Despite all the talk about employee engagement, managers are still taught to "hold them accountable" when employee performance slips. When that doesn't work, then what? Do it more -- hold them more accountable. And after that? Even more accountable, which, translated, means turn up the punishment.
If you've participated in a performance management workshop, you know the drill: When performance is unacceptable, make your expectations known and monitor results. If performance doesn't improve, let them know what will happen if they don't fix it. Rinse and repeat increasing the severity of the threat and/or punishment with each subsequent cycle.
How well does it work? Just consider how many high performers you've developed after giving employees the "or else" speech. In over 25 years of running HR departments and consulting, I can think of two. In all the other cases, repeated compliance conversations resulted in Twilight Zone-like performance cycles that seemed to never end.
Does that sound a little insane?
What if, instead of repeating over and over a conversation that demands compliance while hoping for a different result, you broke the cycle by having a conversation about commitment? That's what a manufacturing manager recently did when he got tired of reliving his flirtations with insanity. The employee had been there for over twenty years. He knew more than any other operator. But instead of using his expertise to improve his and other operators' productivity, he did minimal work and blamed others when things went wrong. His manager had been with the company almost as long and had watched the employee's performance improve a bit from time to time only to see it drop again almost as fast as it rose. But this time he decided to do something different.
Instead of the usual discussion about why the employee wasn't being responsible, the manager spoke to the employee about the employee's commitment to producing high quality parts and being responsible for making it happen. He took time to show in detail how the employee's results directly affected on-time delivery problems, high costs, poor quality, and lost customers. Of course, the employee was quick to jump into his list of complaints. But instead of accepting excuses and taking responsibility for solving the employee's problems, this time the manager wrote down the employee's complaints and told the employee he was right-those were problems that should get fixed. Then he added that he could think of only one employee who knew the operations well enough to solve them. He handed the paper to the employee and challenged him to use his expertise to make things better promising to give him the resources he needed to get it done.
To the manager's amazement, the employee accepted the challenge. He stepped up and took responsibility for not only solving the problems on the list, but also for improving his group's productivity. He even took responsibility for another operator's costly mistakes confessing that they wouldn't have happened if he had simply helped the operator when she asked for help.
Replacing the redundant conversation with a discussion about personal commitment and accountability for business results made a huge difference in the employee's decision to take responsibility. As Einstein taught: If we want a different result, we need to change what we're doing. If we want any hope of turning around a poor performer, like this manager, we're going to have to switch from conversations about compliance to conversations about commitment.
Thanks to Einstein, we have a genius model for managing that still applies today.
Trying it on for fit:
Inventory yourself and the conversations you have with employees when performance is below your expectations. Do you find yourself repeating the same conversations about what employees need to do? Have you ever challenged your employees by showing them in layman's terms how the business is performing and how employees generate the outcomes that make up those results? Try having a new conversation establishing the connections between key success factors for the business unit and employee outputs. Challenge employees to choose greater commitment for specific results. Give them the support they need to succeed, get out of their way, and provide the structure they need to manage, and report progress on, their commitments.