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Managing performance: Making it happen

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John PopeIn the second and final part of his series looking at performance management, John Pope examines what managers can do to encourage a culture of high performance.


The previous article concentrated on developing a culture in the organisation where people were concerned about raising performance. A culture of high performance is essential – it is the organisation’s people and especially its managers who make it happen. This article concentrates on what managers can do.

Look at performance, regularly

Managers can be misled, or mislead themselves when looking at performance. They can learn about it from the figures, the measures of output and input. And they can see it by looking at how their people work, the disruption, delays, the way their people move or get on with things. Both approaches are necessary. Managers must be visible, and they must spot performance issues early. They must also have notes and evidence of performance and achievement when they discuss performance with their people, whether in a team, or individually. Individual performance is not something to be left to the annual review.

“Managers who are not, after some guidance, prepared to be brave and face difficulties openly are not worth paying for.”

Power questions

There are some very powerful questions which can unlock the door to high performance. If, instead of criticising poor performance, a manager says to a subordinate: “How can we do a better job together?” in an unthreatening way, it is surprising how often that subordinate will make a suggestion which improves performance or output or removes an obstacle. What’s holding us back is another good question.

It takes a secure manager to go into a group of his people and say: “Tell me two or three things which I’ve done this week which have got in your way or upset you.” After taking that flak, then and only then are they allowed to reciprocate and tell them about the way they see obstacles to mutual higher performance. Managers who are not, after some guidance, prepared to be brave and face difficulties openly are not worth paying for.

Confronting performance issues

Many managers dislike confronting their people over sub-standard performance which is not at the standards needed. It can be because they:

  • Don’t want to upset an individual or the team, or leave themselves short-staffed

  • Know that they are, in part, responsible

  • Feel that they don’t know how to handle disagreement

  • Don’t think that it will make any difference

The good performer

Good performers need their performance managed just as much as the poor ones, though differently – there is less risk of upset. Their talents must be identified, their range of work managed and extended; their development fostered; their progress hastened. Above all they must not be left to languish in some job where they may eventually become disheartened. It is a more difficult job for the manager in some ways when the junior has more potential than the senior. It is especially important that managers of high potential people are asked the power questions: “When are you going to give them part of your job?”; “What new work have you planned for them?”; “How soon can you lose them?”

And the ones in between?

“Good performers need their performance managed just as much as the poor ones, though differently.”

They may not be high fliers, they may not be remedial cases, but they are solid, reliable, and you’d be lost without them. Some years ago, one of the biggest UK retailers, realising that it was lagging far behind its competitors and getting worse, decided to replace its managing director. They went outside to buy a ‘ball of fire’, knowing that no insider was capable of turning the business round. The new dynamic MD made a great start – and really got things moving. After only a few months he was killed in a plane crash. The company secretary was given the reins of power while they searched for a replacement. They couldn’t find one quickly, but in the meantime that under-rated company secretary had turned himself into a ball of fire and they realised they didn’t need a replacement. He did a great job in revitalising that business.

Have we got the balance right?

Are we spending time and effort on the right people? It is an over-simplification but useful to take the view that there are three sorts of employees. There are the excellent ones: highly competent, some of whom are high fliers. They should get a lot of investment of management attention and development. If they don’t get it they leave or become frustrated.

There are the middling ones: solid, reliable and so consistent that you know how to use their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. They justify and repay you for your investment in them.

And there are the ones who give you a bit of trouble. At annual appraisal their manager considers their competencies and results. They think about what they wrote last year and believe that they have improved as a result of some training and mark them up a bit. Over the years the ratings stay at the ‘just about tolerable’ level.

“When all is said and done it is the attitude and the energies of top management which gets the results and sustains a culture of excellence.”

Are you throwing good money after bad? Why not take the investment in that bottom group which doesn’t really pay and put it into the middling group where it could do more good.

Performance, results – a final plea

Managers may talk about performance; managing directors and owners talk about results. It is management’s job to identify where high performance is most needed so that the organisation gets excellent results. It is management’s job to concentrate efforts on the real priorities. Assessing performance by achievement of targets which are of little relevance to the real world, as happens in many areas of government, is not sensible and brings the important concept of performance management into disrepute.

What can HR do to help managers?

HR can help managers by making sure that the systems for assessing performance and personal development needs are well designed and take account of the many factors which influence performance. They can spot the managers who are not getting the best from their people and call for action. They can make sure that systems of performance-related pay really encourage extra effort and achievement and are not a fudge. They can advise top management on ways of changing the culture of the organisation to one where results and performance are counted more important than conformity.

Managers may need help in facing up to people whose performance is poor; they may need help in identifying development needs, or in identifying people whose potential has not been recognised. They too can help in improving the culture within the organisation. They can stress the importance of improving performance in the training programmes which they organise. They could look at the ‘before and after’ of development interventions. They could check that planned development takes place and turns into effective action.

But when all is said and done, it is the attitude and the energies of top management that gets the results and sustains a culture of excellence.

Previous article:
Managing performance: The right approach.


John Pope has been a management consultant for over 40 years, and has had his own practice as an independent consultant for over 30 years. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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