Performance Management

From tyrants to botanists: how managers need to evolve in the knowledge economy

How can managers build a thriving team and what conditions do high performers require to flourish? The answer lies in conversation. OpenBlend explore.

In many ways, the evolution of the manager in the workplace mirrors the evolution of performance management. Not that this is surprising: if the workplace is the garden in which we need to thrive, the manager is the gardener. They create the environment in which their people succeed or fail. 

The archetypal 1970s manager - hard-nosed, results-focussed, top-down and autocratic - was the perfect complement to the prevailing ethos of performance. Rank and yank. Driven by the cold, indisputable truth of results. Modern managers must almost envy them for their certainty. Wellbeing was a term for Californian fitness gurus. Engagement was something you did with a bent knee and a diamond ring. 

The 1980s saw the growth of the management consultancies from a relatively rarefied aspect of business support into the mega-businesses that they are today. We got better at collecting data and, as humans tend to do, we created satisfying patterns to fit that data into. We were able to break the processes down into their component parts and analyse each part individually. Process improvement tools and productivity enhancement tools (think Sigma Six, as an example) took an ever more granular look at the pieces that made up the whole. We were no longer businesspeople - we were rocket scientists, fine-tuning our processes to achieve perfection through competitive advantage (or vice versa). And this trend continued into the new millennium, with the era of Big Data. Technology was the engine that drove growth, drove value creation, and unlocked the secrets of our systems and our markets. Alongside this, we had the vogue for 360-degree appraisal. Yes, we’re still going to boil your year’s work down into a single, indigestible bucket of stuff that we’ll throw over your head in a two-hour meeting, but this time we’re not just capturing your opinion and that of your manager: we’re going to ask 12 other people to contribute too. Hope you’re not too busy this week. 

The sum of its parts

This tendency of ours to break things into bits so we can see how each of them work is perfectly understandable. But it misses something fundamental about ourselves - about how we work as human beings. Everything is connected. Everything bears upon something else. 

Before we get into the evidence behind that remark, think about it in this context. Understanding only one aspect of a process can be useful in certain circumstances. If you’re part of a factory production line, it helps to focus on what’s in front of you. You make sure the labels go on the cans, but someone else makes sure they’re sealed shut. Your responsibility has a clear beginning and end. But we also know that people work far more effectively when they understand the big picture. This is why we align our goals to refer to the broader business objectives. It’s empowering to see how you contribute to the whole. It breeds camaraderie and collaboration if you understand not just your role, but how it connects to everyone else’s. In 2022’s knowledge economy, the factory analogy breaks down very quickly indeed. How many of us do a job in isolation? We’re called upon to collaborate, coordinate and balance as part of a team, a business unit and a whole organisation. Everything is holistic… in fact, everything needs to be thought of holistically. Not because it’s fashionable, reassuring, or fluffy, but because it is. 

The manager as gardener

Managers who have read this far may be forgiven for feeling some apprehension about how all this would work out. It sounds complicated, if nothing else, and requires you not just to think about performance, wellbeing and engagement but how they bounce off and affect each other. 

To take another analogy: if a gardener plants their seeds and then finds, come May, that the seeds aren’t growing, she’s unlikely to blame the seeds. Instead, she’ll consider the conditions she expected them to flourish in. An underperformer doesn’t want to underperform. The business hired them in the first place, so they must have some competence and ability. So what conditions are causing the problem? The modern manager needs to consider their people in the same way. And this is where, actually, everything becomes much simpler, because managers have a crucial tool that gardeners - Prince Charles aside - do not: conversation. 

Because here’s the thing: you can learn all you need to know about the intersection of performance, wellbeing and all the rest from a chat with the person concerned. And yes, these conversations need to touch on objectives, and goals, and how the person achieves as part of the business, but their primary aim is to unlock the conditions this person needs to thrive. These conditions will, naturally, vary from person to person, but the goal is the same in each case: to understand the unique blend of needs, aspirations and opportunities that make this person tick. And when those conversations become a frequent and regular part of manager-employee interaction, both parties are able to see the changes in real-time. What’s working? What’s not? Does X need more time for Y? More support? More autonomy? 

A better toolset

Once, a manager was able to sit above all of this, cherry-picking the data they needed to make the classic management decisions. Do we pay this person more? Do we promote them? Can we do without them? But a modern manager has a more evolved toolset. The irony is that this holistic approach will give you all that data and more, with the added benefit of coaching the employee - whether you or they realise it or not - to improve, refine and give greater benefits to the wider organisation. And it doesn’t take complex forms or the annual gathering of anonymous opinions from 12 people. All it takes is a chat, every few weeks, that supports the employee in doing their job more effectively. The gardener can plant in the right place and hope for the right amounts of sun and rain, but the manager can create the conditions themselves. If you know all this, and you have the influence to ensure that all the ingredients are in place, you only have yourself to blame if your people don’t flourish - and a huge amount of the kudos, commendation and reward to reap when they do.

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