I was discussing leadership with a colleague the other day and the topic came around to the question of how do you deal with someone or a team who have not had any meaningful feedback on performance for some time? It is a good question and one that every leader faces at some point in their journey. Maybe someone gets transferred to your group or you move into leading and new group and inevitably you will discover this gap.
This should not surprise us because in spite of the perceptions we have and the posturing that some folks will exhibit about "sticking it to their staff" the reality is that giving feedback on performance is something almost everyone struggles with. Assessments are an emotional minefield and most of us either avoid them like the plague or we find a nondescript process that clumps everyone in a very narrow band - a sort of the "no one moves, no one gets hurt" approach where we can say we did it but in reality everyone knows that it was just a process of going through the motions.
So how do you avoid that minefield? Two things; metrics (not necessarily the same as a kpi) and behavior. On a plant floor or in a production setting metrics could be quite straight forward. How many widgets did you make today? What was your down time? In a corporate setting those metrics might be harder to spot but the question still comes down to what "widgets" need to be counted for the receptionist, mail clerk, or the HR department?
Why count anything? Simply this; if you can get your team to start measuring (counting) something that is part of their job you now have something that you can discuss with them that is performance related but not personal. You move from the notion of having to tell someone you don't think they are doing a good job (did you get a chill at the thought?) to asking them to tell you about their numbers. "How did you do yesterday?" "Tell me about that uptick on Wednesday." Now its about the numbers not the person and surprisingly when you have a good set of metrics they will want to tell you about it.
Okay but what does this have to do with behavior? Let me share an example from an experience I had with the leadership at a large coastal LNG facility. The leadership was looking to ramp up operator performance and the first thing they wanted to look at was the daily ops report filled out by each operator. Up to this point they were concerned about the lack of detail in the reports and the mandate was "we want better reports". Over the course of the next 30 minutes we walked them from "we want better reports" to more specific behaviors such as they need to be filled out daily, need to have safety issues mentioned, need to have repair status mentioned and we would like them to discuss process reviews for things like P&ID's. Sometimes it is not about counting an actual widget as much as it is about counting a behavior. This is hard because we have not been taught to look at performance as a series of behaviors that in combination produce results toward a goal.
The net effect was amazing and really not that hard. We engaged in discussions with the operators and asked them what sorts of things they would like to see on the daily ops reports and of course they pretty much wanted the same things as the leadership. So we started to count and track ops reports on a graph in the control room. They counted who submitted each day and they counted the number of discrete entries (safety, repairs etc.) and they explored process reviews. In very short order (one month) reports went from one or two sentences to a base line of over 15 separate items and they discovered a number of ways to improve processes too! Now the supervisor or manager could walk in and stand and look at the graph and every time an operator would come over to engage them about the numbers and the performance.
We are all competitive by nature. Whether it is in team sports or individual sports we are always looking to improve our "scores". I give you two examples to support this premise; the Olympics and video games. You would think that with all the advances in sport that it would be hard to break old records and set new ones. There was a point for example where we did not think breaking the 4 minute mile was possible and yet that is now routine. At every Olympic games we see new records set. Video gaming as an industry now has a total market value of just under $2 trillion dollars! Every gamer will tell you that it is the challenge of either doing better than you did last game or doing better than the other players in that game. We are wired for competition and improvement.
Linking behavior and metrics allows you to move past the old "minefield" that inhibited true performance improvement to active and meaningful discussions with your team on measures they have developed and that promote the overarching goals of the company. The work is in identifying the behaviors that are linked to the performance of a task or a role and then letting them run with it. Find the behavior, let them start counting and watch the impact that will have on performance.