A dogma called High performance culture: When support suffers and review rules - Part 5

K. Ramkumar
Updated: May 23, 2013 05:26:35 PM UTC

Seasoned managers often emphasise the importance of reviews and support to manage performance. This is because reviews help managers track what is happening, intervene with alternate plans and allocate resources or offer suggestions on course correction. Support helps manage the psychological and the work side of the performer.

To my mind, this brings up two questions that ought to be examined:

  1. In practice, how do reviews manifest themselves? Do constant reviews ruin performance and induce a sense of futility?
  2. Posturing aside, how do managers support their team members?

To understand this, we need to first understand what really happens in a review. Most managers first gaze at charts and fancy dashboards. They then reiterate what is evident to all: There is a variance between targets and performance. Then, the reviewed party offers excuses to explain the variance. The reviewer sometimes communicates disapproval, at other times berates, and sometimes even threatens, the individual at the other end.

The drama then moves to the most interesting phase of seeking a Mutual Assured Deterrence (MAD). This is when the struggle for who pins whom on the mat peaks. The reviewed manager, in turn, protests with hurt, on how impossible the targets are, the bad business environment, non-competitiveness of price, insufficient resources, incentives and sometimes even a dose of blackmail for effect: “Find someone else to do this, if I am not good enough”.

The reviewer returns the favour. He flashes, ‘the-competition-is-doing-better-in-the-same-market’ card; you have consumed more resources than what you have delivered; and finally, ‘I-am-the-boss’ crushing grapple finishes the job. Some are smarter. They dangle money and say, “Now that I have incentivised you, go find the business, I am unable to.” The master class in this is, the ‘somehow get me the numbers’ strategy.

Most senior managements, have rigid views of budgets. This translates into rigidity on the business and individual targets/metrics. The last couple of decades have entrenched the dogma that irrespective of changes in the business environment or erroneous budgeting assumptions, targets cannot be changed. This often leads to consequences that wreak havoc on the reputation of the organisation due to excesses committed by desperate managers.

If this be the case, what should the review focus on? In my view, start with the relevance of the original strategy/plan, follow it by examining whether the resources require reallocation, whether the abilities of the team members requires beefing up, reprioritise markets, customer segments, products, changes in policies, processes and systems and finally modify actions.

All review processes are diagnostic in nature. When the team engages with the solutions to remove roadblocks, they move into the support process.

Confident and competent leaders also use this to goad their teams, not to crib about the changed landscape or the constraints. They also focus on innovations to grab competitive advantage, without bothering too much about the targets on hand.

These leaders power their teams with ideas, direct the energies positively towards the next set of actions, and even defocus them from the original metrics. In the process, they remove the fear of failure. They then help them re-focus on a new set of goals and metrics. By doing this, they prevent teams from the futile task of chasing results well beyond their abilities and means.

These leaders operate, both on the psychological and work side of the performance dynamics. Thus, it is almost impossible to separate review from support. One helps to assess the situation; the other helps reassuring the teams that the leader is solving the problem with them.

Performance support, especially when the team encounters a roadblock, should focus on the following:

  • ‘Know what’ is required to deliver results in the changed context
  • ‘Know how’ should the task be approached
  • Clarify the ‘do what and when’
  • Direct the ‘do how’ by collaborating and demonstrating

Often times, managers do not understand that knowledge is insufficient to deliver performance. In business, skills are the ‘do’ and knowledge is the ‘know’. True performance support happens when the manager addresses the ‘do what’ and the ‘do how’. This is especially true when the review indicates that results are not going the way it was planned.

When results do not come, most often the problem is not the skill of the employee. It is because the manager does not ‘know how’ to get the result. The diagnosis of ‘know what” has not happened or is inadequate. Then everyone gets bogged down in defensive explanations and offensive pushes.

This puts the manager in a piquant situation.

How does he now direct the ‘do’? In all cases, where the diagnosis is inadequate or has not been undertaken and when everyone glares only at the variances, the manager has no choice, but to ask for more resources, incentives, threaten or resort to somehow-get-me-the-numbers ploy. This, in reality, is an admission by the manager that he is unable to manage performance and has abdicated responsibility.

In business, most of the ‘know’ is technical or functional. The ‘do’ is almost always behavioural. Any amount of classroom training does not help the ‘do’. Like in sports, the ‘do’ is learnt on the field and often through demonstration and relentless practice.

This is like teaching a kid cycling. The first stage is bearing the load by holding the cycle and running with the learner. The next stage after the learner has learnt to balance: Just hold when needed, but still run along. Balance is critical in cycling or for any skill because it builds confidence. The last phase is run along and at the right time let go, wave and say, “There you go, now you’re on your own”.

Whether it is cycling, sales, service, planning or conceptualising, the idea is the same. When you support performance, you are on the field, sometimes bearing the load, running along, showing the way, removing the fear of falling even as you manage to be both boss and co-worker in every sense of the word.

When directors do not ‘direct’—show the way and merely sets targets—they will be viewed as slave drivers. When managers take charge, demonstrate and show the way, they are experienced as supportive managers. Support motivates the teams many times more than either meaningless reviews or financial incentives.

Review and support are two sides of the same coin. When review becomes chart gazing and number chasing, it becomes ruinous. When review identifies issues, finds alternatives and directs actions—planned or modified—then it supports performance.

In conclusion, the heart of managing performance is providing the ‘whats’ and the ‘hows’. If goals, KRAs, targets, stretch, differentiation, feedback, rewards, and reviews support the performer to achieve results, performance is being managed. When fear of failure and anxiety is induced, then no matter what the pundits claim, performance is being ruined.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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