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Workplace Drama: Perception vs. Performance

A big part of my HR life is spent coaching managers and supervisors on how to deal with employee relations challenges. It is one of the parts of my job that I truly enjoy the most. During the many hours I have spent in my career coaching managers, there are several commonalities in terms of managerial challenges that I have noticed over the years. One of the biggest challenges I find that managers get themselves caught up in is managing perception. Specifically, they become so focused on making sure that people “look” like they working, are being productive and are following the “rules” that miss the big picture impact that this approach causes. These managers believe that if everyone “looks” like they are working than they must be productive and all is well with their staff. This is a major management trap because these same managers often get themselves in trouble as they then begin to manage the perceptions of their staff as opposed to the actual performance of their people. This then begins a management spiral of doom!

DramaWhen managers manage to perception – theirs and others – they are losing sight of the actual performance outcomes of their employees. The work environment that is being established is one that rewards the best actors; that is, the employees that are good at looking busy will be perceived to be actually busy and thus it is concluded that they are performing. This management perception problem is worse in organizations that have an ineffective or non-existent goal setting process and/or are weak (or negligent) in establishing performance metrics. Without these, managers can’t properly delineate performance, so perception rules the workplace.

To give you some context, here is a scenario I have seen play out in many organizations. Employees (or the manager themselves) complain that an employee isn’t pulling their weight. They complain that “Bob” spends too much time making personal phone calls, taking too long a lunch or surfing the internet on work time. Inexperienced managers often jump to the conclusion that the employee is not working hard enough or is somehow “breaking the rules.” The issue then becomes one of compliance or policy. My questions back to the manager are always:

  1. What is the employee’s performance like compared to the goals, objectives, measurements and outcomes expected of them?
  2. What have YOU observed?
  3. Is this really an issue?

More often than not, the manager finds out that Bob is actually doing a good job. He delivers what is expected and there are no issues. Typically, the manager hasn’t observed anything; they are simply making a knee-jerk response to an employee complaint and they feel compelled to address the alleged rule breaking incident.

Here is the thing – perhaps Bob needs some coaching on how to develop himself or increase his job knowledge during down time.  Or, perhaps making a quick call or surfing the internet for a few minutes is Bob’s version of the “smoke break” or coffee break? Regardless, the manager needs to know the employee and understand the situation in front of them. The only way to do this is to observe, discuss and communicate. By reacting to perception, the manager confirms and validates the perception that the employee (Bob) is, in fact, not doing anything. That is, if you are in fact making a personal call, or surfing the internet, that is a bad thing and you are breaking the rules. By responding to this, you as the manager are sending the message that the employee is doing something wrong and is in fact, NOT performing.

So, here is the bottom line – you need to know your employee(s) and you need to understand how they are performing. If you don’t know to measure their performance or don’t know HOW they are performing, you need to become acquainted with this ASAP. It is incumbent on you as the manager to understand the performance levels of all of your employees – how else will you know if you have a problem or not? Coach, communicate, set expectations and re-adjust where need be. This will ensure that you are managing the performance and NOT the perception. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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3 Responses

  1. Good insights as always Scott. It is eay for a manager to focus on the “small stuff’ rather than on outcomes. the “small stuff” can be important too, but in the scheme of things is a “coaching opportunity”, rather than a “performance discussion”.

  2. This is a great piece Scott. I’ve written about this issue before here http://www.cognology.com.au/say-can-manage-measure-%E2%80%A8and-opposite-people/ … and I’m sure I’ll write about it again. You can only manage what you can measure, so it’s important that all managers have metrics in place to measure actual performance (not just the appearance of busy-ness).

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