a group of 14 people who took the Group Workplace Assessment – with a surprising set of results. Amos had convinced me that he had “great relationships” with his staff, but those results said otherwise. Among the “Top Ten” issues identified by his staff were these 3 responses:

  1. There isn’t any follow-through on people who don’t keep their agreements or do complete work.
  2. People are seldom recognized or thanked for what they do, even when they go the extra mile to accomplish something.
  3. Some people expect someone else to motivate them or tell them what to do, which slows things down and makes it harder to get work done.

What did those responses have in common? They all point to a lack of useful feedback – specifically, to appreciating their work.

For #1, when people don’t get feedback on their work – whether to approve their results or point out a problem – they may lose confidence and start second-guessing themselves. This can begin a process of erosion in work timeliness, accuracy, or creativity. Or all three.

In #2, an expression of appreciation for the work they do is missing, meaning people are likely to lose energy and a sense of providing value to others, or to the organization. Work becomes ho-hum, and if my work doesn’t matter, it loses its purpose.

And #3 underscores the cost of too little attention and appreciation: work slows down, staff loses interest in doing a good job, and others around them will soon be infected by this “sleeping sickness”. Keeping workers energized and alert is a function of attention and appreciation.

Amos was so proud of his staff that he did not see a need to provide positive feedback. “They just keep the pace around here”, he bragged. “They don’t need to be micro-managed.” He was mad at himself for not seeing his lack of attention.

A CEO who writes 9,200 employee birthday cards a year shows, in this article, that he knows the power of positive feedback – a thank-you and special recognition from a boss will make a big difference in people’s relationship to their work. His people know they matter, and that they are making a difference on the job.

This is the power of what we call “Closure Conversations”. These conversations have 4 ingredients – the Four A’s – though not all are necessary to use in every Closure Conversation.

  • The first is Acknowledgment, stating what has happened. “Your work results are good, and you missed one thing over here. But you got the other six done completely.”
  • The second is Appreciation. “Thanks for doing it this way, because it makes our next Board meeting easier for the members and will help them to finish their year-end report.”
  • The third is Apology. “I see that I didn’t make clear the way to structure this middle section. I had expected to see it summarized as a list, not as paragraphs, so I hope you don’t mind doing a bit of cleanup. I think it will be clearer to see the big picture if you do it that way. Sorry for my lack of clarity.”
  • The fourth is to Amend the understanding of the job, which updates the work agreement as needed. “I know it will take extra time to reformat this, so let’s extend the deadline to Tuesday before our team meeting. That will leave enough time for us all, in case team members need to edit anything further before Friday.”

In a sense, all four of those items are “positive feedback”. Each one tells you that someone is paying attention to your work in a constructive way. And you know what to do with each of those A’s: recognize what others see in your work, enjoy the appreciation, accept the apology graciously, and interact with the coaching given by making amendments.

The 9,200 birthday cards is over-the-top Appreciation, although I’m sure it pays off for that CEO in people’s willingness to invest themselves. But in the case of Amos, he will be learning to use all four of the Closure Conversation elements. He says he wants effective workers on his staff, so it’s time for him to start practicing all “Four A’s”. I suggest starting with Appreciation.

NOTE: If you want to get your group’s feedback on what they see as their “workplace issues”, the Group Assessment survey will add up their responses to 56 questions while maintaining the individual privacy of people’s responses. You’ll see the results and be able to discuss how to implement the recommended communication solutions with your staff.  

Performance Management = Count the Hours Worked? Or the Results Produced?

I love reading The Economist magazine for its useful perspective on the world. Last week an article included a summary of the evolution of “performance management” at work.  Here it is:

  1. Before the industrial age, most people worked in their own farm or workshop and were paid for the amount they produced.
  2. When machines were developed and were more efficient than cottage-industry methods, factories emerged. Suddenly, workers were not paid for their output, but for their time – they were required to clock in and out.
  3. Today, work hours are still the measure, and employees have found ways to make it look like they are working longer hours than they really are. The article mentioned some tricks they play to maintain their image as a performer:
    • Leave a jacket on your office chair;
    • Walk around purposefully with a notebook or clipboard; and/or
    • Send emails at odd hours.

The name for this new phenomenon is “presenteeism”: being present but not productive. This is because, the article states, “managers, who are often no good at judging employees’ performance, use time in the office as a proxy”. Some take the shortcut of “judging” performance based on the hours worked rather than understanding the actual results produced. That decision can create a damaging idea of what workplace “performance” means.

Perform: The original meaning is “To provide thoroughly. To deliver completely, as promised.” That tells us performance is the fulfillment of a promise for an action or delivery of a product, service, or communication. It means a manager has to clarify which results, by whom, and by when – not to mention discussing resources, and identifying relevant key players. It requires thoughtful, productive communication, including a “performance conversation” in which the manager clarifies the results and timelines then gets an agreement – a promise from the employee – to deliver the intended result(s).

Performance is not determined by a judgment based on apparent work hours. It entails tracking promises for results and the results produced and delivered.  But managers who take that performance-judgment shortcut are also short-circuiting the work of management.

A “performance review” is more than checking a time clock or filling out a form. It looks at the promises made and/or revised, promises kept, and promises not kept. It is more objective than subjective, looking at what results each person (or team) actually produced.

It does take time and attention to manage performance in terms of results, so I see why some managers rely on their personal judgment instead. It’s sort of like leaving a jacket on their office chair or walking around purposefully with a notebook or clipboard. Looking busy will often be perceived as being productive.

The New World of Management

I was talking with a professor the other night and she said something I had heard a million times in my (former) career as a management consultant: “I hate managing people”, she said. “They should just do their jobs.”

That might have been a valid position back in the days when Frederick Taylor first invented workplace management. People worked on assembly lines then, putting pieces and parts together to make tools or equipment of some kind. Their “job” consisted of making the same four or five movements in a specified sequence – and that’s what they did all day long.

Today, jobs are more fluid. I had lunch today with Alina, who works in an insurance agency. We were scheduled to get together yesterday, but I got a text that morning asking to reschedule because her boss had a special project for her. Today at lunch she explained her “job” to me.

“No two days are the same,” Alina told me. “I’m often not doing what I was hired to do, and sometimes it’s frustrating. The boss sent me an email the other night, but I didn’t see it until the morning. He told me to “dress down” because I was going to be moving boxes for the construction of our new meeting rooms. It’s like that all the time, where he changes my assignments to new things. Sometimes it’s OK, but I wasn’t happy about doing the physical labor yesterday.”

I hear similar things from many younger people, saying they don’t have a well-defined job definition and need to be ready for, as one friend puts it, “Interruptions, disruptions, and people changing their minds.” A new software program, a change in meeting schedules, a special request from higher-ups: the days when people could plan and do their work seem to have dissolved into thin air.

Bottom line: management today is rarely about training people to do one simple job and then putting up with them until they retire. It’s more about having lots of productive conversations every day.

  • Propose actions to take or results to be produced. (Initiative conversation)
  • Discuss the actions or results so the people – the “performers” – are clear about who does what, how it could or should be done, and where the resources will come from, where the work will be done and where the results will be delivered. (Understanding conversations)
  • Make requests and make promises to establish agreements with all the “performers” regarding what each will do or produce, when it will be done or delivered, and why it is important. (Performance conversations)
  • Follow up to confirm whether the agreements were kept, and, if not, identify what happened and how the failure(s) can be remedied. (Closure conversations)

This is not Fred Taylor’s kind of management. And it’s not about “managing people” anymore. It’s about managing people’s agreements for taking actions and producing results. That means the manager is a communicator – not in order to motivate people, but to get clear on the job for today, or for this afternoon, or for that phone call at 2:15. Being a manager means you work with people to clarify the jobs to be done and get people’s agreement that they will do it. Every day.

If you’re a manager, it’s probably smart to get really good at this, because you’ll be doing it all day long for the rest of your career.

Communication – One Way to Get Unstuck

I overheard a woman in line at the Post Office this morning, griping to her friend about her landlord and the way he maintained her apartment building . It was a long line, and she kept going for almost 10 minutes about what was wrong with everything about where she lived, including at least two of her neighbors and their children. She reminded me of a man who worked with a hospital client I once had – I’ll call him Daryl – who seemed unhappy about his job and his co-workers. He barely spoke to many of them and was sometimes unfriendly.

That’s what I call being “stuck”. When someone is talking about some aspect of their life, whether it’s work, or family, or money – or anything else – if they keep saying the same kind of bad-news things every day, then maybe they’re stuck. We’ve all been there. But what gets us out of it? I learned something about how to do that from a senior manager at the hospital. Her name was Sharon, and she decided to take on Daryl.

Sharon was a hospital psychiatric nurse, but insisted she would not “use psychology” on Daryl. “I just wanted him to stop being such a drag, and to change the way he talked about his job and his colleagues”, she told me. “So one day I sat him down and asked him three questions.” Here they are:

  1. What is your real complaint here? Maybe you can’t find the job you want, or the people you’d like to work with. But under all that complaining, or being angry, what are you really upset about?
  2. Who plays a major role in that matter, someone who is a key part of your unhappy situation?
  3. When will you talk with that person to find a new way of dealing with this, maybe redefining your perspective or even finding a way to move forward into a happier situation.

Sharon said Daryl was willing to talk with her, as long as she promised to keep it confidential. When she asked question #1, he blurted out that when he was hired, he had expected to work in the technical part of the IT department, not the customer service part. “I don’t like working with all the people in the administration to get their problems solved”, Daryl said. “I want to do the work of solving their problem after somebody else has worked with them to get clear on what that problem is.  I want to do the the programming and hardware fixes. People like you should do the people-work.”

Sharon smiled, then gave him question #2. Daryl answered, saying, “The department manager doesn’t seem to recognize that some of us are pure techs, and some of us are good with helping people understand their tech problems. He doesn’t see the difference.”

“Good point”, Sharon told him. “Now question #3?” Daryl wasn’t so quick to answer this one. Sharon explained that when someone doesn’t see things the way you see them, it might be a good idea to have a conversation to discuss what each of you is seeing.

“You’re unhappy, Daryl,” Sharon said. “This is about getting yourself freed up to be yourself, to enjoy where you are. Or to move on. So, question #3: When will you talk to the head of IT about the difference between “pure techs” and tech service people?”

Daryl needed a little more nudging, but he ultimately did have the conversation. Two weeks later, he hadn’t resolved everything – he was still considering getting a new position someplace else – but the IT manager had begun working with HR to talk with IT team leaders about the differences Daryl saw in staff roles. I could see the difference in Daryl, though. He looked more relaxed, and more like a grownup than an angry little kid.

Sharon said she used a rule she learned in college: “When you’re feeling hate, don’t wait – communicate.” Could be a good recipe for getting unstuck.

For example, using a couple of the four productive conversations did the job for Daryl. Initiative conversations are useful to propose an idea, or a goal, or a conversational topic. Understanding conversations are dialogues for comparing perspectives with others and to create new ways of seeing and operating. Daryl suggested the conversation to the IT manager, and they compared ideas. It changed his relationship to his job.

Breaking News: Accountability Can Be Killed by Vocabulary

I learned something this week: accountability isn’t just a matter of the conversations we use. It can also be ruined by the words we use.  Wow.

My “conversations” theory – which is still valid, by the way – is that Accountability is strengthened by conversations that (1) establish agreements and (2) follow up on those agreements. Let’s say we have a (performance) conversation, in which I agree to bring some boxes over to your place so that you can pack up your antique toy cars and take them to an auction. We agree that I’ll deliver them Tuesday morning.

Depending on how reliable I’ve been with past promises, you might assume I will keep my word and not bother to follow up with a second conversation. Or, maybe you’ll decide to call me Monday evening and ask, “Are we still on for you bringing those boxes over tomorrow morning?” Or, if I didn’t get them to you on Tuesday morning, you would likely call me and ask where those boxes are. Either one of those would be a closure conversation.

Accountability begins with performance conversations: a request plus a promise makes an agreement. Then accountability is completed with a closure conversation: Was the agreement kept? Do we need a new agreement? Did something unexpected happen that needs to be dealt with?

This week, however, I saw a demonstration of what I will now call “Accountability Prevention”. A woman, let’s call her Millie, worked at a moving company and was responsible for coordinating the delivery of my sister’s belongings to her new home. Millie said the delivery date would be no later than July 9th.  On July 9th, my sister texted Millie, saying, “What time will my things be delivered?” Here are some of the statements she got back from Millie over the next 8 hours:

  • I’m trying to reach the driver.
  • I tried calling you and got a busy signal.
  • The driver tried to load your shipment from the warehouse, but he was unable to do it because of a miscommunication.
  • The local agency has been trying to get the containers, but they haven’t arrived yet.
  • I will try calling you again after my meeting this morning.

You notice the word try?  That word was used rather than making a promise, which would have sounded more like, “I will call the driver and get back to you within an hour.” Or, I will call you at ten this morning.” Or, “I will see that the warehouse releases your containers to the driver and let you know your expected arrival time.”

My sister noticed that Millie was really “trying” – in every sense of the word – rather than committing to something specific. Unfortunately, my sister – an executive at heart – has little sympathy for people who are “trying” rather than performing. Now our radar is now out for the try word, because if we let it stay in any conversation we’re having it will block access to creating an agreement. Without agreements, and the follow-up they make possible, there is no accountability. Sometimes it is best not to try.

How to Handle Lateness – It’s Everywhere!

Projects are late. Promises aren’t kept. Schedules are tweaked or ignored. We human beings are pretty bad at starting and ending our tasks on time, no matter how much planning we do.

A good article-plus-podcast Why We’re Late explains the causes. One is that lateness is due to the “planning fallacy” – our estimates of how long a task or project will take is often too optimistic. We don’t plan for all the possible interruptions we might encounter – after all, as the article said, we plan to succeed, not to fail. Two other contributors to lateness are:

  1. On big complex projects, we often forget to plan for the coordination required to pull various aspects of the project together.
  2. On a more personal level, we forget that humans aren’t very good at “impulse control”, meaning we procrastinate because we do what we want to do at the moment, instead of sticking to our scheduled plan. Like, I’m going to check my email for a minute first? Yeah, sure, and half an hour later I’m into a whole other mini-project. We humans are pretty distractible!

Solutions? They mention software that helps project team members see what other players are responsible for, and how project parts are related by schedules and dependencies. They suggest tracking your performance – get data on what takes a project off-course or distracts you personally from getting a task done. And also, of course, using that data to improve your time estimates.

Lateness is everywhere. People are late to meetings. Managers give assignments without a specific deadline, often over-using the word “priority” as if that will make things go faster. And when an assignment is turned in late, nobody says, “This is three days overdue.” We let it go.

Communication can shift the lateness habits of a work group. Performance Conversations and Closure Conversations help give more attention to timelines, including follow-up on whether deadlines were met.

  • Alex says, “I’d like to present this policy brief at the Board Meeting on Tuesday. Can you get the references needed, collect comments from the other three Advisors, and include the changes they suggest? I would need that finished by Friday close of business.”
  • Justin says, “Sure, I can do that. Send it over to me.”
  • Alex confirms that they have an agreement: “You promise you have time for this? I don’t want to be scrambling to pull things together on Monday.”
  • Justin: “Yep. Consider it done.”

So, a request from Alex + a promise from Justin = an agreement. Performance Conversation complete.

  • Justin, on Friday at 5:45, says, “Sorry, but one of the Advisors hasn’t responded yet. I’ve sent you the update using comments from the other two, but don’t know if that’s enough.”
  • Alex says, “Thanks, I’ll look at it over the weekend. But, FYI, close of business means 5:00 PM, not 5:45, so I was wondering whether you were going to deliver. I say this because I want all of us to pay more attention to keeping time agreements. I’ll talk with Advisor #3 this weekend about that too. Sorry I didn’t make it clearer before. And, despite being picky about timing, I really appreciate that you’ve made it possible for me to review this and plan my Board presentation over the weekend. Thank you very much.”

Closure Conversation complete. Bringing all “four A’s” into a conversation is powerful:

  • Acknowledge the facts of the situation – what happened and why it matters;
  • Appreciate the people – recognize the value of their effort and contribution;
  • Apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings – cleanup improves trust; and
  • Amend broken agreements – set up for a future where agreements can be honored.

The article pointed out there is data going back more than 100 years showing that at least 80% of projects have cost and/or time over-runs. Making clear agreements, and communicating with people about the success and failure of those agreements, can shift the communication habits of a work group to support being on time.

Preventing Change Fatigue: Burnout is Expensive – Communication is Not

When I first met the Supervisors at WaterCo, maintaining water lines in a Midwestern city, I was a “change consultant” hired to help them adapt to new regulations and to improve productivity. Those Supervisors were not happy to meet me: I was a consultant, and female, and they didn’t want anybody to “fix” them. That’s sometimes called “resistance to change”.

But I brought food to our meetings (very helpful!) and used my network approach to understand their work. We made circles and arrows on the whiteboard, identifying all the individuals and groups they interacted with at least once a week. They soon saw their work in a whole new way and forgave me for being a “girl consultant”. We all decided which changes would be most useful, and we implemented them together.

But the most important lesson I learned was why they were so “resistant” at that first meeting. They had been doing change projects – what they called “Churn & Burn” – for three years. One man explained it to me.

“We’ve been doing changes for so long that nobody really knows what their job is anymore,” Hank said. “We used to have routines. Now and then we’d make some improvements or get new equipment we had to learn about. But these days we get a new thing to change all the time, like our work processes, our assignments, or who we can and can’t talk to.”  He rolled his eyes, and I could tell he wasn’t interested in improving productivity – or anything else.

“Let’s look back over the last year,” I said to the whole group at that meeting. “I have 3 questions for you. (1) What was the last big change you guys made? (2) What were the results of that change?  And, (3) What did you do when it was complete?”

They looked at me as if I was talking Martian. Hank finally spoke up, saying, “The biggest change was when our crews were downsized from five men to four,” Hank said. “The result was we started using only one truck for over half our jobs, instead of two. I guess that saved money for the company. I know it saved some time for us, since we could get to our jobs faster. Also, different crew trucks had different equipment, so we went to the jobs that needed only what we were carrying – we didn’t have to take everything to every job site.”

“But it was never complete, never over,” he said. “Or at least they never said anything about that. They just told us to change the crew size, gave us three equipment lists to stock our trucks for different jobs, and went on to the next thing. We do the “Churn & Burn” dance these days – I guess that’s our new job description.”  They explained that the “churn” part of the dance was the endless instruction to modify a process, start or stop doing something, and use new forms for job reports or equipment requests. The “burn” part was that more people were leaving for other jobs – the Supervisors were losing experienced people and spending more time training new hires.

Bottom line: I met with the COO and got the statistics on the results of the change – dollars saved, job backlogs reduced, customer satisfaction improved. Then I asked him to come tell the Supervisors about the value of that last big change, and to thank them for all they did to implement it successfully. Surprise! The men appreciated it, and were able to work with me on ways to improve their productivity. They had ideas for what might work and how to do it!

So, it looks like a genuine “thank you”, supported by a little data, can turn change-resistant people who are doing the “Churn & Burn dance” into a team with a recognized accomplishment: they had made a difference for their company. A closure conversation – reviewing the status of a project with the people involved – goes a long way to curing “change fatigue” and restoring people to action. That COO learned the lesson too. Now he has monthly “change debrief” meetings now, with lots of statistics and lots of thank-you’s.

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.