Improving poor performance

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A good management system will improve performance and motivation. But in order to achieve this, focus on the result, and never on the person.

Improving poor performance

I won my first tennis match at boarding school 6-3, 6-4. Back at the hostel, I felt a sort of lonely emptiness in the pit of my stomach. Something was missing… I soon realised what it was. Almost every weekend at home was spent around a tennis court, and my father always told me what he thought of my game. If he was critical, his feedback was gentle and encouraging. How I missed it!

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We all need feedback. We all want to hear from those who matter to us and who have influence in our lives. Praise is easy to give and receive, and a great motivator. But negative feedback, difficult to deliver and difficult to receive, can be equally motivating if communicated constructively and sensitively. If it’s done correctly, people will respond positively to negative feedback – and herein lies the management challenge: how to do it right.

Mandatory reading for every supervisor or manager in your organisation should be The One Minute Manager by Blanchard and Johnson. Make their message of ‘Catching someone doing something right’ a part of your management culture and it will change the way the organisation operates. But it’s not enough; a more formal process of providing feedback is also needed. Years ago, these procedures were dreaded by employees and often did more harm than good. Now, fortunately, we have much improved ‘performance management’ systems available.

Understanding each other
Whichever system you choose to use, you want everyone to look forward to the sessions, to see them as an opportunity to grow and develop. The conclusion of a formal performance management session should have both boss and subordinate better understanding their goals and each other, and both highly motivated to achieve their objectives. There are two stages to such a system – ‘performance planning’ and ‘performance appraisal’.

At the planning stage, you meet and establish the goals and objectives of the specific job, as well as the criteria used to judge whether or not they have been met. In setting these, never lose sight of the Pareto Principle – the ‘80-20 rule’ – which states that 20% of the job delivers 80% of the result. Identify the 20%, which should comprise no more than five or six crucial results required from the job.

Then identify the results desired, not how to achieve them. Discuss and agree on the relative priority of the result required, using a scale: one – least important; three – most important; two – somewhere in-between. The result must be clearly measurable. Sometimes this can be quite difficult, and you may struggle to find a way seen to be fair by both boss and subordinate, but there’s always one.

Write it all down
Carefully document the source of information to be used to carry out this measurement, whose responsibility it is to get this information, and the method which will be used. Identify the resources required as well as the kind of support needed from the boss and others for the subordinate to achieve the agreed results. Also identify the force majeure events which might intervene.

Set appropriate dates for follow-up and appraisal sessions. For lower-level employees, appraisals should take place more often than for senior personnel. Remember – the purpose of a ‘performance management system’ is to improve performance and motivation. In order to do this, it’s crucial that the focus is solely on the result and never on the person during the appraisal stage. The pronoun ‘you’ should be avoided as far as possible.

Living document
If the desired results have been achieved, give credit where it’s due, and revise the result expected for the coming period. In this respect, a performance management document is truly a ‘living document’. If the results have not been achieved, evaluate the reasonableness of the objective and then the reasons for its being missed. If these include a lack of resources in the organisation, take action to remedy this.

Should the failure be due to lack of action or expertise by the subordinate, your job as a manager now enters one of its most exciting and challenging phases. How are you going to get this employee’s performance up? What will you do to fix the problem? What can you do to assist this person next time around? Clinically discuss and identify the reasons for the result not having been achieved. Agree to the follow-up action required from both of you in order to fix the problem. Then set a specific follow-up date to discuss only this objective and the progress being made towards meeting it.

This is what performance management is about!

This article was originally published in the 4 October 2013 issue of Farmers Weekly.