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Episode 18: Improving Performance

Episode 18: Improving Performance

How to help others to improve, and how to easily measure performance without surveys, evaluations, and voodoo.

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How do we improve performance? The uncomfortable truth is that it’s harder than it looks, easier to say than do, but it’s possibly doable if we pay some attention to it. So, why do some people do it, and some don’t? I’m not talking just about our performance, but other people’s performances. You know, I’ve been consulting for over 30 years, and so some things I’ve seen, are immutable. They are evergreen, and always true.

For example, there are only three conditions about performance. Someone meets your expectations, fails to meet them, or exceeds them. There is no fourth. These evaluation sheets, and the analysis of people based on 25 different categories and gradations from one to ten, or one to a hundred, and self-evaluations, and other people’s evaluations are kind of silly. If you agree at the outset with the other person, here is what would meet my expectations. Short of this fails them. More than this exceeds them. Here’s how we’ll measure them, by these empirical indicators. After that, it should be a day at the beach. Remember though, motivation is intrinsic. You cannot motivate other people. The whole notion of motivational speeches is just crazy. It’s an oxymoron. It’s nuts.

I’m reminded of the great Wall Street Journal cartoon, where a guy gets up. His eyes are red. He’s got a beard. He looks bedraggled. His hair is all over the place. His wife says, “Just think, in an hour you’ll be delivering a motivational speech.”

Motivational speeches are silly. Motivation comes from within, not from others, from within.

Robert Mager, the great, great training guru, said once that the question is, “Could the person do the job if you put a gun to their head?” That means that, if they couldn’t do the job, you’d have to shoot them, because they still couldn’t do it. That’s a “skills problem.” They lack what’s required to do the job. On the other hand, if you put a gun to their head, and the person started to work quite effectively, that’s an attitude problem. They had chosen not to do the job, so you either have a skill deficit, which requires training, or you have an attitude deficit, which requires coaching.

The problem is, to get a better performance, we often try to train people with lousy attitudes. That doesn’t work. We try to coach people with no skills. That doesn’t work. We have to get these things aligned. Mager makes a very good point. You can’t help people who don’t want to be helped. I’ve talked to everyone I know and respect about this for decades. We’ve all reached the same conclusion. We are not magical. We are not gods. You cannot help people who don’t want to be helped. That means that it’s silly to try. It’s unethical to take someone else’s money trying to do it, and it’s absolutely absurd to promise that you can.

If someone doesn’t want to be helped, they won’t be helped. Now you might say, “Well, it’s resistance at first, but they all come around.” You know, you might say, “Look at Alcoholics Anonymous. Look at Synanon, or look at whatever.” The fact is, over 90% of people who don’t want to be helped aren’t helped. They will revert. They are recidivists. They will dig their heels in, and they will not move forward. On a corporate landscape, that’s much more common. We’re not talking about something that’s threatening to society like alcohol or drugs. We’re talking about people who just refuse to do the work any better because they don’t want to.

What are the motivational factors that really matter? If it’s intrinsic and if you can’t help people who don’t want to be helped, who are the people who do want to be helped, and what motivates them internally? Well, first is doing something you love. Doing something you love and are passionate about is very important because it’s not onerous. We throw ourselves into it. We think proudly of it. You know, Michelangelo wasn’t laying on his back doing the Sistine Chapel ceiling because of the pay. You know, the commission was good but the fact is that was his calling. He was passionate about it.

Number two is, you do something you’re great at. These things are not antithetical. Great careers are built on that. Somebody came up to me once, and said, “I’ve got you figured out.” I said, “Well, thank God someone has. I’ll tell my therapist. What is it you figured out?” He said, “You just do what you love doing, and you’re great at. You charge for it, and you won’t do anything else.” Well, that’s a very accurate observation. It doesn’t exactly take Freud or Sherlock Holmes to see it and so should you. The second criterion is to do something you’re great at doing. Don’t do something that makes you falter and stumble all the time.

Number three. Apply all of your talents. What I mean is, apply as many of your talents as you possibly can against this thing you love and you’re great at. People at work who don’t get to use all their talents can exercise them elsewhere. Some join rock bands. You know, even Woody Allen, who’s a heck of a filmmaker, and comedian. He played every Monday night at the Café Carlisle when it was otherwise dark, you know, none of the talent was there and he was playing clarinet in a small jazz group.

We exercise our talents, sort of off the field, if you will, but if you can exercise all the talents you can on the field at work, all the better. Now, for entrepreneurs, that’s a lot easier. I told a woman who’s a classical pianist, (I was told it’s not PIanist, but piANist, it’s hard to say) that she should use her music in her work and talk about harmony and talk about the right notes and talk about how you play things, so that they are memorable. Now, she’s doing exactly that.

Number four. Be recognized for it. Don’t just apply your talents to something you love and you’re great at. You should be recognized for it. I don’t mean you have to win awards, but it’s nice for people to recognize that you’re the one who created something. That means you need to have a support system that will help recognize what you’ve accomplished. It means that you don’t have to necessarily bend over backwards competing for awards that are subjective anyway but it does mean that it’s nice to have a support system that readily recognizes what you’ve done.

And number five is, you have to retain your autonomy. In the corporate world, this is much more difficult. I’m the first to admit that. Entrepreneurs have it easier. Although, many entrepreneurs can see their autonomy. They’ve left the corporate world and now have a tougher boss than ever. My point is that autonomy is a very important aspect of motivation. The feeling that I can go where I want, when I want. I’ve always called this discretionary time, as many of you know, which is real wealth. The fact that you operate independently, autonomy is a very strong motivational aspect.

So, doing something you love, which you’re great at, that applies all your talents, that you’re recognized for, and allows you to retain your autonomy. These are all intrinsic motivational factors.

The best leaders, in fact, if you go back to a corporate environment are people who know when to get the hell out of the way. Lead by exception. Manage my exception. Hands-on leadership. This dwelling, lurking, stalking kind of management is one of the most horrible things I know. And so, if you’ve got a strong ego, if you feel that you are confident, and you have high self-esteem, you don’t need to put your hands on all the dials and buttons and switches and levers. Get out of the way!

So, what’s critical here? Well, you need your own internal best practices.

In any organization, there are some people who do things better than others. You need to spread that around and not just allow them to be singular, bright, shining stars. We tend to look for external best practices but I’m suggesting to you, we need to look for internal best practices because they’re often right in front of our eyes. When Mercedes asked me, when they were having trouble with Lexus long ago (Lexus was eating their lunch), they asked me to find what the best practices were in what they call their stores. I said, “Let’s start with your own. Do some perform better than others?” They said, “Of course.” I visited those and I visited others, and I found right within Mercedes that there were best practices that weren’t shared. And so we brought it to a dealers council. The dealers council began to share internal best practices.

Number two is you have to invest in your all-stars. In any organization, people tend to invest in remedial training and remedial improvement – the worst people. It’s wrong. It’s wrong. You have to invest in your best people first. They’re the ones who are going to lead the way. They’re the avatars for the others. They are the pathfinders. You have to invest in your best people, not ignore them.

And number three is a hidden trick. It’s often best to take your second-best people and bring them up to the level of the first best. In other words, it’s easier to move a performer who’s very good to excellent than it is to move a mediocre performer to even very good. So, look at your top performers and deal with them accordingly and then the next best after that. I know this sounds heretical, but it’s absolutely true if you want to get top performance from others. You need to demand accountability. Don’t tolerate failure work.

Failure work is work that’s done when the original work was not good enough and when it didn’t meet the expectation. Remember, I said, you meet expectations, you exceed expectations, or you don’t meet expectations. Failure work is work being done to cover for work that didn’t meet expectations the first time. You shouldn’t tolerate it. You shouldn’t allow it because then you enable people to do work that’s substandard. Most of all, don’t do other people’s failure work.

Now, if you think that’s absurd, think about it because you see it every day. You hear people say, “Well, I’ll have to do this myself. I can do it faster, and I can do it better. If I send it back, it’ll just take longer. I might as well get rid of this.” Well, that just enables people not to do better work because you’re going to do it for them. It happens so often with kids’ homework. The parents do it for them. It often happens in parenting generally. It often happens in small business, where the owner says, “I might as well do this. I can’t get good help.” The more you do failure work, the less you’re motivated. The more you do failure work, the less other people are motivated. because they’re not doing anything. They’re not getting recognition for a job well done because they’re not doing a good job.

When you demand accountability, you can’t weasel. I’ve been in a Fortune 500 firm where all of this applies as well, and everyone agrees on accountability, but not for them. And so, nobody’s got accountability to make the strategy work and be implemented. No one has accountability to make sure that recruiting is done right. No one has accountability for x, y, or z. Their subordinates do, they claim, but everyone needs the accountability.

My personal belief is that every key officer in an organization is accountable for bringing on and retaining great talent. Certainly not human resources. What do they know?

Next, raising the bar is outmoded. You know you only get credit for leaping several feet when the bar is there. In other words, the high jumper might clear the bar by four inches. They’ve actually jump 7’4, but if the bar was at seven feet, that’s all they get credit for. It’s called a seven-foot jump.

Now, if you long jump, whatever you actually jump you’re going to get credit for, right down to the millimeter, right down to the fraction of an inch, but not with high jumping, or pole vaulting. If the bar is at 18 feet and you cross it, that’s an 18-foot leap. You might have cleared it by a foot and had a 19-foot leap. No, no. It’s 18 feet. That’s where the bar is. Raising the bar is outmoded. It doesn’t do enough because the bar is simply there. We should measure people’s actual leaps. We should measure what people really do. That’s when you’re going to find this higher level of exceeding expectations suddenly begin to make sense. We’re watching what they really do, not some arbitrary goal.

Just think of this. What if you said you need to bring in a minimum of $15,000 this year to meet my expectations, and somebody brought in $15,500 and somebody brought in $22,000, and somebody brought in $40,000. Now, you might say those three people all exceeded your expectations. What you have to look at is actual performance because you probably set that bar way too low, at least for your all-stars.

Next, you have to exchange intrinsic and extrinsic information. This sounds strange, but it’s one of my favorite techniques, and I’ve been using it as a consultant for years. There’s a great book called, “The Knowledge Creating Company.” It’s about 10 years old. Two Japanese authors. I can’t pronounce their names. However, they have written a very tough book to read but with a great concept, and that is, exchanging intrinsic and extrinsic knowledge is like this, things I have in my head, things I know from my job is intrinsic knowledge meaning I know it. To make that extrinsic, that’s internal best practices, I share it with others. We institutionalize it. The institutional organization recognizes it as an effective way to high performance.

On the other hand, the organization has a great deal of information. That’s extrinsic knowledge. We all have access to it except, some of it is very hard to find. And so, we need to make the extrinsic knowledge intrinsic, especially for those processes, procedures, and transactions that we engage in every day. That way, we don’t have to look them up in a manual. We don’t have to find a tutorial on the computer. We don’t have to tell the customer, the client, “I’ll have to get back to you.” We don’t have to upstream to our manager and delegate upwards, which is always awful. Extrinsic information becomes intrinsic to our personal needs and our intrinsic information and knowledge become extrinsic, so our colleagues can profit by it too. That’s a very key aspect of performance improvement. Now, I hope you’ll think about that.

Ask your customers what performance delights them. Ask your customers what makes them happy, because customers tend to report problems. Even on surveys that are sent out by airlines and hotels ad infinitum, the extremes report, but not the people in the middle. People who are very, very unhappy, or people who are insanely happy might report but the great amount of people in the middle don’t. What you need to do is find out from your clients and customers what performance delights them and why.

Some time ago, there was a survey of advertising firms and their self-image, and what was found in this survey is that their customers felt better about them, had a higher rating of them than they did themselves. Now, you might say, “Well, that’s fortunate. It’s like an IRS error in your favor.” The problem is if you think your customers aren’t as delighted as they really are, you don’t charge as much. You tend to over deliver. You tend to worry too much. You’re too stressed. And so, find out from your customers what really delights them and revel in that. Achieve it. Counter-intuitively, employees are much more productive when they’re busy.

When you find employees who aren’t busy, they are bored, and they start dreaming and they make errors of omission. Bored employees will constantly do that because no one wants to sit with nothing to do. No one wants to sit with menial, mindless things to do. Challenge your employees. Give them interesting, difficult work and make sure it fills their day. I’m not saying they can’t take breaks, but I am saying that people who are talking to each other a great deal in the office about last night’s ballgame or anything else have too much time on their hands. Employees ironically perform best when they’re very busy performing the most. Boredom is a productivity killer. It’s far worse than overwork. Boredom will kill you.

Why are some airline flights better than others? Well, the employees are not distracted by management conflicts. For many years, American labor unions, American Airlines labor unions were in argument and conflict with management, and it reflected on American flights. These flight attendants were not happy. You were lucky, you were fortunate if you got a crew that was doing well because they took it out on the customers, either deliberately or inadvertently. Some airline employees, like Southwest Air for a long time, were very, very happy because the way the organization treated them. You could see the difference in treatment.

Some airlines are better than others because they have the latest equipment and consequently, everybody’s happier. I just flew Delta, and one of the lavatories in first class could be locked with a gate denying access, so the pilots could use it when they needed to. Then they would unlock the gate and it went back to being a passenger lavatory. Now, that prevents them from having to summon a flight attendant who puts a luggage cart or a service cart or a tray cart in front of there to protect against, you know, some kind of assault on a pilot in the restroom. When the equipment is better people’s attitudes are better.

Some airlines are better than others because the employees receive customer reinforcement. Now, American Airlines, let me set the ledger straight here. They give frequent fliers, such as I, coupons to give to people in the airline who perform well. I can give it to a gate agent. I can give it to a flight attendant. I can give it to anybody I choose, you know, one of the hostesses in the Admiral’s Club because of exceptional service. I give these out all the time. They’re very, very excited about getting them. I think they enter them into some kind of drawing where something is raffled off. They’re always excited to get them. They always appreciate it.

And finally, some airlines are better than others because of respect. They respect their employees. They ask their opinions. They don’t design a uniform or a tray table, or something without getting input from the employees. Not having open-ended conflict, having good equipment, receiving reinforcement and having respect, those are important things, in terms of differentiating one company’s performance from another. How well are you doing it for yourself, and how well you’re doing it for others?

In summary, physician heal thyself. First, improve your own performance so that it’s exceptional. Nobody in your organization believes what they read or what they hear. They only believe what they see and they’re looking at you.

That can be a very uncomfortable truth.

Written by

Alan Weiss is a consultant, speaker, and author of over 60 books. His consulting firm, Summit Consulting Group, Inc., has attracted clients from over 500 leading organizations around the world.

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