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


R&O book coverI urged you at the beginning of June to assess your performance against your objectives. But self-assessment is far broader than just looking at your work objectives. Every so often I return to books that have been influential in my life. One of those is Standing at the Crossroads: Next Steps for High-Achieving Women, by Marian N. Ruderman and Patricia J. Ohlott. I’ve referenced that book before on this blog. Mid-year is a good time to review the Ruderman & Ohlott analysis of what high achievement requires, along with your performance objectives. Ruderman and Ohlott discuss five themes they found when researching high-achieving women (though I don’t believe the importance of these themes are limited to women). Their themes are:

  1. Acting authentically—keeping your daily actions congruent with your values and beliefs, and not in conflict with principles you hold dear
  2. Making connections—building relationships that matter, and and getting close to people who are important in your life
  3. Controlling your own destiny—acting with agency so that you take control of your life and your success
  4. Achieving wholeness—integrating all parts of your life into your personal sense of identity
  5. Gaining self-clarity—knowing who you are and how you fit into the world; you might call it gaining wisdom

Obviously, these themes are all integrated, and you can’t achieve success in one area without moving forward on others as well. But I have found this five-facet framework to be a usual tool for reviewing my life and determining where I need to focus most immediately. I’ve been returning to this book for around fifteen years now, and whenever I open it, I find something that I can work on. (Which makes sense, since none of us is ever perfect.) This summer, as I reflect on my life in all its facets, I feel good about the following:.

  • Authenticity: I am living my life in accordance with my values.
  • Wholeness: I like how the multiple parts of my life today—family, writing, consulting, mediating—combine to give me a sense of wholeness (though from day to day one aspect or another seems to be taking too much time). I’m not entirely where I want to be in designing my life, but I’m in better shape than at many points in my past.
  • Self-clarity: And after so many years of working on self-awareness, I hope I have some clarity about myself (though some of my family might differ).

However, I do have some things I am working on:

  • Connections: As an introvert, I struggle constantly with making connections. Who do I want in my life, beyond my family and closest friends?
  • Control: Because I am too likely to comply with others’ requests of me, I also have a hard time with controlling my own destiny—I let other people take my time and define my success too easily. I do pretty well, but I must constantly reassess how I am spending my time and what to do about where I’m out of balance.

This brief post is not sufficient to fully describe the five themes that Ruderman and Ohlott offer for those seeking success. But perhaps you can get the sense of how my self-assessment exercise works. At this point in your life and your year, you might take an hour to reflect on each of these five themes. Or use another reference to define areas for self-assessment. The importance is to spend the time in reflection. Where in your life are you going strong? Where do you need to rebalance? Find Standing at the Crossroads at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. And for other posts on my blog about self-awareness, click here

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Have You Accomplished Fifty Percent of Your Objectives For the Year?


Daily OrganizerI know it’s only the beginning of June, and 2014 is not half over yet. But most workplaces slow down in the summer months, when colleagues are out of the office. Then it’s Labor Day, then you have only a couple of months until the holiday season starts. Nothing much gets done in December.

So, are you half-way to completing your objectives? There isn’t much productive time left in the year.

Do you even remember what your objectives are?

Pull them out, and assess your performance. Then you’ll be ready for your mid-year review. If your boss doesn’t give you a mid-year review, give yourself one.

Come December, you’ll be glad you did. You’ll probably set yourself now on a path to get more done than if you ignore your objectives until autumn.

I recently read an article on Inc.com, “This 15-Minute Activity Will Make You More Successful At Work,” by Drake Baer, for Business Insider. Mr. Baer argues that people can be more successful if they set aside fifteen minutes at the end of the day to reflect and to recap that day’s accomplishments and failures.

People who take time for reflection each day come to understand their own performance better. Then they can better adapt their performance to achieve future successes.

But according to Mr. Baer, it requires more than simple reflection to improve performance. It requires writing down what went well each day and what didn’t. The extra step of documenting your learnings helps you to retain them and act on them in the future.

I keep a daily journal, although I don’t reflect on my performance every day. But twice a month I formally recap what I have accomplished in the last two weeks and what I need to accomplish in the next half month?

And on a quarterly basis, I pull out my original objectives and assess my performance against those detailed objectives.

I have a lot more than 50% of my objectives yet to get done this year. How about you?

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The Difficulty of Hiring For Fit


team-115887_640Even though I managed a staffing department for several years, I have never liked recruiting. There’s too much marketing involved for my taste.

But I do believe in the importance of hiring for organizational fit. A good staffing process assesses the candidate against the job and the organization to make sure there is a fit, and also lets the candidate get a clear picture of the organization, so that the candidate makes an informed decision about accepting the job.

Laurie Glover, Contributing Writer for The Business Journals, posted a good article on April 2, entitled How to structure a search for the “right” employee.   Ms. Glover offers three strategies for hiring the right employee:

  • Look for someone who has the relevant skills and knowledge, not necessarily the most intelligent candidate,
  • Assess the candidate’s motivation, and
  • Select people who fit the culture of your organization.

Unfortunately, all three strategies are difficult to make happen during the “dating” that occurs during most selection processes.

  1. Skills v. Intelligence—Both Are Important

I disagree in part with Ms. Glover on the role of intelligence. She advocates not necessarily hiring the best and the brightest, but looking instead for someone with the skills and knowledge to do the job. Yet she also says that skills and knowledge can be fixed, implicitly diminishing their importance in the hiring process.

I agree with her to the extent that when she says not to hire “the best and the brightest,” she means not to focus on candidates cut from the usual mold—those who come from the best universities and have the same stellar resumes. It is important to have a diversity of perspectives within an organization. Hiring all your employees on the basis of their alma maters or GPAs can easily get you a cookie cutter approach to the job.

However, a wise man I once worked for told me, “The way to tackle a hairy problem is to throw a bunch of your best people at it. They’ll come up with a solution.” On another occasion, this same manager said, “It’s never a risk to hire someone smart.”

I took both pieces of advice to heart, and tried to hire people who were not only intelligent, but also had proven successes in their past. Doing so required that I look for more than “book smarts.” The “best people” have more than intelligence. They have the motivation and cultural savvy that Ms. Glover describes in her other two strategies.

  1. Motivation is Critical

I am in complete agreement with Ms. Glover that the best people are those who are independently motivated. As she states, you cannot motivate employees; they must motivate themselves.

All candidates will profess themselves to be self-motivated. It will probably take serious probing during interviews to find out how self-directed applicants have been in achieving results in their previous roles. Checking references is also important, as is reading between the lines, because prior managers may be reluctant to describe a former employee as unmotivated.

Look for candidates to display enthusiasm about earlier projects and to talk openly about why they liked their prior assignments.

  1. Success Requires Cultural Fit

conflictThe final strategy that Ms. Glover recommends is also critical to hiring a strong candidate.  I love the way Ms. Glover articulates the importance of cultural fit: “Can I stand them while they’re doing the job (and can they stand us)?” We have all worked with someone who had the requisite skills and abilities, but who absolutely rubbed us the wrong way.

Yet cultural fit is difficult to assess during the normal recruiting process. Both candidate and organization are typically on their best behavior. It takes strong interviewing skills to assess the “how” of a candidate’s past performance, as well as the “what” of the results achieved.

Moreover, there are times when it is important to bring in someone with new skills or a new way of thinking into an organization. When that is the case, it is very important to do so carefully. Some candidates will be too much of a shock to the organization, or will be ineffective because they cannot communicate with internal partners and customers. That balance—diversity of thought and perspective on one hand, and cultural fit on the other—is delicate.

Often, it will boil down to “can I stand this person for 40+ hours per week?”

What has been your experience in hiring for fit?

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