Sometimes, our thinking is so governed by habit – a mental checkbox list that we take comfort from – that it takes an unexpected reminder to sharpen our view. The otherwise inscrutably plotted Norwegian crime drama, Mammon (currently showing on Channel 4) provided such a moment in Episode 4. The widow of a mysterious suicide, having been threatened by gangsters who tried to blow her up in a remote cabin, reminded us that the really scared people here were not her and her journalist accomplice but the gangsters. After all, people who are entirely relaxed about things don’t, by and large, arm themselves to the teeth and commit multiple murders, but conditioning tell us that it’s the people running away from them who are the more frightened.
Working life for most of us is, thankfully, less melodramatic, but pre-conditioned thinking is still rife – if usually not as (literally) fatal. The weapons pointed at us are almost always verbal, although they can still be debilitating. But one recent example of verbal aggression I did rather like – a LinkedIn article by Tim Winner, Director Of People at Metal Toad Media called simply Checklists don’t solve problems …People do. Here’s how it starts:
For the life of me I don’t know why we don’t come up with a checklist to end world hungry [sic], poverty or racism, because so many companies think that checklists and people checking them will fix all their problems. Now of course I’m being sarcastic, but the desire to throw in another list or audit to ensure results or a desired behavior is all too common. The logic is flawed: Checklists are only as effective as the people checking them.”
I suspect Mr Winner is probably best characterised as ‘concerned’ rather than ‘scared’: he’s capable of more than simply wounding, as he goes on to prove:
My point is that a checklist or audit is a tool and cannot replace solid leadership, training and development, as well as sound hiring practices.”
It’s a point that bears repeating when it comes to the actual theme of this post: that improving performance is best achieved not by managing performance but by leading it. Leading performance should be:
- Effective – it should ensure people have the knowledge and ability to perform
- Strategic – it is about broader issues and longer-term goals
- Integrated – it should link various aspects of the business, people management, and individuals and teams.
What it is not is a checkbox exercise that is performed simply to fulfil the needs of a training budget or a performance pay policy. At its best, it is a tool to ensure that leaders manage the people they are responsible for effectively and that they do so in line with organisational objectives and goals. At its worst, however, it is precisely what Mr Winner is taking aim at: a tick box list.
Leading performance is more a culture than a process or a procedure: when it becomes a periodic event that everyone feels compelled to go through, it is hardly surprising that it creates neither improved performance (be it individual or organisational) nor a positive and constructive environment. “Oh, must I?” is not a thought that precedes anyone’s finest contribution.
Yet when we ran our webina,r Performance Management is dead – long live Leading Performance, it seemed clear from participants’ answers to the online polls we conducted with them that there is a gap between what we understand best practice to be and what organisations are typically doing. Here are two of the poll answers:
Poll 1: Performance management is carried out effectively in my organisation
- Yes – 25%
- No – 75%
Poll 2: Indicate which one of these should come first (in terms of where you see people spending their time and what you believe people should be doing in order to lead performance effectively):
- Coaching – 25%
- Reviewing performance – 0%
- Feedback – 17%
- Plan for performance – 58%
- Challenge gaps in performance – 0%
[Note: all of these areas are important in leading performance. It would be fascinating to see responses to a similar question asking which of these currently takes priority.]
It’s hard to comment further without adopting Mr Winner’s note of sarcasm, but we might at least propose two additional questions at the start of any current performance checklist that organisations might be using:
- Do you fully understand the purpose of the organisation’s performance improvement processes?
- When was the process last reviewed to test its effectiveness against this stated purpose?
There is an old adage to the effect that the empire runs smoothly only because the rules, procedures and processes are fixed and rigid – the underlying mentality is one of ‘steady state’. Yet steady state is surely no more credible in organisational theory than in astrophysics (Wikipedia provides a summary of the scientists’ debate): the world moves on, and the tools, processes and checkbox lists that its previous incarnation produced are (or rather were) designed to produce yesterday’s results, not today’s or tomorrow’s.
And the thinking needs to move on every bit as much as the mechanisms that it has previously produced. Leading performance is a way of behaving, interacting, developing and enhancing, not a method for organising an occasional event. But perhaps it’s more effective to be straight-talking: the biggest clue to the difference between ‘leading performance’ and ‘performance management’ is in the titles.