5 Performance Management Myths Every Leader Should Avoid

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  Unfortunately much of today’s performance management practices are outdated (if not completely contradictory to what we now know about how we work).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?

A punch to the face taught me to fight. Why a culture unafraid of failure always wins.

1996 sparring competition

I was 16 and it was my first real sparring match.  Although I started karate when I was 13, I had braces.  For safety reasons, we weren’t allowed to spar with braces, so my training in sparring was delayed, significantly.  I was three years behind everyone else my age and I was TERRIFIED of being punched in the face.  Thinking back now, I’m not sure if I was more afraid of the pain or crying in front of everyone like a baby.  To make things worse – I’d always been afraid of ending up with a nose like my dad and knew having it broken in a fight would not help my situation.  This was the day I learned how to fight…not because of any tip, trick, move, or skill.  On this day, I was punched square in the nose, hard.  A loss I still reflect on often, this is the day, the pivotal moment, that led me to go onto become the #2 ranked female collegiate fighter in the nation just three years later.

Master Shojiro Koyama,  was very traditional.  He disagreed with the decision to let women compete years before I walked into his dojo and was known to pair up young, petite female students with much larger and stronger male students in sparring exercises.  We were encouraged to challenge one another physically, it was practice after all.  But, we were discouraged from striking with full physical strength.  I was competing by the time I started training with M. Koyama but only in kata.  In class he would coach me in sparring exercises, frustrated by my over-thinking and apparent lack of instinct.  “No thinking!” he shouted at me repeatedly one day, his way of trying to get me out of my own head.  Over and over he would tell me not to flinch and to counter immediately after blocking an attack.  But, all I could do was freeze and close my eyes.  I was scared.  I had never been hit in the face before and was paralyzed by fear at even the thought of it! So, the day I had my braces off I was filled with emotion.  I had braces for FOUR YEARS, so thoughts of eating corn on the cob or biting into the candy apples at the state fair later that year were really exciting.  Realizing I would now need to spar with others who appeared unafraid of a broken nose was terrifying.  I continued to struggle in practice but the true horror set in the day of my first competitive fight.  Her name was Samantha – and she was good.  I knew her from previous competitions and she was a much better and more confident fighter.  I was toast.  I remember the punch coming at my face and I closed my eyes, as I sadly had done EVERY time in practice.  Those I trained with were shouting from the sidelines as Master Koyama had shouted at me in practice, but I didn’t hear them.  All I could do was brace myself for the inevitable punch that was now too far along to block.  Boom!  I knew she hit me because when I opened my eyes, they were watering.  Oddly enough, all that I could think of was not to let the ref see my eyes watering or she, my opponent, would get a point!  Not sure why I thought the blatant strike went unseen by the ref who was just two or three feet away from us. I refused to blink in an effort to prevent the tears from streaming down my face.  But they weren’t tears from crying.  If you’ve ever hit your nose or been hit in the nose, you know what I’m talking about here.  Tears naturally well up in your eyes following such a hit, but there’s no sobbing or lip quivering like the tears that accompany emotional or physical pain.  The ring judge saw the hit and my opponent was awarded the point.  Naturally I lost the fight.  My biggest fear had come true and it wasn’t the life altering event I’d expected!  Although my teacher tried breaking my habit of flinching and freezing for years, my fear of pain and embarrassment was stronger.  And suddenly the fear was gone.  I’ve never flinched or frozen since.

Is this really such a unique story though?  Parents, teachers, co-workers, our friends, family, bosses – we get lots of advice from those around us.  But, how much of it do we take or even listen to?  I didn’t believe my mom about drinking….until I drank too much.  That friend that everyone cautioned me not to trust – I refused to believe it, until she betrayed me.  So many painful lessons that could’ve been prevented had I just listened to the advice I was given.  And I don’t think I’m the only one who has these stories.  So, why is advice only right in hindsight?  There is no better teacher than failure.  Athletes recall every shot they miss, poker players remember the turn that led to losing a hand.  And if you’re gritty, you walk away from that failure assessing and sometimes obsessing over what you need to do to prevent that mistake from happening ever again.  Isn’t this what innovation and improvement is all about?  How much would we achieve if we made failure acceptable?  What would you try today if you didn’t fear the shame of defeat?  According to Harvard Business School Professor of Leadership and Management, Dr. Amy Edmonson, a lot.  Dr. Edmonson has spent decades studying what makes some teams effective and high-performing and others, not.  Ultimately, she discovered better teams actually are more accepting of mistakes.  In 1999 she coined the term psychological safety – the belief that you won’t be punished or judged for making a mistake.  Without this fear of shame, embarrassment, or judgment, people are more comfortable asking questions, open to learning, speaking up, taking risks, and as result, perform better.

It’s counter intuitive and scary, but failure and success are not mutually exclusive.  Part of learning to walk is falling.  We learn the value of money when we are without it.    For individuals and teams, failure can make or break us.  In 1999 I attended a national competition in Denver, Colorado.  I was competing for first place against a woman I’d competed against before.  She grew up training in karate as her father was a well-respected instructor.  She fractured my nose and I quickly countered with a punch to her ribs.  She won the point, taking first place.  I walked away for the second and final time with a loss and a bloody nose.  These are the two fights I still think of more than 20 years later despite sparring hundreds of times in practice and competition.  They’re not memories of regret, they’re not memories of sadness…..I remember them as lessons in the journey of my success.

Are You a Good Boss? Two Studies Identify Traits of Top Managers

Worlds Best Boss

Two separate studies were conducted by Google and the Royal Bank of Canada to determine what traits make for a good boss versus average or even bad boss.  Here is what they discovered….

How many great bosses have you had in your career?  For me, two stand out.  One was with a job I hated, the other was with a job I loved.  One was male, the other female.  One was a lot like me, the other not like me at all….except maybe for our sense of humor.  One was stubborn and feared by some in the organization.  The other was the friendliest person you’ve ever met, quick to put others at ease.  So, how is it that I would find these two VERY DIFFERENT people equally great?  Had I changed over time?  There were about ten years between these two bosses after all.  I’ve worked with many great people but what made these two bosses great?  There is no shortage of research on leadership; however two of my favorite studies were performed by Google (2008, then updated in 2018) and Royal Bank of Canada (RBC, 2011-2013) in separate attempts to determine what makes manager good?

What does a good boss look like?

Do you know a good manager when you see one?  Based on the findings of both RBC and Google, not at first glance.  Both studies report good manager traits having little to do with what the manager does, but how and why they do it.  Micro-managing determined highly ineffective by both groups, suggesting a good manager’s day revolves more around strategy and developing or coaching employees; however nearly all other findings relate to how a good manager engages with employees.  Being genuine and showing an interest in both personal and professional well-being for employees rate high on both lists suggesting empathy for others and authenticity are essential in making employees feel valuable.  Today this should be no surprise.  In 2017, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote about the impact loneliness is having on the workplace.  A person with a poor network of friends and family, lacking support needed to push through this epidemic of loneliness in most cases will still need to work, making work perhaps their only opportunity to feel connected.  If true, doesn’t it only make sense employees respond positively to managers that seem invested in the employee’s personal journey?  Look over the list provided here.  How many listed traits do your top managers possess?  More importantly, do you feel your under-performing managers can learn the traits and behaviors necessary to be more effective?  Can a manager learn to be empathetic and genuine?

Google & RBC findings side-by-side
* Trait was either updated or revised in 2018

Why it matters

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, employs more than 107,000 people worldwide.  The company owns more than 88% of search engine market share and is in the race to join the highly exclusive $1 trillion dollar list.  RBC employs 80,000 people, and with 1.28 trillion dollars in assets is the biggest bank in Canada and the 11th biggest bank in the world.  They look for ways to excel, commit to a solution, and go ALL IN.  Google and RBC’s choice to independently research their own management practices that were proving to be effective versus ineffective and build their teams and leaders on these principles is no accident.  This research, although beneficial to many, was not done for humanitarian reasons.  Good managers drive success.  In a study, employees working for a manager identified as average when changed to a manager identified as highly effective, increased productivity by 50%!  Good bosses also have lower employee turnover and themselves also stay with companies longer than bad managers.  It’s important to note, the 2008 Google study was only after Google surveyed their own engineers to determine whether managers were at all necessary within their organization.  It was perhaps this initial project that led them to realize that a good boss is highly valuable whereas a bad boss is actually worse than no boss at all.

I stay in touch with each of my former managers.  I trust that I can call either of them today and they will still take time out of their busy schedules to help me.  I don’t know what their relationships were like with my peers or other leaders within our former organizations although I suspect those relationships were positive.  It was perhaps a year ago that one of them reached out to me in need of a favor.  I stopped everything I was doing and immediately jumped at the chance to help my former boss and friend.  It was no different when I worked for these individuals.  I cared as much about their success as I did my own.  That’s the thing about a great boss – their fingerprints from pushing you forward, catching you when you fall….are EVERYWHERE in your life!  A great boss changes your life,  But because it’s authentic and they genuinely care and love their jobs, it happens so naturally and organically.  Only in hindsight do you look back and wonder….were they working for me or was I working for them?