Improving Performance. How to bring out the best in your people.

improving performance

This post is extracted from an article I wrote for the CIPD Management Toolclicks Newsletter in February.  You can read the original article here.

In George Osborne’s Autumn Statement, he shared the news that he has extended his austerity programme until 2018.  This is disheartening news for organisations and managers who are already struggling to deliver results with less budget and fewer people.

Managers’ roles in managing and improving performance is more important than ever.  And by that I don’t mean just managing underperformers.  It saddens me that some organisations see “Performance Management” as a dirty word, referred to only when there is a performance issue.

On the contrary, managing and improving performance is a daily responsibility of every manager.   This article outlines 3 reasons why you might not be getting the best out of your people.

1. Business is Behaviour

One of the things I hear from managers all the time is that managers don’t have time for discussions around improving performance.  But Performance Management isn’t separate to the job of a manager; it is the job of a manager.  Managing your people’s performance is the way you deliver business results.

Improving performance is all about influencing employees behaviour.  An organisation employs people to do the work that only people can do.   All business results depend on people’s behaviour.   Whenever an organisation strives to improve quality, increase productivity, or boost creativity, it must ask people to change their behaviour.  Employees must either do the same activities they are doing more or less often or behave in different ways.

2. Employees Don’t Do What You Tell Them To Do

In most organisations we try to manage performance by telling people what to do.  We tell them to work harder; we tell them to work better; we tell them to work smarter.  We tell them to show more initiative, be more creative, be self-directed, be empowered.

We tell them to do these things in a variety of ways.  We send e-mails, have meetings, write policies, hold classes, and make informational and inspirational speeches.

Interestingly, when these methods don’t get the desired response or level of performance we want, we tell the same people again, usually in the same ways.  Only this time we tell them a little louder, or a little longer, or perhaps a little meaner.

But people frequently don’t do what they are told.  If we always did what we were told, we would only eat nutritious foods, never drink too much alcohol, and exercise regularly.  We would always “put the customer first, take initiative and do it right first time”

3. Goal-Setting is not Enough

One of the most specific ways in which we tell people what to do is to set goals.  Few activities consume more management time than goal setting.  Defining specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time bound (SMART) goals has been a mantra for generations of managers and HR people.

Even though we know that people don’t do what they’re told, goal-setting at the start of the performance year is the number one strategy we use to manage performance.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that goal-setting isn’t important.  It can be a valuable way of clarifying expectations and setting the scene for managing and improving performance.

But it’s not enough.

Behavioural psychologists will tell you that such scene-setting may encourage an employee to behave a certain way once.  But it is what happens afterwards that makes a difference.

The Power of Positive Reinforcement

People repeat behaviour when they receive positive reinforcement for it and that needs constant dialogue and feedback.

What do I mean by positive reinforcement?  I simply mean a favourable change that happens because of the employee behaving in a certain way.  It might occur naturally like for example, an employee getting pleasure from carrying out certain tasks or working with certain people.  Or the manager might create it, for example by giving a congratulatory note, praise or public acknowledgement.  And of course it could be tangible in the form of money or a prize but, there are many ways of giving positive reinforcement without it costing anything.  The most important point is to get to know your employees because reinforcement is individual to each.  What works with one person may not work with another.

So if you’re focussed on improving performance you need to need to engage regularly in skilful conversations that bring out the best in your people.  And you need to reinforce positively the activities and behaviours that will deliver business results.


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