The North Wind and the Sun is a famous story that are part of the ancient Greek’s collection, Aesop’s Fables. It begins with the Sun and North Wind arguing over which is stronger. To resolve the dispute, they agree to a challenge when they see a man walking along a road, wearing a coat. Whoever can get the man to remove his coat is the stronger of the two. The North Wind goes first, blowing and howling more intensely with each gust, frustrated that the man holds his coat only tighter against the wind. Defeated, it’s then the Sun’s chance. The Sun begins to shine with gentle beams. The man unfastens the coat, leaving it to hang loosely from his shoulders. As the beams grow warmer, the man takes off his coat and sits beneath a tree to enjoy the shade.
The moral of this story is “gentleness and kind persuasion win where force and bluster fail”. Today, more than 2500 years since written, this story also reflects what we know to be true about human behavior. Our behavior is largely driven by our experiences and how we feel. While we may under stable or controlled situations show up a certain way, how we act in stressful or even uncomfortable situations can be very different. So what does this mean for our workplaces? How can we lead our teams to success knowing the journey of paving any path is uncomfortable and riddled with stressful obstacles? Unfortunately much of today’s performance management practices are outdated (if not completely contradictory to what we now know about how we work). Even the terminology used….driving results….corrective action…..performance review…..the term performance management itself….imply a combative or suspicious relationship between employee and manager. Much like the North Wind’s approach toward the man with the cloak, we remain convinced that negative reinforcement and punishment yield desired results…despite our failed attempts. Here are five of the most common performance management myths that continue to blow through and harm our teams.
Myth #5: The purpose of Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) is to set clear expectations for a poor performing employee.
Have you ever struggled to meet the expectations of your job? Did you need someone to put it in writing to recognize your job was in jeopardy? From a legal and ethical standpoint, setting expectations is important. From a commonsense standpoint though – it’s ridiculous. Using a PIP merely to outline expectations for someone to keep his/her job is similar to describing the water to someone who is drowning, believing it will help him swim. The primary purpose of a PIP is to create and develop a plan for the employee to improve. A good PIP will include short-term measurable actions that align to longer-term goals essential indicative of progress. A great PIP will include manager commitments such as a period of more frequent check-ins to reassess progress. PIPs are a plan for success, and both the manager and the employee should be collaborating on how to save the situation. And because the point of the plan is to improve, progress is key. And similar to horseshoes and hand grenades, close a counts. An employee who performs better although falls slightly short of the goal, should continue to be supported with the PIP process. We all learn differently and at different speeds. Performance management is about the trajectory. So, an employee’s performance that is trending toward success that over time proves to be sustainable is a positive outcome for any PIP.
Myth #4: Bonuses drive employees to work harder and smarter.
Bonuses, commissions, and incentives are not new concepts. Perhaps one of the first positive psychology philosophies adopted by workplaces, pay-for-performance aims to encourage certain desired behaviors and results through positive reinforcement. Research has shown however that the concept of how pay impacts how we work is much more complex. Not all pay-for-performance plans produce better employee output. Success of such a plan depends on the level of complexity in priorities within a role (ie, an incentive for quantity will often compromise quality goals), the level of social dynamics among coworkers, and the level of (existing) motivation within the employee-base to do a good job. When considering how financial incentives improve employee performance, it’s first important to realize employees fail to succeed in their jobs for only one of two reasons, skill or will. This is not meant to validate or reinforce the unfortunate misconception that struggling employees are either incompetent or lazy. If anything, this false belief tends to be held and perpetuated by leaders that are underdeveloped or inexperienced. Neither term meant to reflect an employee’s motivations but instead their experience/expertise (skill) and habits (will). For example, a sales representative that fails to meet her quota each month is either lacking the experience in converting leads to sales (skill) or has failed to adopt the habits of feeding and maintaining a healthy pipeline (will). While financial incentives like commissions or bonuses may increase an employee’s short-term motivations, they don’t change an employee’s experience or habits. In short, pay-for-performance plans can be a great reward for employees making significant contributions to the company’s success. Pay-for-performance is not however an appropriate or effective way to resolve performance issues. Research shows leaders meeting with employees more frequently, providing constructive feedback and coaching with those struggling is much more effective in improving performance. Companies cannot simply buy their way out of it.
Myth #3: Good employees don’t need performance discussions.
Why do top-performers leave your organization? Performance discussions, for top-performers, serve as a way to retain them. Given research shows high performers can deliver 400% more productivity than the average performer, your team’s success could drastically improve if this article dispels your belief in this myth alone. Only 53% of top performing employees feel their managers provide valuable and timely feedback. Would your team’s performance be different if your best employees were getting feedback on how they can improve? How many of them would stay if you used frequent performance discussions with high-performers as a way to detect poor job satisfaction or work-related issues? Weekly 15-minute check-ins, asking employees two questions, 1) what are their priorities for the week, and 2) how can you (their leader) help them, is one of the simplest and most effective habits a leader can adopt. Not only will these interactions help retain and develop top performing employees, they will also establish a valuable connections, a quality consistent with the #1 driver of high-performing teams, psychological safety.
Myth #2: Poor employee performance is caused by poor training.
Training is often the first, if not only, offering to an under-performing employee. But rarely is training the actual answer. Training is intended to teach skills. Learning to use new technology or how to create and interpret business financials are skills to be gained by training. More commonly challenging areas where employees fail to perform revolve around habits. Staying motivated, time management, effective communication, collaboration, and attendance are the top employee performance issues….and none of them have to do with a lack of skills or need for training. Similar to why we continue to consume junk food, eat too much, stay up too late, hit the snooze button too many times in the morning, or watch too much TV….it’s not because we lack the knowledge that these behaviors are harmful. We continue to do things in spite of the negative consequences and even harm they produce. We are habitual creatures. It’s not something most of us like to admit. Research shows habits dictate 40% of what we do each day! If this is the case, wouldn’t it be fair to assume at least 40% of performance issues are simply bad habits? What would helping an employee to replace bad habits or build new ones look like? According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, willpower is like a muscle, so the key is to start small, increasing over time. Staying consistent and not succumbing to feelings of overwhelm or hopelessness helps to create sustainable success. So, start struggling employees with smaller goals. If an Inside Sales Representative is not hitting their monthly sales goals, you may realize he is failing to maintain a healthy pipeline. Start with a number of quality calls he should make each day. Then look to add in how many appointments he should set each week. Then how many proposals he should submit….then how many new customers….then how much new revenue. It’s not as black and white as having him listening to sales training videos, and it may take more patience as his manager, but isn’t that the job of a manager….to develop their people? If this is not a manager’s #1 priority, perhaps the manager could also benefit from replacing or building new habits.
Myth #1: Poor performing employees are disengaged or lack motivation to succeed.
Have you lost a loved one and returned to work while still grief-stricken? Or, have you ever been really sick but decided to work rather than go see a doctor or rest? How was the quality of your work during these times, honestly? While working today, if you received a call that your house was broken into, it’s highly unlikely you would be very productive should you try to remain working for the rest of the day, without details We are not robots. We are complex beings. The same quality in all of us that drives us to do amazing things like create, collaborate with one another, and innovate, is the same quality that makes us susceptible to the natural setbacks and challenges of life. While someone may LOVE her job, her team, and her boss…..how she shows up to work is not simply a reflection of how she feels about work. We are a sum of our experiences – ALL OF THEM. So, an employee that is stressed or fearful about life outside of work will naturally display symptoms of stress and fear at work. She may seem tired, suffer from pain or headaches, appear more anxious than normal, struggle to focus, withdrawal socially, and seem more irritable or angry. All well-documented symptoms of chronic stress, regardless of what is causing that stress. If she is going through a divorce, or recently lost a loved one, is struggling financially, or with raising children…her poor performance may not be about her feelings toward the job at all. It is the whole person that shows up to work each day. It is the whole person that we as leaders are coaching when they’re struggling to perform. While we as leaders may not be able to solve the problems at home, we can and ought to honor life challenges our employees are dealing with outside of the office. It starts by connecting with our teams. While many of today’s leaders have been promoted for our problem-solving capabilities. This is not the skill that makes someone a good leader. Good leaders support and collaborate with employees to solve problems. It’s the difference in giving a man a fish versus teaching him how to fish. So, the first step to collaborating with an employee on improving his performance is to ask him why he’s struggling. Pull him aside, share your observations, let him know you’re concerned, ask what’s going on and how you can help. Start this conversation before you come bearing paperwork. According to a recent study, 62% of working Americans are lonely, meaning they may not have anyone else to talk to about challenges they are facing. In many cases, employee life obstacles may first appear as performance issues. If they don’t have a healthy and supportive network of people around them, you might be the only one to ask them this question. Because we are social creatures, our work is a reflection of how we are feeling. Just as a sales or customer service representative may struggle to be patient with or listen to customers when they are not feeling well emotionally or physically, a person that builds websites or analyzes financials is likely to make more mistakes or be less productive when emotionally or physically struggling. As leaders of teams, it is critical we take a whole-person approach to performance management…..not just for the sake of our teams but for humanity.
Senior leaders say the number one weakness of their organizations’ leaders is their ability to have difficult performance discussions with direct reports. Unfortunately, it’s our society’s belief in many of these myths that have prevented leaders from learning how to navigate these types of employee-discussions. The longer we pretend these myths are effective only prolongs the pain felt by our businesses, and those that serve them. So, who will you be in the story of your team’s success and performance? Will you be the North Wind, blowing with all your might to make them do what you want….only to fail and be left deflated? Or will you choose a the way of the Sun?