Tag Archives: performance

Performance Management Isn’t About Deadwood


MP900341467I recently wrote about performance management and the abolition of performance reviews at certain companies. Then I read a Wall Street Journal article last week stating that one of Kimberly-Clark’s goals is “managing out deadwood.” So much for doing away with performance reviews at that company.

The article states that Kimberly-Clark has about a 10% total turnover (voluntary and involuntary), and that employees are expected to “keep improving—or else.” I don’t disagree with a focus on continuous improvement, and a 10% turnover is not excessive. Still, performance management and “managing out deadwood” are two different things in concept, if not always in the end result. And they have different consequences both from a legal and from an employee relations perspective.

From the legal perspective, talking about employees as “deadwood” can lead to complaints of age discrimination. See Herr v. Nestlé U.S.A., 2003 Cal. App. LEXIS 855 (June 12, 2003), described here.

Any indication that an employee over age 40 is past his or her usefulness is problematic. Of course, employees can be ineffective performers at any age, but the tendency at many companies that initiate performance improvement drives is to focus on employees who have been sitting around for awhile—and who tend to be in the protected age group.

From the employee relations perspective, it can be demoralizing to adequate performers to know that managers are snapping at their heels, that as soon as the worst performers are out, a continuous improvement drive will mean employees who are in the lower mid-tier are now at the bottom.

Yet a true continuous improvement program means there is always someone at the bottom. It’s not like one manager told me once, “We’re done—we fired all our poor performers last year.”

Despite my quip above (“so much for doing away with performance reviews . . .”), there actually is no disconnect between abandoning annual reviews and an emphasis on performance improvement. In fact, it may be easier to focus on performance issues with the more regular discussions between managers and employees advocated by such companies as General Electric, Adobe Systems, and others.

Whatever performance culture a company decides to adopt, the important thing is to train managers to handle it well, to avoid the legal pitfalls of only focusing on older low performers or others in certain protected groups, and to keep the emphasis both encouraging and disciplined.

Performance management isn’t about getting rid of deadwood. It’s about improving every employee’s performance—including that of managers.

When in your experience has a performance management emphasis caused legal or employee relations problems?

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Workplace Culture and Psychological Safety


teamwork-383939_1920

Photo from Pixabay

One of the Human Resources topics I follow is workplace culture. I was struck this past week by an article discussing Google’s Project Aristotle, which analyzed what workplace culture best leads to high-performing teams. In this post, There’s No Quick And Easy Fix To Building A Successful Workforce, by Carol Anderson, April 26, 2016, on TLNT.com, the author discusses another blog post by Aamna Mohdin that concluded:

Google now describes psychological safety as the most important factor to building a successful team.

In short, just be nice.

See After years of intensive analysis, Google discovers the key to good teamwork is being nice, by
Aamna Mohdin, February 26, 2016, on Quartz.

Ms. Anderson disputed this conclusion, arguing that psychological safety and “niceness” are not the same thing. I agree.

I once worked in an organization where people were almost always “nice” to each other, but the important decisions did not get made, or did not get made in a timely fashion, or were not communicated effectively to the people who needed to know. In fact, “niceness” got in the way of good communications and decision-making. People were too afraid of hurting others’ feelings to make the tough calls and then explain their decisions to each other. The problem began in the executive suite and trickled down through most divisions in the organization.

According to a New York Times article entitled What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team, by Charles Duhigg, published February 25, 2016, in Project Aristotle, Google realized it was important for teams to have norms and to communicate those norms.

The right norms . . . could raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble a team, even if, individually, all the members were exceptionally bright.

But which norms made for the best teams? Google found two important behaviors that good teams shared:

First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’

. . .

Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.

To sum up these traits,

. . . all the team members speak as much as they need to. They are sensitive to one another’s moods and share personal stories and emotions. While [the successful team] might not contain as many individual stars, the sum will be greater than its parts.

In the Quartz article cited above, Aamna Mohdin summarized the Project Aristotle conclusions as follows:

the best teams respect one another’s emotions and are mindful that all members should contribute to the conversation equally. It has less to do with who is in a team, and more with how a team’s members interact with one another.

These traits are part of “psychological safety,” which has been defined by Professor Amy Edmonson of the Harvard Business School as:

a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’

‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish
someone for speaking up,’’

‘‘. . . a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

The reason that Carol Anderson believed that these conclusions have nothing to do with “niceness” is that

. . . psychological safety, at its root, means that team members feel comfortable to say what they need to say, because they trust that their team will not shut them down, humiliate them or otherwise ignore their words. It is about getting all of the issues on the table in an environment where the team members can focus on solving the problem rather than on being defensive.

As I noted above, “niceness” can in fact interfere with the communications necessary for good decision-making.

Psychological safety wasn’t the only norm found to be important in Google’s Project Aristotle—having clear goals and a culture of dependability were also important—but this safety was critical. And it has to be forged through experience and gaining trust in your team members.

In my opinion, the conclusions of Project Aristotle relate directly to diversity issues as well. As the NYT article by Mr. Duhigg describes, Google learned that

. . . no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home.

That feeling of leaving a part of one’s self at home is what many workplace minorities describe—whether their “difference” is based on their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, introversion, or any other category. A psychologically safe environment is critical to true progress on improving diversity in the workplace.

What difference has feeling a sense of “psychological safety” at work or lack of it made in your career?

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Don’t Give Up on Performance Reviews


332904-2504-4 perf reviewI’ve been following some of the discussion about annual performance reviews—some companies are stopping them; others are hunkering down. I’m not a particular fan of doing annual reviews, because I think performance management has to happen more frequently than once a year to be of much value.

But annual reviews are better than no reviews. The important thing, in my mind, is to have open conversations with your staff members about their performance.

In two recent articles, Steven Hunt of TLNT has covered this topic. As Mr. Hunt points out in How To Ditch Performance Ratings and Still Evaluate Employees Fairly and Accurately, posted October 20, 2015, no company is actually doing away with rating employees. But some are not doing annual performance reviews. They are finding other ways to evaluate and rank employees.

Ideally, I think conversations about performance should happen about once a quarter—and more frequently with new employees. The usual staff meetings between managers and subordinates can form the setting for these conversations. If followed by a quick email to the employee afterward to confirm expectations, the performance conversation is documented in a simple manner that takes little extra time. Much easier than the multiple pages of many companies’ performance evaluation forms.

As Mr. Hunt says in Haunted By Performance Reviews: How Can You Kill Something That Won’t Die?, October 26, 2015:

“The easiest way to rid an organization of the horrors create by a bad annual evaluation process without releasing the evil spirit of informal evaluation is to actually increase the frequency and number of evaluations you conduct. By constantly evaluating employees through the year, the annual evaluation largely ceases to exist.”

And as Dan Pontefract said in Only 55 Percent Of Employees Feel As Though Performance Management Appraisals Are Effective, Forbes.com, March 31, 2015,

Performance management isn’t a score. It’s a frequent, ongoing coaching conversation.”

About ten years ago, one organization I worked in tried the type of calibration sessions that Mr. Hunt mentions in How To Ditch Performance Ratings and Still Evaluate Employees Fairly and Accurately. Our discussions were painful. They were painful for the managers, and they were painful when the feedback was communicated to the employees. We called the bulk of our employees (the middle 70%) “valued”—which as one person later said, wrecked a perfectly good word forever.

A year ago, Mr. Hunt wrote in Performance Management: We Won’t Fix The Problem By Ignoring It, August 4, 2014:

“We will know we have truly fixed the performance management problem when company leaders are able to accurately identify the most valuable employees in the organization, and can explain this decision to other ‘less valuable’ employees in a manner that inspires them to improve their performance and does not lead them to give up hope, quit, or call their lawyers.”

Now that is a worthy goal. Most likely, we will still be striving to attain it in another ten years.

Here are a few more good articles on performance reviews, in addition to those cited above:

How to Handle Performance Reviews, by Rose Opengart, July 27, 2015

10 Productive Things HR Can Do Instead Of Performance Management, by Heather Nelson, July 31, 2015 (TLNT)

Why Annual Performance Reviews Suck And How Gaming Can Fix Themby Thomas Moradpour, February 19, 2011

What do you think is the best way to motivate average employees in your organization?

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Happy Holidays


snowmanI’ve noticed in prior years that this blog gets very few hits during the year-end holidays. Therefore, this will be my last post until January 5, 2015.

In the meantime, for those of you who are working on performance evaluations or next year’s objectives, please see these earlier posts on performance management and setting objectives:

Tis the Season for Setting Performance Objectives

Goals Are Not For Losers, But Set Reasonable Goals

Performance Management: Critical to Success, Yet in Critical Condition

Assess Yourself As a Manager As You Assess Your Employees

Mid-Year Self Assessment: It’s Not Just About Performance Objectives

Thank you for reading this blog throughout the year, and . . .

Enjoy your year-end holidays!

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Dealing With Your Nemesis


conflict-405744_640I recently was visiting the town where I grew up and encountered someone I’d gone to school with. We were classmates all through elementary and high school, and I always considered her my nemesis.

I got better grades than she did, but not by much. And she was popular, athletic, and a cheerleader from junior high on. Our parents were friends, too, so we sometimes took summer vacations together.

When I saw her recently, I realized how much our lives had diverged since high school graduation. From the perspective of four decades later, I could be glad my life turned out the way it did. I wouldn’t have wanted to face some of the challenges she did. But I sincerely hoped that she was as happy with her life as I was with mine.

Time had made our differences far less important than they seemed in high school.

Then I got to thinking about all the nemeses I’ve had at work. Here were some:

  • The attorney who was slightly more senior than me who grabbed the best assignments and only passed on the grunt work she didn’t want.
  • The HR director who monopolized our mutual boss’s time.
  • The division VP who wouldn’t provide the feedback on incentive plans that the CEO had ordered me to get.

How should we deal with difficult people in the workplace, the ones who seem to be trying deliberately to make our lives a challenge? Here are a few ideas:

1. Talk to the individual. Maybe the person doesn’t know the impact of his or her actions on you. Or maybe there’s some problem that individual has that you didn’t know about. Even if their actions are deliberate, or they don’t care, at least you’ve put them on notice that you’re aware of their behavior.

2. Get support from your manager, mentor, or others. Find out if others have had the same experience. Again, there may be information or history on the situation that you don’t know. What have others done about the problem? Is there a way for you to complain together to obtain relief?

3. Document your issues. When you talk to your nemesis, make sure to put a note in your files. Better yet, send a follow-up email—in a polite tone, or even a friendly tone, if you can manage it—setting out the problem and any agreed changes. A thank-you for any commitments to change wouldn’t hurt.

4. Suck it up. Sometimes a problem isn’t worth confronting. Or sometimes the advice you get from others is not to do anything. You will then have to decide whether you can continue working with that person or not. Whether you decide to stay or leave, at least you haven’t burned any bridges with that individual or others.

Conflict is an unavoidable part of working with other people, so we will all face it at some time. How we choose to deal with conflict determines whether the problem gets better or worse.

Who were (are) your workplace nemeses, and how have you dealt with them?

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Situational Leadership Theory: It’s Just Common Sense


Situational Leadership Model

Situational Leadership Model

I talked last week to a friend who is about to take a leadership training program sponsored by the government entity where he works part-time. This man had had leadership training in the military, but seemed overwhelmed by the thick manual he’d been given to study before the training program. The manual had a lengthy section on “situational leadership theory.”

Although I was a manager for many years and participated in—and even taught—management training programs, I am not educated in organizational and management theory. I’d never heard of “situational leadership theory.”

So I asked my friend what it was, for two reasons. First, I wanted to know. Second, I figured he would learn the material better if he had to describe it to me than if he muddled through the manual in a vacuum.

He started talking about four quadrants and “high relationship/low relationship” and “high task/low task” situations, and how a manager should behave differently.

But of course, I thought. The best way to manage good people is to get out of their way and let them run with what they want to do. That’s all being a “low task” manager means.

The trick is to know when someone is a strong enough employee to let them run, and when they need more guidance. And the only way to do that is to build a relationship with them (be “high relationship”) and test them on little things while giving them direction (be a “high task” manager).

My friend and I worked through several examples—new employees, trusted employees, good performers, and poor performers. In each case, I asked him whether it was better to spend more time or less time in getting to know the individual, and whether it was better to be more directive or less directive in giving instructions.

He could answer the questions using just common sense. The terminology didn’t matter. He knew what to do. And so did I, despite never having heard of “situational leadership theory.”

situational_leadership3

My preferred style is S3 – Supporting

My own bias is to work on relationships in almost every situation. Most employees want their manager (and also their coworkers, peers, and even subordinate) to know them better. It takes time, but usually bears fruit.

My bias is also to be less directive with all but the newest employees. But that doesn’t always work well. I have been burned on occasion when I’ve found out that an employee took a project in a direction that I didn’t think was going to fly in the organization.

Still, I’d rather err on the side of letting employees make their own mistakes and helping them recover afterward. We’ll both learn more than if I had told them what to do every step of the way.

Management is an art, not a science. It’s judgment, not four quadrants in a grid. It’s knowing your people, not knowing what’s in some manual.

When have you found that management theories or other aspects of interpersonal relationships were really just based on common sense?

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How To Improve Customer Service at Emotional Times


crying-on-the-phone-300x225A close relative of mine recently died, and I have been helping the next-of-kin deal with the aftermath of death. We spent most of a week calling the funeral home, bank, church, insurance companies, and other businesses to inform them of our relative’s passing and to make the necessary arrangements.

Some of the organizations we dealt with were good at customer service, but many were not. I have several suggestions for how all businesses can improve their customer service when they are dealing with people in difficult emotional circumstances.

And don’t most businesses encounter emotional customers at one time or another?

Here are my suggestions:

  1. Minimize the time the customer has to spend on hold, from the first contact to the final call. Grieving individuals will lose focus while you are away from the phone. Moreover, they will get annoyed and believe you don’t care about them.
  2. Don’t play the typical Muzak if you have to put customers on hold. It grates on the nerves of the bereaved to hear vapidly cheerful music. A soft classical selection would be a better fit, but nothing too common that they will remember later on, bringing the moment of their grief back to mind.
  3. If you have a call center that uses scripting, be sure your representatives are prepared to say “I’m sorry for your loss” if they hear of a death without having to look it up in the script. It is disconcerting for the bereaved to hear typing in the background, then for the representative to say he or she is sorry. A human response is more valued if it is genuine, so let your employees sound genuine. If they can’t, they shouldn’t be in a customer service job.
  4. Get back to your customer when you say you will. Even if you don’t have any new information to provide, if you promised an update by 10:00am Wednesday, then call them back to give a status report by 10:00am Wednesday.
  5. Be absolutely accurate in what you tell customers. And if you give them information orally, follow it up with an email or other written correspondence. People don’t think clearly and their short-term memories don’t work well when they are emotional. They will forget what you told them, which is only to be expected.
  6. Recognize that customers who get angry at you are often venting. Try not to take the situation personally. But also take accountability when the problem is your responsibility. If you have been slow to respond, or if you provided inaccurate information, apologize. Profusely. And don’t do it again.

Frankly, these suggestions aren’t rocket science. But it is surprising that so many businesses that deal with people in emotional states aren’t better at customer service.

Don’t let your business be insensitive to your customers’ grief. The goal of any contact with a customer should be to make the customer feel better, not worse, even if only for the moment of your interaction.

When have you encountered excellent customer service in a difficult situation?

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