What Else Can You Do?

post-itsThis phrase has been rattling around in my brain lately. What else can you do? It may be my mantra for this year. It seems applicable to almost every situation.

You’re unhappy in your job. What else can you do? Do you need to mend relations with a manager or co-worker? What’s making you so miserable? Is it the work you do or where you do it? If you need a change, what else can you do?

If you’re a manager frustrated by the performance of a staff member, what else can you do? What have you tried to get the person to do their job better? What’s worked in the past? Can the person be trained? Do they need to be replaced? What else can you do?

You want to lose weight and every fad diet or cleanse hasn’t worked. What else can you do? Unfortunately the answer might be eating less and exercising more but I’m sure there are those who will read that and think, what else can I do?

You worry about your children, young ones or grown. What else can you do? Because take it from me, worrying doesn’t work. It doesn’t prevent the bad or create some good. It generally just gets in the way of actually coming up with a new idea. So instead of worrying, ask what else can I do? Reach out, open the lines of communication, support them and unburden yourself. Because I’ve often found that while I’m being wracked by worry about my kids they’re out having a good time.

What else can you do is the phrase that frees you from repeating the mistakes of the past. In virtually every situation above and in countless others, doing nothing is a poor or unacceptable alternative. What else can you do is the first step toward trying something else and hopefully doing something better. What else can you do reminds us that there’s always something else you can do, something else you can try. You aren’t helpless and the situation isn’t hopeless. What else can you do is saying that there is something else I can do, I just haven’t figured it out yet. But there’s something. Everything turns out okay in the end, and if it isn’t okay, it isn’t the end.

What else can you do?

If not now


It wasn’t the manager’s fault

Someone whom I was coaching brought this to my attention. Her manager had rated her “Low” (he company’s scale is “High,” “Mid-range,” “Low”) when she failed to achieve a goal. In the write-up it stated (this is a paraphrase) that the employee was rated “Low” because while standards or timeline for completion hadn’t been defined, she failed to meet the standards for this project. A project that the manager acknowledged that no one else had been successful in completing either. Finally, it said that while the instructions about how the project was to have been completed were ambiguous, someone at her level should have been able to figure something out.

So in effect the employee was rated “Low” when:

  • she was given ambiguous instructions;
  • for an objective that no one else had been successful in achieving;
  • the manager had no idea how to do, and;
  • the manager never detailed what he wanted done or by when!

But I’m sure it wasn’t the manager’s fault…


One more reason to hate performance appraisals

Thank you Yahoo.

It’s not as if enough people didn’t already hate performance appraisals and blame them for everything from global warming to ankle warts. Now the management at Yahoo has given us one more reason to blame performance management for the erosion of trust, productivity and collaboration in the world of work.

As outlined in this article from the NY Times, light has been shed on how performance appraisals were done and used at what was once a premier internet company. Reviews were used primarily as a means to fire people and had no connection to employee development or performance improvement using a performance management method commonly known as “Rank-and-Yank” that faded from favor over 15 years ago. Using a forced ranking bell curve to rate employees has been abandoned by more forward thinking companies that formerly used this method. It was found them to have a “corrosive effect on productivity and employee morale.”

Pardon me for repeating myself but performance management must focus on the growth and development of the employee and the workforce to be effective and not seen as punitive. If it’s not a tool for improving performance then please don’t abuse it and your employees by simply using it as a rationale and cover-up for indiscriminate terminations. You’re not really helping yourself or your company and in reality, you’re poisoning the minds of others who might hope and plan to use their performance management systems for good not evil.

If all you want to do is cut heads, get yourself a guillotine, not an appraisal.


Use Your SMARTS!

I’m going to go way out on a limb and presume that pretty much everyone reading this is somewhat familiar with SMART goals. This was defined by Peter Drucker over 50 years ago as Specific, Measurable, Action oriented, Realistic, and Time bound. Now I’m not saying I’m smarter than Drucker, but lately I have found value in updating his classic acronym.

SMARTS. Specific, Measurable, Aligned, Relevant, Time bound and Stretching. Just a few changes that can help goals resonate a little more with today’s emerging workforce.

Aligned. It’s critical for the organization and the employee that individual goals be congruent with the greater goals of the organization. It’s equally important that there be a clear and identifiable line of sight from the employee’s goal to the organization’s. That’s when goals become self motivating and less like they are being assigned by manager fiat.

Relevant. There needs to be a connection between the work the employee’s asked to complete and the work of the rest of the team, department or organization. Plus, it’s best when there is a connection between the employee’s skills and the objective. That’s when the employee feels they’re really making a contribution. As Daniel Pink makes it clear, people perform better when they feel that there’s a purpose to what they’re being asked to do.

Stretching. We need our employees to do more than just enough not to get fired. We need them to voluntarily give their discretionary effort. As mentioned previously, most employees, if we do our jobs right all employees, come to work to do a good job. Just as you do. So when setting objectives, don’t just tell them what needs to be done, describe the standards for each level of performance. Give the employee the information he or she needs to excel. Help them to make an informed decision about how hard to work and how hard to try. Don’t worry about outlining the rewards just yet. That will come, rest assured. For now, keep their eyes on the improved performance prize and help them to develop pride in doing their jobs well.

This is all getting around to rewards and recognition, another of my favorite topics, Soon to come in yet another post on one of my favorite topics, motivating superior performance.

Watch your Phraseology!

So says Mayor Shinn in “The Music Man.” Sound advice when devising a ratings scale for your performance management system. There’s pretty much general agreement that we need to move away from the old numbering system that took a hold of organizations for decades. In defense of numbers though, at least it was clear where you stood in the manager’s opinion.

Instead we’ve been blessed with a waterfall of words that often cloud the manager’s intent more than clarify it. Quiz time!

Which is better? (taken from an actual appraisal I saw)

  1. Outstanding
  2. Superior
  3. Vastly Proficient

Pencils down! If you answered “B”, go take a celebratory lap around the office and get me a cup of coffee while you’re up. This organization had backed so far away from telling employees where they stood that no one recognized a need to improve. Needless to say the organization was floundering, hence the need to bring in a performance consultant (me!). If you’re curious the order of these top three ratings were Superior, Outstanding, Vastly Proficient followed by Meets and then Somewhat Meets. It’s like Lake Woebegone where all the children are above average.

Your employees are not children. They’re adults who crave feedback. How many of you go to work each day to do a lousy job. What, no hands? Of course not. Your employees feel the same way. For the most part, they come to work to be productive, put in an honest day’s work and feel that they’ve made a contribution. Okay, I know Homer Simpson is lurking out there somewhere, but I don’t think even Homer thought he was doing so bad. Not with the kind of feedback he was getting from Mr. Burns.

Base your performance feedback and ratings on carefully determined measurable, controllable, achievable SMARTS goals and then, using the four tier scale I mentioned in my last post, “Exceeds Standards”, “Meets Standards”, “Partially Meets Standards”, and “Does Not Meet Standards” you’re leading the band to better management.

Wait, did he say SMARTS goals?
Doesn’t he mean SMART goals?
Heavens to Drucker, next post!

No Safety Net

Now you may have thought from my last post when I railed about the often ineffectiveness of the ubiquitous five point evaluation scale that I favored a GE-style three tier system. Not at all. Interestingly, many of the comments I received talked about how some organizations have done away with numeric scales entirely and use descriptive phrases. Not once in my last post did I mention using a numeric scale, and I agree that applying seemingly arbitrary numbers does more harm than good. But don’t fool yourself. Using adjectives from “superior” or “outstanding” down to “unacceptable” or “unsatisfactory” is the same as telling someone that they’re a 1 or a 5. Everyone correlates those words to a number. They can’t help themselves. The inefficiency of some appraisal phrasing is the topic for another time, right now I want to share the evaluation framework I advocate.

No safety net. Four levels of performance. And no flowery language either. The effective way to communicate performance feedback to your employees is to set standards for acceptable performance and then measure them compared to those standards. The top level of performance is “Exceeds Standards”. The next is “Meets Standards”. Then “Partially Meets Standards”, and finally “Does Not Meet Standards”. Two levels above the line and two below. No middle ground, no safety net. Just a clear statement of either you made it or you didn’t.

I’ve heard people within organizations say this is harsh, this isn’t fair to the employees and I disagree. The employees I’ve spoken with make it quite clear that they want to know where they stand. My brother in sales management says he always tells his new employees that “No” is the second best answer. Because then you know where you stand. Your employees are the same. They want to know and it’s often because they want to improve.

A key objective of a manager’s job is to manage the performance of the team. Setting clear, measurable goals and then communicating with employees about how they’re doing on meeting those goals are two  crucial roles in meeting the manager’s goal.

Are you overpaying for performance management?

Would you pay full price when you’re only going to use 60% of the product? If you have a five point performance rating scale (the most common iteration) yet no one ever gets the highest or lowest rating, then you’re only using 60% of the system. In fact, SURPRISE, you actually only have a three point scale.

Whatever the reason for not using the highest or lowest rating, and I think I’ve heard them all, the company is sending a very muddled message to the employees.

“If we give him the lowest rating he’ll get demoralized and demotivated.” If an employee’s output is so minimal that you’re considering the lowest rating, he’s likely already demoralized and stopped trying to accomplish anything long ago. “Well, we don’t want to hurt his feelings.” Really? I’m much more impressed by a manager who doesn’t want to hurt the bottom line!

On the other end of the spectrum is “we don’t want to give her the highest rating because she’ll get complacent.” Don’t worry. Someone that good is never going to get complacent. If she’s so good that you’re considering the highest rating, she’s probably self-motivated enough to want to keep up that pace to replicate that performance, and hopefully that reward. This is the person you have to worry about demotivating. She knows that her performance is good enough to warrant the highest rating so when she doesn’t get it, that’s demotivating. This is the employee whose enthusiasm and performance I would hate to diminish. And also the employee I’d hate to lose because she doesn’t feel appropriately recognized for her hard work.

So you may think I’m advocating for a Jack Welch GE-style three tier evaluation system. Nothing could be further from my mind. If you have a five level evaluation system, use it to really differentiate employees’ performance. When a manager fails to use all the tools at his or her disposal, it’s like a six cylinder car that’s only using four. Turbo charge your performance management system by using every level appropriately and then you’ll be getting more bang for your buck.

Standards Matter

Adam Tang circumnavigated the island of Manhattan in 24 minutes.
Almost anyone who’s driven in New York City knows this is impossible. I personally have spent 24 minutes trying to go one block at 5 PM in midtown.

Adam is a skilled driver who wanted to set a speed record for driving around the entire island of Manhattan. He has talent. He has nerve. He has a fast car. He posted a video of his trip on YouTube that got him a lot of attention. He expected to get a speeding ticket when his escapade came to light and he freely admitted that he’d violated traffic laws. What he didn’t expect was to be given a jail sentence of up to one year in prison for reckless endangerment. He maintains his innocence on this charge. He says he didn’t endanger anyone and points to the fact the neither he nor anyone else had an automobile accident as a result of his stunt. The jury felt otherwise. They said, “he had disregarded the safety of others, particularly as he sped across the Cross Bronx Expressway and raced down the crowded Harlem River Drive, toward the end of his circuit. There he tailgated cars and sliced in and out of lanes, cutting off other drivers.” You can see this for yourself on the video.

Adam missed the point. It’s not just the results that matters but the standards you meet as you achieve the result. It’s the same when managers set objectives for their employees. It’s not just what they do, it’s how they do it. How you achieve the goal is equally as important as the goal itself.

And the truth is, Adam didn’t achieve his goal. He said he wanted to drive around the entire island of Manhattan. But on his northbound loop he cut across Manhattan at 178th Street. Any born and bred New Yorker (like me) knows that Manhattan extends all the way up to 220th Street. And any tough NYC manager  (like me) would say to Adam, “You failed to meet the standards AND your goal.” And as another tough New York manager would say, “You’re fired!” 

Are you stressed yet?

We’re coming up on Halloween so here’s a scary story for you.

In the past few months I’ve seen numerous articles about the effect of the workplace on worker’s mental health. This is a serious problem that’s spiraling out of control with no end in sight. And it’s costing organizations big bucks. According to the article in HR Magazine, “The indirect cost of untreated mental illness to employers is estimated to be as high as $100 billion a year in the U.S. alone, according to the National Business Group on Health.” In Workforce it’s estimated at over $80 billion. Yet rarely in any of the articles do they talk about the root cause of all the stress and anxiety. The focus was more on how organizations need to address this erupting dilemma.

I think the cause is the ever present strain on workers to produce more with less.

The fear of losing your job, especially for those over 50 years of age. The stress to keep up with every emerging technology, the fear of falling behind even a millimeter.

I’ve seen skilled employees thrust into manager roles with virtually little or no training on how to manage a team.

I’ve seen managers have their staff size cut in half or worse with the expectation that they will continue to produce at the same volume with no drop in quality.

I’ve seen people given manager titles without staff. And these “managers” are told to lead projects with borrowed resources whose allegiance and interests are elsewhere.

I seen recognition programs slashed. Increase budgets frozen. Senior management treating employees with an HTHJ (Happy To Have Job) mentality.

Until management realizes that its workers really are their most valuable assets, the prime differentiator among organizations, and stop treating them like interchangeable parts, the cost and frequency of days lost to mental health issues will surely continue.

So look around. How many of the things I described above have taken place at your office?

Your thought, comments or horror stories are welcome.


More Failure

Managers need the courage to fail. Without failure, there is no success.

Ships in harbor are safe, but that’s not what ships are built for. We need managers unafraid to step outside their comfort zone. Billy Martin, when managing the NY Yankees, would fine players who didn’t get picked off first base at least once during spring training, when the games didn’t count. It’s not that he wanted them to fail, he wanted them to learn the extent of their abilities.

We learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. The manager who fails to point out an error to an employee has just doomed that employee to repeated failure. And the manager usually gets pretty steamed when the person keeps making the same mistake. The second, and perhaps third, fourth and fifth, error belong to the manager. The manager didn’t have the courage to give that person the feedback necessary to correct the error. Please don’t give me the excuses for not giving feedback, I’ve heard them all more times than reality TV show judges say, “Wow!”.

Whether it’s giving feedback or trying a new strategy, managers must have the courage to fail if they are ever to succeed. After you’ve landed face down in the dirt a few times you’ll have both the knowledge and the resolve not to let that happen again.