Carbon is intensely heated and pressurised beneath the surface of the Earth to create a diamond; essentially it’s a lump of coal that has been pressure cooked for thousands of years. Dust, smoke and ash scatter evening sunlight and we see a stunning red sunset; so it’s basically air pollution. An oyster takes a piece of microscopic grit and forms a pearl; it’s really an irritant that the oyster is trying to protect itself from.
Far be it from me to shatter the romantic associations we place on sunsets, pearls and diamonds, but they do, in fact, originate from stuff which we would not normally consider to be lovely or desirable. Every magnificent and serene wonder in the universe arose out of the chaos and turbulence of the Big Bang, hardly a peaceful nor benign process. In the realm of human learning, our most prized gems often arise out of the midst of our most difficult or challenging circumstances. It’s not a cliche for nothing: “What doesn’t kill me will make me grow stronger.” At the same time, if we are bereft of personal resources, whether that be internal strengths, strong relational connections with others or a satisfying connection to something ‘higher’, we will find learning and change more threatening than life-giving. It is worth bearing these two points in mind if you manage staff performance: 1) the seed of excellence lies in the heart of inadequate performance; and 2) we cannot drive people to higher performance if they are not aware of what they are already doing well. We do not learn something new out of nothing.
An old supervisor of mine used to use the phrase ‘grist for the mill’ when I would talk about some undesirable behaviour in a client. His reframe of a behaviour or attitude has stood me in good stead for many years. Not only am I trained in a strengths-based methodology, but my outlook on human beings is one that says we are inherently good and that our behaviours are aimed at generating positive outcomes. That said, best intentions do not always result in the best outcomes for everyone concerned, but this is more likely down to human clumsiness, shortsightedness and fallibility than willful nastiness, laziness or under-handedness. The less-than-functional is merely grist for the developmental mill; raw material out of which the treasure can emerge.
Thankfully, for more and more people, it seems entirely sensible that we look at workplace performance through a strengths-based lens. Why performance manage someone purely from a deficit paradigm, i.e. what is not going well? While we do have to address poor performance, there is a paradigm out of which we can learn to operate which is progressive, esteem-enhancing and effective.
Just as counter-productive as the deficit paradigm is the head-in-the-sand paradigm. Many who operate out of this world-view would say that they are optimistic and positive. What this mindset propounds is that you don’t look at the dysfunctional; accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. While I’m all for emphasising the positive, if we behave like Pollyanna, we miss the whole picture. Taken to an extreme, there are managers who are overly optimistic, believing that, in the end, it’ll all be alright. Being overly positive can lead you to ignore evidence of some ‘grit’ in your system. The head-in-the-sand paradigm says that if you just accentuate the positive, the problems and difficulties will work themselves out. Wrong. “Things” do not “work themselves out“. I know there are CEOs and other leaders out there who hold a version of this viewpoint. They believe themselves to be positive and optimistic and I’ve no doubt whatsoever that they lead blessed and joyful lives. However, I’ve heard a self-professed optimist say “Why would I want to put any of my energy into the staff who are causing the most problems? I prefer to spend my time on staff who are really performing.” From here, you are one step away from: “Why would I want to spend any time or effort on developing the poor performers?” “Why wouldn’t I get rid of the difficult ones and hire people who are willing to just fit in; there are plenty of people who would be so grateful to work here.” This, to my mind, is not being positive. It is an over-developed desire to see the positives to the extent that you fail to see the whole picture. If you put your head in the sand, you are not only blind to weaknesses, but you are blind to the developmental opportunities and the potential pearls amongst your staff.
So both the deficit paradigm and the head-in-the-sand paradigm are limited: they only look at part of someone’s performance. To view the world from a strengths-based perspective, we look at the whole: what is working well and what is not working well. A strengths-based paradigm is also a systems thinking paradigm. It is one that sees the wholeness and connectedness of people. We are not machines with a bunch of moving parts that can be taken out and replaced when they fail; we are complex systems in which the whole is far greater than the sum of our individual cells. So in a performance conversation with staff, we need to view their failings in light of their whole being. There are some things they do well, there are other things that they don’t excel at, but they are inseparable. Like finding the diamond in the rough, the potential lies hidden.
Even though we know how good it feels to focus on what we do well, drawing attention to others’ weaknesses in workplace performance is not a habit easily unlearnt. Through our early years, many of us have learnt to place too much value judgement on ourselves and to classify many things about us as inherently good and worthwhile or inherently bad and undesirable. However, learning to see the world through a strengths-based lens has some bottom line benefits. A 2002 survey by the Corporate Leadership Council questioned nearly 20,000 employees in 29 countries and found that when their managers emphasised strengths, this resulted in a 36% improvement in performance as opposed to a 27% decline in performance when the emphasis was on weaknesses.
Taking a strengths-based systems view to human performance includes developing a person’s ability to self-reflect so they aware of themselves, what they do well and what needs improvement. Asking a person to reflect on themselves is the starting point for any conversation about performance. Making a performance analysis by using a simple, yet powerful three-fold progression of questions means that the person expands their view of themselves and is more capable of being autonomous, confident and engaged at work. Firstly, ask someone to recall what they do well. Once they have done this, let them know what you observe in them that is excellent. Secondly, ask them to reflect on what they do too much of. Remember I said earlier that I believe all human behaviour is aimed at creating a positive outcome. Sometimes, there is something that we are good at that we apply too much, and this can get in the way of ideal performance. It is not intrinsically bad, yet in great quantity is counter-productive. Salt is a good thing to add to soup but too much will ruin the flavour. Again, let the other person know what you see them do too much or too often. Finally, turn the focus to what the person does too little of. Once they have done this, add more information from your perspective. Keeping this simple and structured will provide the person with a full and manageable picture of themselves. Out of this analysis you will have a distillation of information that shows the way to a development path.
To my mind, in a strengths-based worldview, a performance conversation is not one-sided. Unless a staff member is going through some sort of formal disciplinary process, it seems to me that conversations about performance are just that: conversations. Both parties contribute. Both parties have rights and responsibilities. Both parties have the right to be heard, to be respected and to be believed. Staff are responsible for being fully present in these conversations and participating. Staff are also responsible for developing an open attitude to learning and change. It is no good becoming defensive in the face of uncomfortable feedback or leaving the manager to make all the analysis. A staff member who is not able to reflect on their performance is the staff member begging to be micro-managed and I know of no employee nor manager who truly desires that. A manager is responsible for developing the habit of noticing performance, both good and bad-all the time. It is most useful when both staff and manager are clear about performance standards and achievement throughout the year, not simply at annual performance review time. Keep good performance on track by giving real-time feedback. I have spoken to too many people who are in the dark about their performance because their manager just saves everything for that once a year appointment, if at all. Furthermore, performance conversations should not be scripted or determined solely by the performance review document. It should be a human to human encounter in which both parties are able to contribute.
Finally, do something after performance conversations. If you are a manager who has regular conversations with staff, you are likely to follow up anyway, but particularly after one about work performance, make sure something happens, whether that is a coaching session, a decision to undertake training, another review or whatever seems appropriate. This bit is really important. What arises from performance conversations is that grist for the developmental mill; within the heart of poor performance lie the seeds of excellence. Knowing that you have a culture of performance, where it’s just something that gets talked about regularly, means that people can reasonably expect there to be a professional development path that continues to unfold. Ideally, this will be specific to each person, since each person’s needs will vary. Whatever you do, though, make sure that you do discuss what is not going well and that you do something to ameliorate it. It’s a paradox of strengths-based performance management: you want to change the poor performance but you must start by looking at the good, and when you eventually identify the inadequate, you have the raw material for greater excellence. If we don’t acknowledge what is outstanding, we don’t have the stable platform from which to grow and develop; and if we don’t examine what is poor, we just end up with a touchy feely nicey nice culture where we stagnate. We need to find the grit in order to learn something new. What is the irritant? What is the source of dissatisfaction? What is getting in the way of excellence?