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Corporate Performance Management - Training Tips Beyond Systems to People

Managing performance requires us to reconcile caring for and developing our people with ensuring that departmental and organisational aims are achieved. Managing performance requires us to strike a balance between compassion and accountability.

Good modern managers strive to balance these two areas according to the situations in which performance needs managing. This involves judging each different situation on merit and deciding a course of action and management style that is right for the situation.

For instance, we need to be caring and compassionate if an employee needs help and encouragement to get through difficulties or challenges. On the other hand, we need to focus on accountability responsibility where matters of health and safety or essential processes or policies are concerned.

Being able to assess situations and adapt our management response is vital to managing people. If we manage people well, we manage performance well too.

It's important to recognise a fundamental fact: that everyone is capable of exceptional effort, productivity, output, and performance. There is actually no such thing as a person who is in themselves a 'poor performer'. Where people fail to perform in any respect, it is generally because of poor management or a flawed organisation.

Understanding this - that everyone is potentially a great performer - is a key to being a great manager of people and performance. Recognising and accepting this principle helps us to focus on helping people to find positive solutions, rather than focusing blame, criticism and recrimination, the traditional resorts of old-style autocratic or incompetent management and organisations.

Sumantra Ghoshal (1948-2004), the humanist management writer and academic, who believed that management should be above all else a force for good, got it right when he said:

'A very different philosophy of management is arising. We are moving beyond strategy to purpose; beyond structure to process, and beyond systems to people.... Asshole management is not inevitable.'

Performance management is about people. It's not about systems or processes or rules or computer systems. It's about people.

Getting the best out of people is not rocket science - it's mostly about helping people to do a great job.

A big part of what people need from their managers is a clear understanding of what is expected - in other words - explanation and clarification and agreement of performance expectations.

A second big part of what people need from their managers is help in meeting these standards and expectations - which logically requires the manager to first find out what help they need, because it's different for everyone, and if you don't ask then you won't know. So why guess? Ask people what they need.

A huge proportion of performance problems can be traced back simply to a failure to explain and agree expectations and/or a failure to understand and provide the help that the person needs. These are the responsibilities of the manager - not the employee. Don't assume everything is understood and perfectly within people's capabilities. Instead, take time to explain, check and ask until everyone concerned is happy and sure of what needs doing, why, and how.

Expectations need explaining and agreeing for all aspects of the employee's responsibility and performance - from the most basic standards, to the most open-ended freedoms - yes even freedom is an 'expectation' that must be explained, understood and agreed.

Different aspects of performance, and different tasks and responsibilities, of course need treating in different ways, as do people according to their different levels of experience, knowledge, capability, capacity and confidence.

Usually the aspects of performance that place the biggest demands on managers, and create the biggest challenges and problems, are those areas concerned with a 'failure' to perform to a certain standard or target or other requirement. Performance above standard rarely creates a management headache. It makes sense therefore to look first at managing performance at the level of basic standards and responsibilities.

And just a quick note about performance appraisals and where they fit into performance management: Attending to below-standard performance needs to be handled at the time - do not wait to spring it on people several months later at the dreaded performance appraisal. Make sure you never allow a situation to develop where one of your people could turn round to you and say, 'I wish you'd told me at the time - if I'd known about it then I'd have sorted it out...'

Many people need to know how that are doing every day - ask them what will help them most. Most people need feedback at least once a week. A few can get by with feedback once a month, but even for seriously capable high-level strategic people this is a starvation diet. Be mindful - performance management more than just a once a year process - it's a continuous activity.

Basic Responsibilities and Standards

Certain expectations of performance are mandatory standards that are (or should be) effectively written into employment contracts, or at least referred to in appropriate operational procedures. Such expectations and standards form part of the 'psychological contract' that exists between employer and employee. Other less firm responsibilities and activities (for instance optional developmental opportunities) of course often also form a part of the 'psychological contract', but basic standards and job requirements are generally  non-negotiable.

You must know what these things are, and you must have a clear commitment from your people that these are 'given's, because we've all got better things to do than fart around sorting out stuff that one might expect to come across in the primary school playground, but not at grown-up work.

In other words, management is challenging enough without having to spend time on things that form part of people's basic contract and published standards for doing the job. By implication, this aspect of performance should manage itself.

So, what if performance needs managing in this area?

If performance falls short in this area you must revisit the 'psychological contract' and probably the actual employment contract too, so as to clarify basic and non-negotiable expectations as quickly and simply as possible.

But be compassionate and caring. Be creative about the way you handle below-standard performance. Non-negotiable does not mean ruthless or uncaring. Be sensitive. Be firm, but be fair.

Are Performance Standards Agreed and Written Down?

If not, ensure they are and go through the process of reaffirming them, otherwise you'll be building on sand. If necessary seek input from the department responsible for employment contracts (usually HR), or if the standards in question are contained within an operations procedure or manual, refer to the department which owns that responsibility, for example health and safety, or quality.

Are the Standards and Expectations Understood?

Explain them and seek confirmation of understanding and agreement. 'Understanding' extends beyond the written word or description of the standard - it is a matter of checking people's interpretation - what it means to them. Check that their interpretation meets the expectation or standard in practice and application and spirit.

Are the Standards Agreed?

If not this is effectively a matter of discipline, you should begin the disciplinary process because you've got a problem here with the basic 'contract' between employee and employer. Also, you should immediately inform whatever senior people need to know this. 

Disagreement in this area amounts to defiance and rejection of the 'contract' between employer and employee and needs dealing with firmly and clearly, in accordance with disciplinary processes laid down by the employer, which must be within applicable employment law. 

This all assumes that the standards concerned do actually form part of the employee's formal 'contract'. If not then the manager and if necessary representative from HR department must revisit, redefine and agree the 'contract' with the employee to find out whether the issue is a matter of discipline or education or re-negotiation - so watch out for these situations. 

Warning signs, for instance, are when an employee says, "No-one ever told me I had to do this," or "Show me where it says that I can't do (X, Y Z..)". 

Sometimes people are genuinely under false impressions and simply need pointing to the appropriate written standard somewhere. Other times people can be testing the system. And at worst people can be actually rebelling. The manager's responsibility is to identify the root reason that's causing the person to ignore or flout the standards, and then to deal with it appropriately.

Are there other reasons why standards are not being met?

Where there's no confusion about the standard or expectation that is not being met you must sit down with the person and ask them what's happening that's making it difficult for them to meet the standards. And then go from there. 

You must judge the situation on merit and with sensitivity and if necessary seek input from an appropriate person in the HR department, who will be better able to advise as regards professional counselling, or any other support the employee needs in order to resolve the difficulties. 

It's generally a matter for HR also to decide on any special arrangements or dispensations, mindful of the circumstances. The duty of the line manager in these situations is generally to identify what the problem is, whether the person wants to resolve it, and to facilitate help or a solution. 

Managing performance that is below 'contracted' standard starts with identifying the actual root cause, so as to be able to take appropriate action, firmly, professionally, creatively and compassionately.

A Performance Management Story

A school head was alerted by the caretaker to a persistent problem in the girls lavatories: some of the girl students were leaving lipstick kisses on the mirrors. 

The caretaker had left notices on the toilet walls asking for the practice to cease, but to no avail; every evening the caretaker would wipe away the kisses, and the next day lots more kisses would be planted on the mirror. It had become a bit of a game. 

The head teacher usually took a creative approach to problem solving, so the next day she asked a few girl representatives from each class to meet with her in the lavatory. "Thank you for coming," said the head, "You will see there are several lipstick kisses in the mirrors in this washroom.." Some of the girls grinned at each other as the head teacher continued: "As you will understand, modern lipstick is cleverly designed to stay on the lips, and so the lipstick is not easy at all to clean from the mirrors. We have therefore had to develop a special cleaning regime, and my hope is that when you see the effort involved you will help spread the word that we'd all be better off if those responsible for the kisses use tissue paper instead of the mirrors in future..." 

At this point the caretaker stepped forward with a sponge squeegee, which he took into one of the toilet cubicles, dipped into the toilet bowl, and then used to clean one of the lipstick-covered mirrors. The caretaker smiled. The girls departed. And there were no more lipstick kisses on the mirrors.

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Performance - Tasks, Projects and Development of Opportunities

Now we come to the more forward-looking aspects of performance:

How well the work is done - by individuals and by teams; the quality of service above and beyond minimum expectations; the reaction to challenge and opportunity. 

Great performance in these areas is managed and achieved by involving the individuals and the team in contributing as much as they can towards:

  • defining the task or opportunity
  • deciding the methods, or for larger projects, creating the project plan
  • deciding the responsibilities and who owns them
  • deciding the aims and measures and timescales
  • creating and owning the processes
  • deciding on the tools and systems
  • deciding the inter-departmental interfaces and communications requirements
  • implementing (and managing) the activities
  • reporting and checking and completing
  • following up, evaluating and getting feedback
  • identifying future improvements for next time
  • and looking for further related opportunities if at all possible and appropriate

The rules of delegation and meetings and  motivation provide a lot of the processes and methods for doing these things.

When working with your people as individuals or in teams you must take into account the following (for 'task', read also 'project', 'opportunity', 'initiative', etc):

  • the importance of the task - how critical is it? - first decide yourself, then discuss and explain and check understanding with whoever else is involved
  • the timescale of the task
  • the individuals' specialisms and strengths (use whatever individual strengths indicators are available to you, also, ask people)
  • people's styles and natural leanings (again, use whatever personality indicators are available to you - see for example the VAK learning styles theory and test - also, ask people)
  • people's experience and maturity (ask them)
  • people's confidence (ask them)
  • people's workloads and other priorities and demands on them (ask them)
  • people's alignment with the purpose and spirit of the task - does it mean something to them? (ask them)
  • what people will get out of doing the task or their part of it? Again, what does it mean to them in terms of their own personal development and aims and needs? (ask them)

You get the idea - you must ask people. Where you need to seek clarification or evidence of competence or experience, then do so - it's all part of creating clearly understood expectations and freedom and support required.

At all times you are balancing - and helping your people to balance:

  • the needs of the organisation to perform the task or project on time, to standard, and within budget


  • the needs of the people to enjoy, grow, learn and take maximum responsibility for performing the task or running the project

If you involve people and teams in arriving at this balance, and agreeing your own level of involvement (which will vary for each task and project) then this will help you to manage performance more effectively.

Essential within this process is:

  • establishing and publishing (to all who need to know) the task or project purpose and criteria including outcomes, deliverables, parameters (including financials) and timescales
  • a plan of what happens and when
  • actions and responsibilities - clear accountabilities - ideally never shared or falling between two stools
  • measures and monitoring actions

To provide the above for repeating tasks you should produce or use a standard procedure or standing protocol - rather than keep reinventing the wheel. Operations manuals would normally contain a lot of this, but in this fast-changing world, lots of content in operations manuals is out of date, and lots of standard instructions are in need of changing, so ensure all operational protocols and standing methods are checked and updated accordingly.

Here is an analogy which reinforces the point that we need constantly to question and refine the ways we do things, because performance is a feature of culture and behaviour as well as process. 

A Story about Performance Policy and Process

Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. 

As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the monkeys with cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result - all the monkeys are sprayed with cold water. 

Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it. 

Now, turn off the cold water. 

Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. 

After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted. Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm. Again, replace a third original monkey with a new one. The new one makes it to the stairs and is attacked as well. 

Two of the four monkeys that beat him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs, or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey. After replacing the fourth and fifth original monkeys, all the monkeys that have been sprayed with cold water have been replaced. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs. Why not? Because as far as they know that's the way it's always been around here.

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