Leaders Unknowingly Damage Employee Engagement: Leaders Can Be Smart but Very Wrong

March 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

I was scheduled to conduct a training session for a new client.  I use flip-charts in my training programs because they help optimize the learning.  The charts can be posted on the wall and used for review and reinforcement of the learning process.  Without the charts the learning would not be as effective and retained as well by the participants.  The training coordinator for the client told me flip charts are never used in their training processes.  Accordingly, she explained, “Flip charts are not needed because they have “white boards” which are just as good and save money.”

The coordinator is a very smart person.  Her theory of adult learning is very different than mine.  Her priority was to use white boards to save money (avoid purchasing flip chart paper).  My priority was to optimize the retention of the learners by posting the completed flip chart paper during the training.  Very different theories result in very different strategies and very different actions.

Leaders improve actions when they embrace systems thinking

Many leaders are not yet “thinking in terms of systems.” Most leaders still believe an improvement in the parts in an organization (the employees) will improve the organization.  This is a false belief that actually damages employee engagement and performance improvement.

General Motors provides a good example of this.  In 1982, GM closed its Fremont, California plant in 1982 because, of all of its plants, it had the worst record for: employee absenteeism, productivity, quality and morale.  Then in 1983, Toyota and GM agreed to re-open the plant under two major conditions: one, that the plant would be managed by Japanese-trained leaders; and, two, 85% of all previously employed United Auto Workers would be re-hired. 

By 1991, that same plant, renamed NUMMI (New United Motors Manufacturing Inc.) had catapulted from having the worst track record to having the best in all the areas in which it had previously failed. What made the difference?  The change simply cannot be explained using conventional management theory, which typically blames the people for poor performance.  As the example illustrates, the people, who were once part of the failure, became part of the success. The explanation lies in new a leadership style that used influence to change the methods that in turn changed the environment to produce positive results.  The explanation lies in the different type of thinking.

Leaders still rely on Performance Management

I believe that leaders who continue to embrace the typical performance management process are probably very smart but also very wrong.  The typical performance management process doesn’t work well yet most organizations continue to use it and most leaders continue to rely on it as the most important management tool.  Even so, managers often avoid it and employees often are discouraged by it.

When organizations recognize the ineffectiveness and damaging effects of their appraisal system, they sometimes embark on fixing it.  Usually the “fixing” focuses on one of two areas: (1) improving the design of the process (e.g. new criteria, new scales, more interaction, more raters, and more frequent appraisals) or (2) improving the implementation (e.g., better training, stricter rules to ensure timely execution, checking raters for consistency and bias tendencies).  These improvement initiatives do little to help.

The problems with the current performance management process are neither in the design or implementation.  Rather, they lie beneath the surface in the form of underlying theory.  

The alternative is The Complete Performance Improvement Process or CPIP

There is an alternative to the typical performance management process.  It is called CPIP and it has some similarities and some major differences to the current process. 

The similarities:

The manager and the employee will meet one-on-one.  One formal meeting is held each year to have an in-depth conversation with each employee while the management of performance occurs all during the year (without a grade or a ranking of the employee).  A document with agreements and actions is generated. 

The differences:

It is no longer necessary for the manager to “formally” evaluate the employee on their competencies and characteristics.  Instead the manager and employee cooperate and partner to improve the quality of the interpersonal interactions and the quality of the system interactions.  The rating of the employee is eliminated.  It is the improvement of the quality of the interactions that becomes the focus for improvement.  The focus is no longer the improvement of the individual.

There is no formal report of the employee competencies.  There is only a series of documents with agreements the manager and employee must keep and act upon.

The manager has the ability to improve his/her behavior at the same time the employee improves theirs.  It is a partnership.

Another change is pay for performance is separated from the CPIP performance management meetings. 

Accountability is protected

Those leaders who are nervous about sacrificing the level of accountability can be comforted with the knowledge that CPIP actually improves accountability.  In the CPIP everyone, employees and managers alike, must be accountable to certain values behaviors and they must be held accountable to keeping their agreements.  Any employee who is unwilling to behave accordingly is making a decision to deselect from the organization and should be helped to do so.

Just as the missing flip charts will unknowingly damage the learning of training participants, the current performance review processes will damage engagement.

The Art of Leading: 3 Principles for Predictable Perforamnce Improvement


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