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Performance Management And Accountability

by David Brock on September 19th, 2011

Years ago, a manager used to tell us, “Your increases will become effective when you do.”  It was a funny way of reminding us our compensation was linked to our performance.  If we didn’t achieve our performance objectives, we couldn’t expect increases in our compensation.

We talk about accountability a lot, but we tend to gloss over the consequence sides of accountability.  Being accountable for our performance goals not only means we do everything possible to achieve them and that we have internalized and own them.  It also means we understand and accept the consequences of not achieving those goals.

Every week, I get emails and phone calls, usually from managers, about performance management.  “My sales people aren’t achieving their goals, what should I be doing?”  We go through the usual conversation, “What are the road blocks the are experiencing, what are you doing to remove those roadblocks, what are you doing to coach and develop their capabilities to perform?”

In a surprising number of cases, I find these aren’t the dominant issues.

They are simpler-yet more challenging.

  • First, too many organizations don’t have well defined performance expectations.  Yes, they have a “quota,” but the quota tends to be more directional or aspirational, not something either the manager or the sales person really “own.”  There may be other performance management objectives, but again, there seems to be a softness around them.
  • Second, people confuse effort and results.  Both managers and sales people talk about how busy people are, how they are trying hard.  Usually, these narratives include all sorts of excuses or rationalizations.  “The economy is bad, we got involved too late, our products aren’t a great fit, the competition was just buying the business.”  These are things that impact all of us–yet they don’t stand in the way of many.
  • Third, the consequences part of accountability seems to be missing.  If someone continuously makes a great effort, but doesn’t achieve their performance objectives, then there have to be consequences to this, usually that’s termination.  But, too often, we see poor performers continue.  Too often, managers don’t step up to the accountability issues.

If managers don’t hold their people accountable, if there are no consequences to non-performance, then all the measures become meaningless.  People may try hard, they may put in the effort, but they don’t feel responsible for achieving the goals.

The consequences side about accountability is tough.  As managers we have to deal with difficult, possibly unpleasant issues.  Some managers are worried about their relationships with their people, some are uncomfortable with the confrontive nature of some of these discussions.

Some manager’s complain, “It’s too hard to fire someone in this company.”  Usually, that’s the sign of a bad manager.  The reason it’s hard to fire someone is the company has established a set of policies:  1.  Clear goals must be in place and the employee understands and owns them, 2.  People must be made aware of where they stand in their performance, 3.  Managers must coach and work with the people, doing everything they can to help them achieve their goals, 4. This must be done over a reasonable period of time, 5.  The person must clearly understand the consequences of not achieving their goals.  I hear too many managers complain about this difficult process.  I think to myself, “Isn’t this the manager’s job?”  I think, perhaps the performance problem is the manager, not the sales person.

These are the managers that implement a layoff–eliminating positions and people, not for performance reasons, but for whatever excuse they can come up with.  It’s cheating — the company, the laid off employee.  The laid off employee never really understands the performance issue, he or she goes off to find another job, without understanding the weakness or having the opportunity to improve it.  The company is saddled with a non performer, sometimes for months or years.  Months or years of not someone not contributing as expected.  Then the company is further saddled with the “package,” whatever is provided to people being laid off.

Firing someone should be tough.  We want to make sure we’ve done everything possible to correct the situation and to get people performing–but this is a manager’s job.  It’s not something that we do only when performance is off, it’s what we are responsible for doing everyday.  If a manager isn’t doing this, then he isn’t doing his job.

Sometimes, I see people and organizations who are not even at this point.  They don’t have performance measures in place.  Everyone want to do well, everyone want the company to grow, but there aren’t performance measures in place or they are directional and aspirational.

Performance management is critical.  We can’t manage performance without accountability.  Accountability means there are consequences and that everyone understands and owns these consequences.

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