Monday, April 27, 2015

A Man, a Dog, and Performance Expectations

"The factory of the future will have two employees--a man and a dog. The man's job will be to feed the dog. The dog's job will be to prevent the man from touching any of the automated equipment."  --Warren Bennis

What a lucky man and lucky dog, stepping into shiny new factory-of-the-future jobs bristling with role clarity and explicit performance expectations. Imagine how happy and fortunate these two employees felt on their first day of work!

Fast forward 12 months to performance appraisal time. While both man and dog are confident they performed well, a new reality emerges during performance discussions. Their boss agrees that the man did a good job feeding the dog, but marks him down for not providing the dog with sufficient water and not washing and walking him enough. Then the boss tells the dog that he did a good job keeping the man away from the equipment, but marks him down for not collaborating effectively with the man on watering and walking and washing tasks. 

Of course the man and the dog are disappointed, and confused. They thought they understood their roles and the performance expectations associated with those roles, only to find out they were actually being evaluated against a different, broader set of expectations.  How could that have happened?

Unfortunately, it happens all the time. Organizations still using an old-school annual appraisal process probably see it more often than those that use an interactive performance management approach (see a thoughtful review of the difference between those two approaches here) but it can happen anytime there’s a performance expectation communication failure. And such failure has consequences. Susan M. Heathfield describes it this way in What's the Big Deal About Clear Performance Expectations?
A lack of clear performance expectations is cited by readers as a key contributing factor to their happiness or unhappiness at work. In fact, in a poll about what makes a bad boss bad, the majority of respondents said that their manager did not provide clear direction. This factor affected their sense of participation in a venture larger than themselves and their feelings of engagement, motivation, and teamwork.
Alyssa Danigelis in How to Communicate Employee Expectations Effectively likens it to the reality show Survivor:
Employee expectations gone awry can practically be spotted from a helicopter miles away. The tension becomes so thick it changes the air. Anxiety spreads. Alliances form. A mutiny brews. At the failing end of the communication spectrum, the workplace resembles a Survivor tribal council.
If you have ever worked in organization operating at the “failing end of the communication spectrum” then Alyssa’s reference to the Survivor reality show may stir up painful memories. After all, if in your workplace the Survivor slogan (Outwit, Outplay, Outlast) accurately characterizes the prevailing operating shared mindset and the gambits you and your colleagues use to interact with one another, it’s probably time to move on. But if you’re stuck in such an environment, and nothing seems to be going well, this classic article by Jean-Fran├žois Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux in the Harvard Business Review might be of interest to you: The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome.

Of course there are many things a company can do to strengthen their performance management process, such as aligning individual performance objectives to their strategy and business plans, clearly communicating performance objectives and associated accountabilities and expectations, insisting on regular performance evaluation and feedback sessions, and holding managers accountable for making it all work. But that may not be enough according to Sylvia Vorhauser-Smith, who in a 2013 Forbes article wondered “Is there any organizational practice more broken than performance management?” Her take: 
  • Everyone hates it – employees and managers alike
  • Nobody does it well – it’s a skill that seemingly fails to be acquired despite exhaustive training efforts, and
  • It fails the test of construct validity – it doesn’t do what it was designed to do, i.e. increase performance

Her solution?  Shift the performance focus from process to outcomes, burn the forms, replace them with dashboards and performance heat maps, and embrace an agile work environment in which: 

  • You will set dynamic goals and adjust them in response to change
  • Your manager will provide just-in-time coaching wherever you are
  • Skills and knowledge you need will be recommended and streamed to you
  • Your performance journal will continuously capture and cluster feedback, ideas and suggestions from your peers and customers
  • Your formal annual performance review will be permanently deleted from your calendar
  • You will finally be in a position to manage your own career 
I imagine the man and the dog would be thrilled to see Vorhauser-Smith’s approach implemented at the factory-of-the-future, particularly that part about eliminating formal annual performance reviews. But even if that doesn’t happen, they might want to improve their chances of success by asking the boss to adopt a more enlightened performance expectation communication and feedback approach. And if the boss demurs?  Maybe they could get Jack Welch, whose feelings about performance appraisal ambushes are well known, to have a chat with the boss.  Considering past quotes from Welch, it might go something like this:

Jack:         “When you become a leader success is all about growing others.” 
The Boss“OK…”
Jack:         “You have no right to be a leader if someone who works for you doesn’t know where they stand.”
The Boss:   “Ouch. Sounds like you are questioning my suitability for this role.”
Jack:          “Control your destiny or someone else will.”
The Boss:   “Got it.”

Jack’s too busy to have that conversation with the Boss, of course, but the model is so simple and obvious that even the Boss’s Boss could probably deliver the message:

If you want your employees to perform at their best, you need to do four things:
  • Communicate what you want them to do and confirm their understanding
  • Use measures of performance and success that are well-designed, explicit and understood
  • Give them the resources and support they need to succeed
  • Provide them with appropriate guidance and feedback so they can produce the best results

The good news is that this model works well for humans and dogs.  If factory-of-the-future expands and eventually hires a cat, however, they’ll probably need to modify this approach since cats are generally not too interested in guidance or feedback.

 Dean K. Harring, CPCU, CIC is a retired insurance executive who now spends his time as an advisor, board member, educator and animal portrait artist.  He can be reached at dean.harring@gmail.com or through LinkedIn or Twitter or Harring Watercolors.

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