This article is the second of two. To read the first, on the processes and systems managers traditionally rely on to grow their teams’ performance, click here.
There are seven factors which govern performance. We’ve already talked about the importance of delivery expectations, development and tools - the more formal, process-driven factors. Most managers focus heavily on these factors - and for obvious reasons. They’re easy to measure. They relate directly to work objectives. They tend to have a clear beginning and end.
But what we’ve also seen, consistently, is that HR leaders are less confident in managers’ ability to have effective conversations about the less formal, more people-centric enablers. There’s nothing odd about this, of course. Managers like process, and a clear process should, in theory, give everyone the same opportunities. But it only favours those who find it easy to put on a ‘work face’ and ignore the more human side. It’s worth taking a closer look at what that human side constitutes.
This is almost the definitive missing piece from the top-down school of management: how do your people feel at work?
- Do I work for a business which cares about my wellbeing?
- Does my employer show a recognition of my personal circumstances?
- Do I feel free to be myself at work?
It’s not just your personal situation, either: it also touches on the organisation’s focus on diversity & inclusion (not just as it affects the individual, but how the employee perceives the treatment of their colleagues). Feeling able to “be yourself” at work is essential, as is listening and flexibility from the manager.
The link between manager and employee is the most influential factor here. We would expect that: the manager needs to understand those personal circumstances and allow for them when allocating workload, timings and expected results. But the business has a broader role to play in recognising and rewarding achievement, and through role-modelling from senior leadership. The best-performing organisations in our research group showed consistent listening, a strong wellbeing culture, and a group of managers who recognised and allowed for personal circumstances.
My Interaction with Work
We get the chance to use the word “holistic” here, because this is a recognition that our work is part of our life, and the one affects the other.
- Do I have a tailored and flexible working pattern which suits my situation?
- Can I perform irrespective of my location, contracted hours, etc?
- Can I manage my wider responsibilities in addition to my work?
This can be a touchy subject. To use a particular example, a retailer will have set opening hours and require a certain level of staff presence within those hours. We don’t all have the dubious luxury of being able to catch up on our projects outside of the 9-5.
Once again, it’s the discussion that makes the difference. Personal circumstances may force a request - temporarily or permanently - for more flexibility. If an employee is immersed in a longer-term, outcomes-based project then it may be reasonable for them to ask for a certain amount of autonomy and trust in delivering it. Managers should prompt conversations about what their people need, and keep up a dialogue with leadership and HR with regard to policy. What seemed inflexible three years ago may not be inflexible now, as we adapt and develop the ways we work to cater for changing situations. If something seemed impossible when it was first proposed a few years ago, we may find that tech now exists to solve that very problem.
We all understand the importance of linking personal objectives to business goals. This, really, is the logical extension of that, and how it affects us as people.
- Do I understand the vision, purpose and objectives of the organisation?
- Do I understand how I contribute to the business and beyond?
- Do I see how other people’s objectives are relevant to my work?
This is about being part of a whole, not just with the business but with the team around you. Every manager should know by now that they need to communicate and discuss business objectives with their team (although whether they do that effectively is another matter). We spend half our lives at work, and we expect to understand what it is that the company stands for. This touches on the business itself: delivering excellent customer service, or helping customers to minimise their impact on the environment. But it could also mean being a good citizen as well as an employer: a commitment to local communities, or efforts to do what they do in a more climate-conscious way.
Managers are the face of the organisation’s values. They set the tone. While leadership may present the business goals at company-wide meetings or through documents circulated around the business, it’s the manager who decides how that reality is experienced. Their attitude, and the efforts they make to bring those talks and documents to life, is the real proof of how grand statements operate in the real world.
We’ve saved the most important for last. Even if you haven’t read the companion article to this piece, you’ll have seen how vital the manager is in making all of this happen. To put it in a single sentence: the manager communicates what good looks like, in almost every aspect of our working lives.
- Does my manager coach my performance and offer valuable feedback?
- Does my manager care about me?
- Do I have regular conversations about objectives and performance?
Clarity, again, is key. We shouldn’t have to guess if we’re doing a good job. Clear expectations, clear guidance and ongoing discussion about how we’re achieving against them: are the hallmarks of an effective manager.
Managers have their own workload. The stereotype of the subject expert manager, promoted through experience and competence but given no time (or having no inclination) to manage their team, is a recurring theme in the world of performance enablement. Some simply lack empathy and find it difficult to understand why the system they navigated so successfully needs explaining to others.
The solution? Give managers a structure to have frequent performance conversations, touching on both work objectives and employee needs. You can’t train empathy, but you can offer a framework where these discussions are required. The good news is that the questions which need to be asked - the questions that your empathic, natural-coach managers are using already - can be prepared and prompted. If your performance management software gives your team leaders a set script (with, of course, room for them to adapt it to their own specific needs) then they can achieve the same result. The proviso is that these managers need to commit to the actions that fall out of these meetings and monitor the progress of the agreed-on objectives. You can set up the environment, but they need to nurture it.
Lightening the load for your managers
Far away the biggest influence on all these enablement dimensions is the capability of the manager to have conversations, identify challenges and obstacles, and chart a route to progress and achievement. It’s almost all on them, which is a tough situation to be in.
Our data consistently shows a clear correlation between confidence in managers (to discuss these issues, both “hard” and “soft”) and high performance. The conversation leads on to the results. This is a wake-up call to leaders and HR. It means that no matter how carefully we craft our mission statement, or how many times we iterate a process to make it work, we’re reliant on people managers to bring it to life. That time and investment will not deliver its potential for performance unless the managers can make it happen. And without looking at all sides of the problem - both process and human - they’ll struggle to do so effectively.
If we want our managers to have these regular conversations, we need to support them with a clear structure. We need to give them a framework which makes the right questions and topics second nature. We need them to feel supported so they, in turn, can support their teams. Managers are the gatekeepers of performance. An investment in making them better managers will reap dividends for employee engagement, for business performance and for the bottom line.
You can download our latest research, Performance Enablement 2022, from the OpenBlend website.