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.

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.