“The productivity of work is not the responsibility of the worker but of the manager.”

“You have to push. No one works as hard as they can all the time. It’s just not human nature. A lot of people mix things up…they say, ‘I’m not having fun’ … well, practice is not fun, I mean, it can be satisfying , but when you are running for two and a half hours and someone is on at you to go harder, play better, and smarter, uhm, I don’t think you can characterise that as fun …”

This is a paraphrased response given by Jim Boeheim, the legendary coach of the Syracuse University Basketball team, when he was asked how hard he pushed his players. Like all coaches, he has some great insights to offer on leadership and related matters, but he also makes the very valid point that an important part of any manager’s role is to push for maximum performance from each and every individual.

‘Pushing’ for best performance in the workplace has never been more important, but it can be perceived in a negative light by some, and just as basketball players sometimes don’t like being asked to give more, the same applies to employees. But of course it’s how you set about the ‘pushing’ which is the real issue here; old-style approaches which are concerned only with ‘task’ won’t get you very far these days but even when you do all the right things, you will still get a bit of resistance from some, but that’s just a fact of life for managers.

I was reminded of the importance of getting the most from your employees by a little incident that happened last week. Let me explain. On Friday evening, about 9pm, I was taking a bus out of the city and there were two guys in the seat just in front of me, obviously on their way home from work, and judging by their raised voices, having made a pit stop for a pint or two on the way. At one stage, the guy on the outside seat said to the other, “You know, I just totally goofed off today…I spent most of the time pretending to type away, but I actually did nothing…” They had a good laugh at that, and why not I suppose, it was Friday.

But from a management perspective, such instances –and they are far from  isolated in my experience – are problematic for a whole host of reasons, not least of which is the negative impact on productivity. In any business, the reality is that employees will always have some amount of down-time (or a ‘mental health moment’ as one employee described it to me) and that’s not necessarily fatal,  if for the most part they are achieving results which stretch them and are doing the very best they can most of the time. But, as you well know, this is not always the case, and particularly in small and medium sized enterprises, I find that the measurement of employee performance can still be a bit haphazard at times. Looking busy can still pass for being productive.

So, ask yourself a simple question. Are you getting the best performance possible from all your people? Consistently? Week-in-week-out? Likely you will find some room for improvement here so I thought it might be useful to provide you with some food for thought on the issue of ‘pushing’ for greater effort without of course applying a ‘white coat and clipboard’ approach which would likely reduce performance and productivity not raise them.

Naturally, the surest route to getting the most from your employees is to ensure that they are as engaged and motivated as possible and that of course brings into play a range of issues such as culture, leadership, drivers of engagement, rewards and recognition all of which I have written about previously. But even with the necessary focus on the ‘people’ side of the equation, as a manager you always have to consider ‘task’ too and as a consequence employee performance has to be managed, so that every employee is working towards some form of specific targets, and achievement of those targets needs to be closely monitored.

There are of course any number of comprehensive performance management systems out there and if you have already integrated something of that nature into your business, then your main focus today when reflecting upon the issue is to consider how well the system is delivering for you at present. If you don’t have a structured approach, or formal system, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a costly undertaking to remedy that gap, and when you think of the application of such systems from a cost-benefit perspective you’ll find the returns warrant the investment. Whatever model you have, or may adopt, there are some commonsense principles that need to be applied to performance management and that will be my focus today.

First off, when you think of it, you want your employees to perform certain tasks (the how) in order to achieve specific results (the what) and any performance management system needs to ensure that both the ‘doing’ and the ‘outcomes’ are as required. This requires you to consider a range of questions:

  • What results should each employee achieve?
  • In working towards those results, what processes, procedures and quality considerations are important?
  • What assistance and development will be available to help them reach expectations?
  • How will performance be measured?
  • How will feedback be provided?
  • How will positive performance be rewarded and underperformance addressed?

1. What results should each employee achieve?

You cannot measure an employee’s performance if they aren’t clear as to what is expected of them in the first place so clarifying roles, responsibilities and outcomes for each employee is a key step here. Tools like job descriptions are important in this, but there should also be key result areas defined for employees (linked to broader business goals and targets) with appropriate concrete measures agreed which can track their progress and performance. In terms of defining and assigning individual targets and measures, a number of considerations come to mind:

Validity - you must ensure that the measures are based on the key skills and responsibilities of the individual’s job, and appropriate in terms of their job description. In addition, they should ‘filter down’ from, and support, the broader business goals.

Measurability – you need to ensure that any expected outcomes are defined in such a ways as to make them measurable i.e. Apply the SMART principle to them.

Acceptability – this relates to how employees view the measures; do they accept them as valid and appropriate? This does not mean that you allow the ‘tail to wag the dog here’ but if an employee does not agree with a measure, or fails to understand its merit, they are unlikely to give their all to achieving it. That’s why it’s vital to ensure that what is expected of employees, and how that will be measured, is fully communicated as part of recruitment.

2. In working towards those results, what processes, procedures and quality considerations are important?

As well as the specific outcomes you want, there will naturally be right and wrong ways of doing things and achieving a certain target without caring for the ‘how’ is at best a short term gain. Therefore you need to have defined procedures and standards in place – without going overboard on paperwork of course – which provide clear guidance as to how things should be done. There should be no ambiguity as to the levels of quality required.

3. What assistance and development will be available to help them reach expectations?

Clearly you cannot expect top performance without providing development and support to your employees so that they have the required skills and knowledge which gives them a fair chance of living up to your expectations. That said, it is not unusual today to see companies raising the bar in terms of what they are demanding from employees whilst at the same time cutting back on the training and development opportunities offered. This is understandable in some respects, but if you think about it in purely objective terms, it’s a crazy situation.

4. How will performance be measured?

As with any aspect of measurement, you will need some process to facilitate the gathering of the required data; the nature and complexity of the measurement system will depend upon what you are hoping to monitor, the size of your business and so on but many small business owners and managers fall down here as they get the data they need too late, or too infrequently, to support effective performance measurement. In terms of measuring how the work is carried out, the importance of supervision should also not be overlooked. This is undoubtedly a really obvious (and basic) point, but I am seeing an emerging dilemma in this regard in many companies. For example, as well as employee layoffs, recent years have seen a streamlining of management layers in many companies with the result that those left are often under severe pressure just to manage their own workload, which does not facilitate the effective supervision of the work of others.

5. How will feedback be provided?

Not much to say here other than the fact that feedback should be regular and ongoing, and in addition, there should be periodic structured job chats and appraisals to provide for a more holistic and intensive review of performance. Again, hard to argue against this, but given the previous point, I am finding that many managers either don’t have the time to provide appraisals these days, or when forced to do so, cannot give them sufficient attention and focus.

6. How will positive performance be rewarded and underperformance addressed?

Finally for today, in terms of getting the most from your employees you need to be very clear as to how they will be recognised and rewarded when they do achieve and exceed expectations; and those returns have to have some value and meaning for the employee in question. Equally, when an employee fails to deliver, there must be consequences, for to allow underperformance to go unchallenged will cause disgruntlement amongst those who are making the effort, which in turn will drag down their performance.

Now, I don’t pretend that there is much new in today’s post, that wasn’t the intention, but the issue of managing employee performance has never been more important. Yet, for reasons outlined above, getting the most from employees these days is challenging, not least because managers themselves are generally swamped and haven’t the time to devote as much attention to this area as warranted. But, regardless of the challenges presented, as Peter Drucker once said, “The productivity of work is not the responsibility of the worker but of the manager.”

Enjoy your day!

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