Here’s a goal for managers: Create a system that doesn’t rely on finding top performers — you’ll get more top performers this way
It seems that many organizations are on the quest for finding top performers. People who have the ability to get the job done, to do what no one else can do, and really “exceed expectations.” This quest makes sense intuitively: Find top performers, and your organization will succeed. After all, who would want an organization full of mid-range and lower performers?
But here’s the problem: When you are on the quest for finding top performers, you risk ignoring the quest for systemically creating top performers.
Here’s the quest to find top performers. This quest tends to involve finding great hires, offering big bonuses, providing quick promotions, and conducting annual reviews that attempt to identify who is great and who is not-so-great. In this quest, top performers are found and elevated.
Then there’s the quest to create top performers. This quest is more boring. It involves creating systems and processes that ensure basic level performance, creating teamwork that creates better output than any one individual, having a positive work environment that fosters creativity, productivity and collaboration, and opportunity to express ideas and see them through without political ramifications.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote an excellent article called “The Talent Myth”, which appears in his book What the Dog Saw. In this article, he discusses companies that obsess over getting the top talent and the consequences of this. He focuses on Enron, and how it sought obsessively to attract and promote those with the most talent, which, amongst other things, resulted in a high degree of turnover within the company and made it difficult to figure out who actually was the best talent. In the article he asks:
“How do you evaluate someone’s performance in a system where no one is in a job long enough to allow such evaluation? The answer is that you end up doing performance evaluations that aren’t based on performance.” (What the Dog Saw, p. 363)
Does this describe your organization?
I’ve recently written about how many organizations go through a painful, angst-ridden and rhetorically charged process of identifying who the top performers are in an organization. Different managers assert their cases and advance some employees as “high potentials” and others as “needs improvement.”
This effort inures the concept that there is some sort of truth about an individual performer in comparison to her peers, and that this is relationship is static. Or, when it comes to annual reviews, true for at least one more year.
The process of deciding who’s on top and who needs improvement is an ongoing assertion that talent is the most important thing. If you can get more talented people, the more successful you will be. That is the thesis that this activity of ranking employees seems to advance.
But as Malcolm Gladwell’s article shows, this isn’t such a great idea, and it’s a weak thesis at best. There really is no way to judge performance in a highly evolving situation, and the judgment quickly moves from who has the most talent to who appears to have the most talent or who claims to have the most talent. As I showed in my article On the inherent absurdity of stack ranking and the angst it produces in employees, such decisions are usually made by tertiary impressions rather than a first hand examination of performance.
When an employee does something wrong, it’s not always about the person. It’s about the system, too.
The Manager by Design blog provides tips for how to be a great manager. A task many managers neglect is that of providing performance feedback. This task is an art, and Managers tend not to do it well or in a timely manner.
One reason for this is that it isn’t always clear that the employee’s behavior is incorrect, even if a situation goes badly, or is in the midst of an organization’s dysfunction. Situations are often dynamic, complicated and difficult, and the larger forces that went into the employee’s behavior may be more at issue than the employee’s behavior itself.
In situations like this, there are two common paths that managers take:
1) Try to correct the employee’s behavior to fit within the bad situation or dysfunction
2) Ignore the employee’s behavior because it is a dysfunctional situation
In both of these paths, you’ll notice the issue of the difficult situation is not addressed. Either the manager tries to make the employee more dysfunctional, or the manager passively lets the dysfunction get worse. Neither works.
Let’s go through an example: Read more