With annual performance reviews in the rearview mirror, it is perhaps timely to reflect on the types of conversations in which managers have to hold employees accountable for low performance or lackluster effort. These conversations are uncomfortable to be sure and are made even more painful in some cases because of the challenging financial repercussions for the employee involved.
But I have found that what managers fear most are the conversations they must have with those employees who, despite high performance and effort, are blind to the negative impact they have on others. In fact, in such cases, it is precisely the fact that the employee has such strong individual outcomes and consistent work ethic that makes the conversation so challenging.
Imagine an employee who works hard and achieves – even exceeds – their individual performance objectives. Yet, in the way they complete their work, they hinder others from achieving their objectives. As a result, these “high performers” actually slow the organization’s performance.
Years ago, I worked with a health clinic whose director was just such a person. She was brilliant – possibly the best clinician I’ve ever met. The way she went about her work, however, caused all kinds of problems for others. She had unwittingly divided the facility into two camps: those she considered her friends and those she didn’t. She would sabotage the efforts of those not in her camp and promote those on the inside. The “body count,” as those familiar with the situation called it, was staggeringly high. When the boss finally decided to let her go, she was shocked. “Haven’t I done my job and more?” she asked. “What more do you want from me?”
How is it that we can consider people who so hinder their organizations high performers? Because in our common conception of performance – what it means to do one’s job – we focus almost exclusively on effort and outcomes. Consequently, we never help our employees understand that their job is to achieve their outcomes in a way that enables the success of all those they impact. Is it, therefore, any wonder when they don’t hold themselves accountable for the damage they inflict?
What we really want, of course, are engaged employees who naturally hold themselves accountable. Employees who, when they recognize that what they’re doing negatively impacts others or the organization, take the initiative to adjust their efforts in order to be more helpful.
We might think this is a fantasy – that there’s no way to develop an entire organization whose employees operate in this manner. Why? Because we know from our own experience that most people tend to approach their work in a self-focused way – with what we call an “inward mindset.” With this mindset, they see others as objects: as vehicles, they can use to achieve their own objectives; as roadblocks, they can blame when something doesn’t go their way; or, as irrelevancies, they can safely ignore because they’re of no use.
Because they tend to think about their job as nothing more than achieving their own performance objectives, they’re not interested in others’ needs and objectives. Consequently, they let themselves off the hook for – or are simply blind to – the negative effects they might have on others in the organization.
But people can change. As an individual becomes alive to the reality and humanity of the people around them, they become more curious about others’ objectives, needs, and challenges. And, they become more interested in how their own work impacts the success of the people around them.
A leader can accelerate this transformation by helping employees understand that their job is to work in a way that helps others be more successful – that every individual objective serves another person’s or group’s objectives. Some meet the needs of a manager, and others serve customers or end users. Some support peer groups or internal customers, and others enable those they supervise to achieve their tasks and objectives more effectively. When individuals and organizations shift from an inward mindset to an outward mindset, employees focus on collective results rather than their own individual objectives. They are aware of and curious about others’ needs and goals and are constantly adjusting their efforts to be more helpful to others.
More than any format or script for performance conversations, it is by creating a fundamental shift from an inward to an outward mindset that transforms performance conversations. When people rethink the meaning of a job to include impact and not just effort and outcomes, they can hold themselves accountable for what really matters.
Warner spoke at a CHRO Roundtable event in January 2019. Learn more about CHRO Roundtables (and register for the next one!) here.