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Why You Can't Put Performance Management on the Back Burner
Leaders too often think taking time to examine a team’s performance, whether that’s correcting what’s wrong or amplifying what’s good, is boring or isn’t necessary for getting today's priorities done. That sort of scrutiny also often requires some tough conversations between the leader and their team as they figure out the gaps in the team's performance.
Since team performance management is hard and not urgent, folks put it off or make it much lower priority. This is especially the case in new businesses and organizations where it's "all hands on deck, all the time," and the founders tend to be really uncomfortable or insecure about their ability to get things done. The bootstrapper mindset subverts the leader’s mindset and "work harder/longer" becomes the answer to whatever challenge is presented.
Team Patterns Are an Extension of Your Patterns
The result of putting team performance management on the back burner, though, is that the team keeps falling into the same holes over and over again.
Every team has certain patterns they fall into and habits they perpetuate, and, in my experience, those patterns are an extension of the leader's personal patterns. (Tweet this)
If the leader is prone to overcommit to things, the team is prone to be doing too much at once. If the leader is prone to getting caught up in the details of everything while missing the bigger picture, the team is prone to being caught up in the details of everything while missing the bigger picture. This is partially because new leaders often hire people like themselves and partially because the leader unconsciously rewards the pattern by modeling it and favoring people who emulate them.
Team patterns that are extensions of the leader's patterns often don't get examined, discussed, and corrected simply because the leader can rarely see them, and, without team performance management conversations, there's no real avenue for teammates to have any real dialogue about them. If the leader is well-loved and respected by their team, the team covers up and works around the leader’s weaknesses. If the team is intimidated by their leader, they won't speak up about the patterns for fear of backlash and retribution. (One of the biggest value-adds of executive coaches and management consultants is that we can see this in play and address it.)
The most common pattern I've seen is that leaders assume and expect their team to work as hard, consistently, and effectively as they do. It's not just that the founder has founder's mojo, but that everyone should have founder's mojo. Given that lots of founders tend to ride close to the edges of burnout and workaholism, their teams ride close to the edge of burnout and workaholism. Dunkirk spirit can't be the daily fuel of a team.
Making team performance management a lower priority puts the team in danger of burnout or under-performance due to fatigue. What's even more costly to the team than slowing down and talking about the team and individual’s performance is not slowing down and consequently losing key teammates and paying the cost of recruiting, hiring, training, and integrating new teammates.
The choice leaders thus have is investing in their team's talent and performance as they go OR paying a much steeper bill when the cost of not doing it comes due. There's no free lunch here. The longer it's been since you've had a conversation with a teammate, the harder it is to have that conversation — and the more likely you need to have it as soon as possible. PRODUCTIVE FLOURISHING
Performance Management Needs to Happen for the Good and the Bad (and Everyone in Between)
While I've largely talked about team performance management in the context of a team or individual's sub-par performance, what I've seen just as often is that leaders don't have performance management conversations with their teams and individuals that are performing well. The idea seems to be that if everything's working and people are getting praised as they go, there's no need to have conversations dedicated to telling them how good a job they're doing, especially if they're getting pay raises and promotions.
Here are a few things to consider on that front:
While public kudos are always appreciated, most people also really appreciate specific feedback and recognition for the ways they're excelling. The more they respect you as a leader, the more this specific feedback and recognition counts. Also, this is your chance to see how and where your teammate wants to learn and grow; when your best performers stop growing, they start looking for outside growth opportunities.
Your best teammates tend to have responsibility creep, either because they naturally take on more or you give them more because they're able to get it done. So what you think the scope of their job is and what it actually turns out to be often diverge, and they're unlikely to be getting "credit" for everything they're actually doing. You also probably won't see that your star performers are carrying responsibilities of your poor performers — at some point, your star performer will be capped out and frustrated, so you'll be in jeopardy of having a disengaged and demotivated star performer because you didn't address the poor performance of their teammate.
Given (2) and the fact that roles evolve quickly in new teams, without having that performance management conversation you might not see that people are carrying random responsibilities that don't align well and/or do pull against each other. For instance, having a responsibility or two that keeps them in a reactive working mode may keep them from being able to sink into the proactive work that would be their highest and best contribution to the team. (I see this all the time with my clients; less so in my own team.)
So, if your team and individuals are performing well, you need to have regular performance management conversations. And if they're not performing well, you need to have regular performance management conversations.
You won't find the time to do it — you'll have to make time to do it. But, much like planning, you'll end up spending more time by not doing it.