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Going to the well once too often

Have you ever heard of the saying, “They went to the well once too often”? It is a 14th century saying that basically means that one shouldn’t repeat a risky action too often or push their luck too far. Unfortunately I have seen this expression play out when it comes to talent and performance management in the workplace. Organizations/managers tend to go to the well once too often with their best people.

Goint to the wellHere’s what I mean – in any given organization, somewhere between 10%-30% of your employees are your top performers or your “best.” The rest of your talent is somewhere between average to good with a small percentage of your staff that are “not quite cutting it.” Those are completely unscientific facts based simply on years of HR work experience; however, since this is my blog, I am allowed to make up stats! I do feel confident that most people would probably agree that if you were managing a department of 10 – 20 people, about 3-6 of them are your “go to” folks. So there you have it, the math works!

Here is the danger in what I have seen/dealt with in my experience. During tough times or boom times (the approach tends to be the same during both) organizations tend to over rely on their best people. Instead of “stretching” their average to good performers, or god forbid, culling and replacing their poor performers, they tend to heap more responsibilities on their best people. Companies and managers tend to continue to push and ask for more and more from their best folks. They take performance excellence for granted. Why do they do this? Because their best people continue to deliver!

You see, those elite folks that you have are driven by a desire to succeed. They never want to fail and they take great pride in their professional brand. However, this approach to mis-managing top talent this way comes with a cost. Sure, you will have a few of your best folks that will be vocal about things. They will be loud and clear about how unhappy they are with the current situation. Most will suffer in silence though. They will put on the brave face as they continue to work more and more hours. They might politely ask for help/more resources or they might possibly express some veiled concern about not being able to deliver. Most won’t say anything though. They will soldier on through. There might be more requests for vacation days and/or sick days as they try and recoup and recharge for the continued onslaught of demands. Most managers won’t clue into this though as they will be too busy continuing to add to the work demands and show their leaders that “they” can deliver.

Beware though – there is a tipping point. You can’t continue to go to the well time and time again with your best people. You see, your best people have options. They can get other jobs. They can and will leave. They don’t have to put up with the incessant demands and unrealistic expectations. Your poor to average performers – they will stay because they usually don’t have options or at least not as many options. If your best talent leaves, are you going to ask more of your poorer performing employees? I doubt it and if the answer was “yes,” then why aren’t you asking for more now instead of jeopardizing the retention of your best folks?

At the very least, in the short term, you had best be rewarding and compensating your best people for their ongoing extra efforts. You can rest assured, that if they have done all the heaving lifting for a 6-12 month stretch (or longer) and all that is in it for them is a 2.5% raise, then you won’t have them for much longer! Don’t go to that (top talent) well once too often. Recognize the warning signs, performance manage the low performers and “stretch” your average to good performers. Those that excel will become part of your elite talent group. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com/Tom Sodoge


Start, Stop, Continue

I recently spoke at a professional engineering conference on the topic of performance management. The gist of my presentation focused on providing technical managers with practical tips, tools and suggestions to help them better manage employee performance while aligning with organizational and departmental goals. The session ended being quite interactive and of course, the “best” questions came after I was done presenting when many folks wanted to ask specific questions that pertained to their role and their business.

Start StopHere is what I learned or at least what was reconfirmed for me after speaking with the attendees – almost everyone struggles with managing employee performance in some capacity or another. For some, it is the struggle to have the difficult conversations and/or to deal with the performance feedback they receive from their employees. For others, it is dealing with a lack of organizational support when it comes to communicating goals and holding staff accountable.

Here is the real interesting part, while I provided the audience with several tools and tips to manage performance while focusing a lot of goal alignment (organization – departmental – individual) there was still something missing. What I found out, while interacting with the audience, is that there is still a very real struggle to simply talk to employees about basic elements of performance – whether or not you have goal alignment, performance management tools or feedback training. The bottom line is that for many of these managers, it is a constant struggle just to initially engage in a conversation with staff to talk about performance, all of which is exacerbated if there is a lack of organizational commitment to performance management and goal alignment.

So, in order to make sure that my audience left the presentation still feeling good about their ability to tackle managing performance, I had to dig down real deep in the old HR tool box to give them something tangible they could walk away with and apply on the job. One of the best conversation starters/trust building activities I learned in my career is the Start, Stop, Continue discussion. Not sure where I learned this from so my apologies to the creator of it; however, it is a fantastic way to start discussions with employees.

You see, effective employee conversations are all predicated on trust. Employees need to trust in the feedback that you are giving, trust that you will keep your word and trust that you will support them in helping them to grow and develop. Hence, the Start, Stop, Continue meeting (SSC for short), is a great way to get the ball rolling in this area. Essentially, you have to start by having regular dialogue with your staff. This way, having 1:1 discussions with employees is just a regular part of how you do business and it doesn’t just occur when someone has screwed up! Assuming this has taken place, and in order to transition into a SSC discussion, your dialogue should go something like this:

“Sue, my goal is to make this department (more) effective – one in which employees want to contribute and are rewarded for their performance. In order to do this, I need input from you and all the other employees. So here is my question to you: in order to help you be more effective in your role and contribute to the team success, what is one thing that we, as a department, need to START doing immediately, what is one thing we need to STOP doing immediately and what is one thing we need to make sure we CONTINUE doing?”

Regardless of where you are as a team or organization in the performance management maturity model, you can always have these types of discussions with your employees. They open up lines of communication, build trust and enhance your credibility as a leader. Now, there is one important caveat to all of this – you have to follow through on the fixes. If the START or STOP items are things you can control or do, then you have to follow through. Otherwise, there will be no trust established and future conversations with you will be seen as a waste of time. Focus on the controllables, (not large organizational things that are beyond your scope) smaller, more tactical items that are geared towards making employees’ jobs, lives and expected performance easier to deliver on. By doing this, you will be able to better transition into more effective performance dialogue with your employees. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of digitalart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

You can’t always win on pure talent

One of the things in my personal life that I am very passionate about is the coaching of my daughter’s basketball team. I truly enjoy working with her and the rest of the team as they enhance their fundamental basketball skills and come together as a team. One of the things that we, as coaches, did very well at the start of the season was set the expectations as it pertained to the type of team culture we wanted to have. We were very clear with the girls (and their parents) that we expected them to show up for practices and games on time, be prepared to give 100% at practice/games, listen to what the coaches were trying to teach them and to treat each other and their opponents with respect.  We indicated to them back in October that if they bought into these expectations we would establish a supportive culture of performance that would lead to success (not quite in those “HR” words but you get my drift!)

People concept imageAs the season commenced, we lost more games than we won; however, the girls bought into what we were teaching, they gave 100%, they treated each other with respect and supported their teammates for the betterment of the team.  At the last game of the regular season, we ended up playing the top team in our division (who hadn’t lost a game all year) and we defeated them. Two weeks after that, we played that same team in the league final and beat them again. So what are the lessons learned here as it pertains to HR and business?

Let me be clear, on talent alone, the other team was/is superior to our girls. Generally speaking, their girls are more athletic and are better overall ball handlers and shooters. So on talent alone, they are superior. So what is/was the difference? It was the sum of the parts playing as a team. Our girls came together as a team and played a better team game. They bought into the culture, the expectations and were all very coachable. They bought into the team concept and how equal ball distribution translated into more points for everyone. They understood that it wasn’t about individual success but team success and at the end of the day, they enjoyed winning more than being the person on a losing team with more points.

So what does this all have to do with HR and business? Well, based on my experience, I think the same can be said about our organizations. Often in the war for talent (I still despise that expression) companies (i.e. Talent Acquisition folks) get so caught up in hiring the best talent that they can assemble (skill and experience-wise) that they lose sight of the fact that they should be building teams not collecting talent. With organizations, much like a basketball team, if you have too much “top talent”, there aren’t enough balls to go around to make everyone happy. If you simply have a collection of talented individuals working for you, but there are no expectations set for them, no culture established and no reason to come together as a team, then you will have talented people working in the best interests of themselves and not your company.

Much like the previously mentioned team we defeated, a collection of talented individuals is not going to be a competitive advantage if you can’t harness the power of the group to focus on the team outcomes. One of my favourite bloggers, Tim Sackett, wrote a post last year on his blog – “It’s Not a Talent Contest” that I think really hammers things home. Tim writes, “It’s not a ‘talent’ contest. It’s a ‘winning’ contest!” He further brings home his point by indicating that:

“…it doesn’t matter how talented the other team is, it all comes down to winning the game. Great, you have the best talent, but if you’re losing the game your high level of talent means nothing! …….in reality, the best talent might not help your organization ‘win’….business isn’t a talent game. It’s a winning and losing game…you don’t always need the most talented individuals to win. What you need is people who are willing to give that little bit of extra effort, over those who won’t. This discretionary effort gets you the win, over talented individuals who aren’t willing to give such effort. You need individuals that put the goal, the vision, first. They believe in what you are doing as an organization, and do what it takes to make those goals reality. You need individuals who want to see those around them succeed and are willing to sacrifice themselves, from time to time, to see their peers and coworkers succeed. This sacrifice has nothing to do with talent…..it’s about hiring the talent that will make our organizations successful.”

My apologies to Tim if he feels I edited this incorrectly (I can only hope that he is reading my blog!); however, I feel he is 100% bang on with this assessment. Your team has to have people that put the organization’s/teams goals first. We need to focus on hiring and retaining the right mix of talent that will make our organizations successful. As HR Pros, let’s agree that we should be advising and acting based on that principle. Let’s stop focusing on collecting talent as if we were trying to assemble a complete set of baseball cards. A collection of (top) talent is nothing if collectively they can’t make your organization better/successful. Much like the complete collection of baseball cards, once you assemble them, they typically stay in a box on a shelf collecting dust – they are of no use to you. We need to bring together that optimal mix of individuals that buys into your team concept – they are the ones that will help you to win…whether in business, or basketball. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Don’t make the group pay for individual sins

One of the biggest short comings of ineffective managers is taking performance or conduct issues that they have with one or two individuals and making them a group or team issue. You know what I am talking about – a manager has a team of 10, of which 1 or 2 seem to have a problem coming to work on time. The next thing you know, there are memos and emails being issued about the need to arrive to work on time and it then becomes an agenda item in team meetings. Everyone is regularly lectured and threatened about the need for punctuality. The end result is that for the eight people that this doesn’t apply to, they become frustrated, resentful and angry about hearing this message (when everyone knows who it applies to) and the for the two people it does apply to – well, it goes right over their head.

SinThis is a common issue in many workplaces and with many managers. If individuals aren’t meeting their performance targets or goals, you have to have this coaching conversation with them 1:1. Making individual problems into group issues causes resentment, creates division and results in alienation of staff members. For the manager, it will cause them to lose the respect of their team, erodes trust and breaks down communication. Ultimately, people don’t feel appreciated and then they start to look at all the other areas in the workplace that irritate them and find ways to voice/express their displeasure. People who previously weren’t unhappy at work now become dissatisfied. This basically results in the proverbial Pandora’s Box being opened.

Case in point, a personal friend of mine recently relayed a story to me that supports this (information). She has been with her company for over 3 years now and for the most part is pretty happy, motivated and generally engaged in her job (which is a sales job). However, over the past two quarters, her local office has been under tremendous organizational pressure to meet sales targets for which they have been falling short. Primarily this has been due to turnover and the new(er) staff is just not experienced enough to make up the sales shortfall (and in some cases, are already disengaged themselves). Regardless, the problem exists and the Sales Manager (my friend’s boss) is feeling the heat. So, what does he do? As part of his regular staff meetings, he openly throws down to the group about how they are not meeting their targets, how they need to do more and for each week they are not meeting targets, everyone needs to come in on weekends to try and sell more so that the targets can be met. Pretty bad huh?

Of course my friend, along with over half the team who are meeting/exceeding their targets, is pretty P.O.’d about this message and treatment. She felt she was treated with disrespect and is now being “punished” along with everyone else, regardless of what her performance has been like. The second mistake the manager made was to have the top performer in the group get up and basically lecture the rest of the team on how she meets her targets and how if they did what she did, they would meet them too. This employee went on, without the manager stopping her, to lecture about how as a team there was no reason they couldn’t meet their targets and they all need to step up, blah blah blah. The manager concluded the meeting by basically telling the team, “You all need to copy/model what ‘Janie’ does so that you can all deliver higher sales volume.

Just when you think this story couldn’t get any worse it does and I will now show you the danger of making the group pay for individual sins. Unbeknownst to the manager, this “top” performer was actually manipulating the sales recording system to make herself look better. Yes, she is a great salesperson, but she found a way to record/bundle sales activity to make her hours sold look better than everyone else’s. Her peer group all knew it because she wasn’t very discreet about it and, up until this point, no one wanted to “rat out” a member of the team. The problem now is that because everyone was scolded and embarrassed and held up to false comparison, people came out swinging. The resulting fall out hasn’t been pretty. “Janie’s” methods have now been brought to the manager’s attention who now needs to figure out:

  1. How he is going to deal with this issue before it gets escalated above his position
  2. How he can repair the damage done to the team’s morale and his own credibility after he basically told the team they needed to model the behaviour of a cheater!

So you can now see the danger, as a manager, in making the entire team pay for the individual’s sins. Performance and conduct issues should be dealt with in private, 1:1, between manager and employee. You go to the group to solicit their help in solving a problem that is affecting everyone. Ask the group for solutions, input or support in something…don’t scold or lecture the group. If you do, the end result will never be what you are looking for. If in doubt, read this post again about what can happen if you take the wrong approach to the group! As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Photo courtesy of April/Flickr.com

Sometimes, you just have to say “Goodbye”

One of the darker, but necessary parts, of our jobs as HR Pros is when we have to provide council to our operations partners on the potential termination of an employee. I am not talking about layoffs here (which are the most unpleasant of all) or gross misconduct (i.e. lying, cheating, stealing, and violence) but more the terminations we are involved with that are in fact conduct related, but are an accumulation of things. I am referring to the situations where you have employees that are habitually late, have pattern absenteeism, unauthorized absences from work, can’t meet work deadlines or are a general performance issue.

ByeIt has been my experience, more often than not, that when HR becomes involved with, or aware of these scenarios, the situation is often typically past its breaking point. The interesting thing is that contrary to what many (HR) people believe, that managers are quick to want to fire, my experience is that managers are often unwilling to make that final decision to terminate in cases as I described above. Often the manager has spent a lot of time and effort in counselling the employee, coaching and ultimately warning the employee that their behaviour/results need to improve. They have put in yeoman’s work to try and improve the situation but at the end of the day, it is the employee who is unwilling or unable to change. More often than not, the manager has gone the extra mile.

Often the manager is reluctant to go to the final step of termination because the employee is “nice,” or gets along well with everyone else, or “tries hard when they actually are at work, or perhaps the manager even knows of some personal circumstances that make them unwilling to terminate. Let’s be clear, I am not referring to something that is a short term issue here, these are cases where there has been sustained issues for 6 months or more with no improvement shown. It is in those cases that you aren’t doing yourself, your team, the organization or the underperforming employee any favours by keeping them around.   Sometimes, you just have to say “goodbye.”

Here is the thing; there is also a hidden cost to keeping someone like this (chronic tardiness, absenteeism, underperforming, etc.) around. You do irreparable damage to your team, as they are the ones picking up the slack AND you also damage your reputation/credibility as a manager. You can’t be taken seriously if you are willing to accept poor performance for 6 months, a year or more!

So my advice in these cases is simple. It starts with the hand on the heart test. That is, (assuming your documentation is in order) if you can put your hand on your heart, look in the mirror and state, “I have absolutely done everything possible to help this employee improve and set them up for success,” than you need to say goodbye to them. No one is saying it is easy and no one is ever going to say it is no big deal, but you just have to do it. Do it for your team and do it for the employee in question. More often than not, they just need the nudge out the door (it will probably come as a relief to them) to start a new chapter in their lives. Do it with respect and allow the person to maintain their dignity when leaving and then everyone can start fresh, because sometime, you just have to say “Goodbye.”

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Don’t lower the bar – this isn’t a limbo contest!

Regular readers of The Armchair HR Manager know that one of my favourite topics to write about is performance management. Having had responsibility for performance management, both as an operations manager and as an HR Manager, has given me a pretty good perspective on just how difficult an ongoing process it is. I get it, the challenges in dealing with lousy performance review forms, the time commitment, the struggle to set goals, etc. Most of those items, when operations and HR partner together, can be addressed and hopefully resolved.

80656219_2e6075a799_mA big part of the performance management philosophy that I preach to my clients is that the most important piece of ongoing performance management is being able to accurately measure the success of all of your employees – everything else about performance management is moot if you don’t/can’t do that.   This all starts by identifying what the performance outcomes (i.e. what “success looks like”) are for the individual in their role. You need to set goals/objectives and identify, up front, how the the employee will be measured – whether quantitatively or qualitatively. By the way, there is nothing wrong with qualitative measurement (i.e. the old manager observation or management by wandering around); however, as a manager, you need to execute and actually OBSERVE your employees and coach them.

Here is the thing, by having objective goals for your staff, based on the position and their knowledge and experience within the position; you can measure everyone on a level playing field. That way, when it comes time to dole out any type of pay increase, the top performers are getting the most money and the bottom performers aren’t getting as much if any – which is the way it should be in a performance based system.

Here’s the rub though, as I mentioned before, you HAVE to accurately set goals and measure success. If you make arbitrary allowances for how you measure and reward, your credibility evaporates. Remember, you aren’t doing an underperforming employee any favours by artificially inflating their performance rating. In the same vein, you are also hurting the employees who are meeting and/or exceeding your performance expectations by lumping in lower performers with them. Let’s be real, employees talk and they know how they are being rated. Now, can you spell “engagement issue?”

In case I wasn’t clear, here is the specific problem I am talking about: As a manager, you have an employee, let’s call him Joe. For the past several years, Joe has been an ok employee. He started out fine, but after five years on the job, Joe is still performing at the same level as he did when he first started. The problem is that his manager has always identified Joe as meeting performance expectations, when he should have been tagged as needing improvement. Now, this past year, Joe has actually raised his game a bit and worked at the level of an employee who has been in their role for 5 years. The manager now rates Joe as exceeding performance expectations. You see the problem there? The performance bar was lowered by not accurately assessing performance from the get go. Because Joe was told all along he was meeting expectations (the bar was lowered), when he actually performed better, there was nowhere to go but up or give him an exceeds rating.

I have seen this scenario occur far too often. When managers are confronted about why they are now giving the higher rating I have heard things like, “well, Joe probably coasted for the last 5 years, but this year he really stepped up so that’s why I am giving him an exceeds rating.” Huh? Really? So what you are really saying is, “because I lowered the bar so much when it comes to Joe, he actually was able to easily step over it this year so it exceeded my already low expectations of him.” Do you see how wrong that statement is? Do you see how important it is to NOT lower the bar? The job expectations are the job expectations. Do not accept mediocrity as meeting your performance expectations. If you do, the message to your staff is that you do expect their best and that coasting along is acceptable performance.

Things like lowering the bar on performance expectations rot at the core of any performance management system. Once one manager does it, others follow suit because it is easy. You never have to deliver a tough message. The problem being, any system that allow this to continue will lose its best and brightest people and all you will be left with at the end, at best, are mediocre employees…but you might not know that because in your system, they already exceed your expectations. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of Max Sparber/Flickr.com

Addition by Subtraction

I am sure most of you have heard of this expression before. It essentially refers to increasing the strength/efficiency/effectiveness of something by removing (subtracting) a part or piece that is causing sub-optimal performance or ineffectiveness.   As an HR Professional, I am rather fond of the expression, its intent and especially its applicability in my world.

Addition SubtractionTypically when I see this come in to play is in dealing with workplace teams. Not that long ago, we had to deal with a situation where addition by subtraction came in to play. There was a work group of highly skilled individuals who just weren’t able to regularly deliver as a team. After much discussion with their manager and the team members, it started to become apparent that there was team dis-functionality being caused by one particular team member. This person’s overall work ethic (or lack thereof), lack of dependability and lack of desire to be a part of the team were causing the entire team to not be effective and to perform to the best of their combined abilities.

It had become apparent that this pattern of behaviour and poor performance had been going on for some time and wasn’t being managed effectively. Long story short, through a combination of a new manager taking over the group and a renewed focus on performance metrics and behaviours, we ended up “removing” this particular employee from this group. What we didn’t do though was replace the headcount, so in effect; the team was down a person.

Here’s the thing, there were no grumblings about the workload or the fact that everyone had to do a bit more. In fact, the team finally started to come together and gel. They all pitched in, focused on the required goals and objectives and started supporting the team concept in the achievement of these goals. This improved level of performance has now been sustained for over 7 months so it is safe to say that the behavioural change has stuck!

There are several HR lessons learned here. The first is that addition by subtraction works. You remove one problem or underperforming employee (subtraction) and the result is a more cohesive and higher performing team (addition). In effect, we removed an underperforming part (subtracted) that was impacting the team, and did not replace that part, with the end result being a higher performing unit (addition).

I find as HR Pros, managers and leaders, we tend to rationalize or even postpone these types of decisions by telling ourselves, “well we can’t remove Sally from the team because then they will all complain about the additional work they have to do.” My experience in these situations is that that is never the case. More often than not, the team will appreciate the problem (employee) being removed and will step up – it can be that simple.

The other lesson learned is that as managers and leaders we always have to be performance managing. If we are setting objectives, measuring our people on the “what” and “how” of their performance AND talking to our people regularly, we will be in a better position to take action when poor performance impacts the team.

Finally, the other lesson(s) learned is to not wait too long to make a move (subtraction) like this to help improve a team and similarly, it is never too late to make a move like to help improve the team. As a leader, by showing that you are listening and taking action against team problems and removing obstacles to team success, you will gain your staff’s trust and confidence.

What about you? Do you feel that addition by subtraction works? Have you had a similar success story or perhaps a time when this approach didn’t work? As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of Boians Cho Joo Young/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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