Written by Peter Ward, 13 March 2023
No point in individual brilliance if you impact negatively on the wider team
I was watching a T20 cricket match with a talented bowling attack keeping the batting side under control. Until the fifteenth over. Then an extra-ordinary outburst from a senior figure led to the visible deterioration of performance in the field and, suddenly, a mountain to climb to chase a very challenging total.
For those new to cricket, please don’t worry about the detail. The point is that we were witnessing the impact of a high performer behaving badly. An example of good performance but poor behaviour from an individual impacting negatively on the team and, in this case, on future personal performance (for those still interested in the cricket, the last over resulted in 18 runs scored and this turned out to be the winning margin for the match).
We have been banging the drum for an assessment of behaviours as part of all people processes in an organisation. Enquiry on past behaviours during interviews, assessment of observed behaviours during performance appraisals, zero tolerance for bad behaviours, and so on. We believe a healthy view of performance is a combination of good behaviours and results achieved. But we have so often witnessed a tolerance of poor behaviours if the results have been delivered. And the result can be destructive.
Some years back, we were talking to a recruitment business that had a very successful head of sales who had topped the sales league consistently period after period. But it was achieved by aggressive cherry picking of opportunities, denying others the opportunities to succeed. In today’s terms, bullying. When confronted, there was an unpleasant scene, slamming of doors and a hasty exit from the office. And a very worried CEO! But a quick consultation with the remaining team and by the end of the year, budgets were being exceeded and all with one less (large) salary.
Why is it that we find confronting bad behaviour so difficult? I offer the following:
Desired behaviours undefined. At one extreme it will be a focus on what is now defined as bad behaviour by the MeToo movement or through accusations of bullying. We see the definition of good behaviours as important and by good, we mean those behaviours that will enhance the commercial model for our organisation over time. Those behaviours that will shape the culture of the business to provide a differentiator in the market for customers and people.
Inadequate assessment of behaviours. Having defined the behaviours that will be needed for the success of the organisation, how might they be assessed. So often we achieve precision on the results (we all seem to know what good looks like) but judge the behaviours on anecdotal ‘evidence’ with little regard to observations over time and with little guidance on frequency or impact.
Inability to capture and aggregate reports on behaviour. We have struggled to find a software package that has the flexibility needed to tailor performance reports to the behaviours and results for an individual organisation – thereby supporting the development of the desired culture.
Reluctance to have what is perceived to be a difficult conversation. There is the issue ‘difficult conversation’. Why would constructive feedback, designed to improve performance and/or confidence, be seen as ‘difficult’?
I am going to assume that all businesses focused on effectiveness over time recognise the need to recruit, retain, encourage and develop talent. Having recognised this need, they can then be persuaded that performance will need an assessment of both result achievement (what has been achieved) and behaviours deployed (how results have been achieved). Now to respond to the challenges:
If we are to assess the way people behave it is really important that we develop clear definitions, absent of any ambiguity, for the behaviours that are essential to the success of the organisation. These will be universal, so adopted by everyone in the organisation and the same for external and internal audiences. Authenticity is a pre-requisite for lasting behaviours so it will take time and careful testing to land on a set of standards that will work. Given that the most significant influence on behaviours will be those of the leadership group, this is an essential topic for the senior-most leaders in the organisation. Not ‘an exercise’ that can be handed over to a nominated function, or indeed an external agent. But it will need facilitation and challenge.
Assessment of behaviours
The good thing about behaviours is that you can observe them, good and bad. Our cricketer’s behaviour was evident for all to see. Our assessment process should be based on observations by those coming into contact with the person being assessed. And adding frequency of the observation can help to determine whether a behaviour is habitual or occasional. A scale might be: always; sometimes; rarely; never. And adding narrative will help those being assessed to recall specifics that they can act on.
We have explored different software packages to assess performance based on both results and behaviours for some time but so far have not found one that is user-friendly, flexible to meet the unique needs of each client business and set up to capture behaviours as well as results. This is why, in collaboration with Telos Digital, we have developed ‘ToPiC’*. This new software platform allows us to create individual reports that can form the basis for development reviews, a summary of where each person is on the behaviour/results grid and an overall summary for the organisation as a whole.
The difficult conversation
I am still struggling to work out why feedback conversations are seen as difficult. I guess it harks back to early experience of what we have come to believe is ‘feedback’. Perhaps overzealous parents or schoolteachers (back in the day, that is) frame comments made as criticism and therefore negative data. Or perhaps we have not had the positive experience of praise for a job well done and encouragement to do more. We have learnt (thank you, Phil Lindsay) there are only two reasons for giving feedback: to improve performance or to boost confidence, so what is there not to like? The truth is that we have never invested in learning the skills that are required to give and receive comments on our performance. But when you see, and experience, an organisation (or even just a team) that embraces feedback, you just need to wonder at its joint performance.
What if the annual appraisal round was turned from an annual task and became an opportunity to improve performance and the overall confidence of people in the organisation? Worth the investment in developing precision in the description of behaviours? Worth the careful engineering for a successful performance review process? Worth capturing and aggregating results? And worth the investment in feedback skills?
If the result was 5% increase in productivity, or 5% improvement in people retention?
Reckon it is worth a well-designed and managed performance review process, completed by an acknowledgement of feedback as a trigger for great performance.
*we will share more details around ToPiC in a separate article. If you would like to find out more about this tool, please reach out.
A real opportunity to improve performance and retain talent
Image courtesy of: www.telegraph.co.uk
Peter Ward is Chairman and Co-Founder of Telos Partners, an advisory business focused on long-term business success