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Jim Constable

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We all need improvement plans


Improving performance – only for the struggling? We should all be taking responsibility for our performance, says Jim Constable.

Many years ago one of our coaches was working with a sales consultant. He overheard a conversation between the consultant and his client discussing the training of the client’s staff: "Where I work, we’ve been given responsibility for our own development,” said the consultant. Our coach was dumbfounded and a number of questions went through his mind: Who had responsibility for the consultant’s development before it was given back to him; at what point had he given it away; and how much trust must he have had to have given it away in the first place?

Six months ago, the same coach overheard another conversation between an HR leadership team during their lunch break. They were discussing a member of staff that one of them had responsibility for:“Jane has been really struggling lately.”
The other added: “Yes I know, I thought she was turning things around a few months back, but she’s just not doing what she needs to
“If she carries on like this she’ll be on the verge of a performance improvement plan,” added the first.

The coach, now a performance coach at K2, was horrified at the idea that a performance plan was being used in this way. Was the performance in question so bad that it deserved an improvement plan? What was this plan – some sort of punishment? Whose responsibility is performance improvement? And why should it only be an entitlement of the underperforming?

Two months later, the coach heard Sir Steve Redgrave talking about personal responsibility. Sir Steve was recounting a particular event where the Olympic crew that he was involved with had underperformed. Such was the sense of personal responsibility that the different crewmembers and the head coach, Jurgen Grobler, were fighting to take responsibility for their below par performance:
“It was my fault; I got the training plan wrong and I’ve over-worked you,” said the coach.
“No, no, it was totally down to me, I messed up at one point in execution of the plan”, claimed one crew member.
“No, it was down to me, if I’d put in more of an effort in training we’d have been OK”, said another.

In the area of performance coaching that covers elite level sport and the world of business, there are common performance factors that are continually being worked upon and improved, which result in achieving the desired goals. In other words, performance is what you do in order to get the results that you want. We often see in business a detrimental focus on outputs, where corporate targets, usually numerical, get passed down through the hierarchy to front line staff.

Furthermore, these staff are given minimum control in deciding, or even influencing, how they might achieve these (sometimes meaningless) numbers they are given. Sometimes the targets are so ‘in their face’ that they’ve little time to consider how they can get better because they are so focused on the numbers. The more people who are targeted, the more they are told what to do, the less a sense of control they feel, the more performance becomes depersonalised, the more average it becomes and the more an individual’s sense of responsibility becomes eroded.

So how can training and HR break this cycle? It begins by being really clear on where roles and responsibilities lie. At least the sales consultant we talked about earlier knew where he stood, even if his newfound responsibility was unfamiliar to him. Which performance factor makes a major difference and is always within the control of the individual? Attitude. If it is made clear that attitude is a choice, that personal performance is the responsibility of the individual, that the performance of a team is the responsibility of the whole team, not the team leader, then it is no longer a case of ‘I’m having a bad day’ but ‘doing a bad day.’ Of course that takes some individual and collective bravery because it means there is no longer any hiding place.

HR and training can lead the way by mobilising their resources to best support the needs of the workforce in achieving the business goals. This requires bravery in recognising that not all the answers are known, in allowing staff to set the detailed training agenda, and by focusing not on the outputs of performance, but with discipline and intensity on becoming world class at the inputs. This includes encouraging everyone in the business to answer the question ‘how can I get better today?’ rather than the standard question; ‘what do I need to do today?’

In such an environment, one-to-one performance reviews and performance plans are things that are driven by all performers, irrespective of their results.

Jim Constable is Performance Coach at K2 Performance


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