A Truly Human Approach to Managing Performance

February 1, 2019 Potential Project

Couple at Cafe

Consider the last performance management discussion you had. Was it engaging? Was it motivating? Did it help support or motivate enhanced performance?

Feedback on performance is one of the most important exchanges between people at work. To improve work performance and collaboration, people need feedback that helps guide them and reinforces particular behaviors. In many organizations, this occurs through a formal performance management process that very few employees, or their managers, actually find valuable.

A Mercer Global Performance Management Survey discovered that only 3 percent of companies reported that their performance management system delivered significant value. Given numbers like this, many organizations are redefining how they manage, rank, rate, and discuss performance. Companies like Accenture, Deloitte, Adobe, Juniper Systems, Dell, Microsoft, and IBM have replaced annual reviews with more engaging and interconnected ways of supporting people’s performance, predominantly by more frequent, informal conversations.

Although these changes are a step in the right direction, in today’s overly busy, complex, and often geographically dispersed workplaces, personal human connections easily get lost. In many cases, leaders don’t have the time – or the skills – to effectively engage people in meaningful conversations. And even when they do, their minds are racing so fast that they’re not truly present. While there’s merit in replacing the performance review with regular, informal check-ins, leaders must be equipped to do so in an effective way.

Skillful conversations require an understanding of how the mind responds to feedback and how feedback can be effectively delivered. Researchers have found that the phrase, “I would like to give you feedback,” activates the same pain response in our brains as if someone is getting ready to strike us. As social beings, one of our greatest primary fears is being isolated and kicked out of the tribe – which for our early ancestors could mean certain death. Today, feedback has become synonymous with criticism. And criticism is a strong indication of possible isolation. In this way, the word “feedback” signifies an evolutionary threat, a possibility that we’ll be excluded from the tribe.

To make matters worse, most people do not like giving feedback because they don’t like to potentially inflict pain. Too often people managers and organizations end up avoiding these important performance enhancement conversations for fear they may go terribly wrong. As a result, they sometimes don’t happen at all.

We conducted a two-year research study to find the strategies for great leadership in the 21st century. We interviewed 250 C-suite executives from Microsoft, Google, McKinsey, Lego, and more, assessed 35,000 leaders, and trawled through thousands of studies of leadership. One of our key findings was that in order to effectively engage, motivate, and manage employees, leaders need to be mindful, selfless, and compassionate.  

Mindfulness is about learning to manage your attention. In performance discussions, mindfulness is key so you can be fully present with the person you are with and the situation at hand. Selflessness is the wisdom of getting out of your own way, not letting your own natural egoistic tendencies prevent you from being of best service to your people. In assessing opportunities for an employee to develop, leaders need to ensure they are not caught up in their own biases, desires, or personal needs and instead focus on the person in front of them. Compassion in leadership is the quality of having positive intentions for others. It is not easy for us to give tough feedback but there is a way to provide feedback compassionately that allows people to remain engaged, focused and calm – and even motivated to be able to realize more of their potential.

We all have an intrinsic desire to have meaning and purpose in our life. For many of us, work is a big part of life, and we want guidance and support on how we can add more value. A truly effective approach to performance management requires leaders who focus on the effective development of their people and are willing and able to have meaningful conversations about how to improve.

In our experience, making an organizational norm of giving and receiving feedback is key to enhancing performance. Making time at the end of each meeting – or formally at the end of each week – to reflect on team and individual performance makes having these conversations much easier. In addition, creating a value around “sharing feedback” as core to organizational success and performance is key. Take a moment to consider the performance reviews you have with your people. How often do these take place and how effective are these conversations for you and your people? Consider how being more mindful, selfless, and compassionate in your approach can be of benefit.

Leading with mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion makes you more human and less leader. It makes you more you and less your title. By bring more humanity into our leadership we can create happier, healthier, and more productive work environments for ourselves, our people, our organizations, and beyond.

(Jacqueline Carter and Marissa Afton will co-present a session entitled “Mindfulness and Compassion: Core Business Strategies for 21st-Century Leaders” at WorkHuman 19, in Nashville, March 18-21.)

About the Author

Potential Project

Potential Project is a global leadership training, organizational development, and research firm. Jacqueline Carter is international partner and director at Potential Project. Marissa Afton is client solutions director at Potential Project.

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