The Leader Can Make High Performance Happen

A few years ago Kinect developed a program for a large North American airline designed to engage their employees internationally and provide superior service to their customers. After development we piloted the program for them and then trained and certified their facilitators to take the program around the world.

While reviewing the list of participants, the program’s internal coordinator warned me not to expect too much from one of the participants. “Don’t expect too much from Lisa.” I was told. “She has been underperforming for a couple of years and her attitude has become negative. To be honest we put her on the program because she was moved off her last project and we have no place to put her.”

The Lisa that had attended the program in no way matched the image of that had been painted in my mind. Instead of negative and de-motivated she was an eager and bright participant who made a valuable contribution to the program.

It was a couple of years later when I was boarding a plane that a beaming woman dressed in airline uniform approached me. “I just wanted to say hi and thank you.”, she said. “The program changed my life. I’m now a team leader and enthused about my job and know I have a great career ahead of me.”

Lisa had become a highly valued employee. I was thrilled for her but it struck me as sad that she had had so much non productive time, a loss for herself and the airline, and had been branded with one of those organizational labels that once stuck to someone is so hard to remove.

If her managers had known how, they could have done for Lisa much that the program did and could have done it long before:

Provide Positive Feedback

Lisa’s good ideas and positive contribution to the program were recognized. The positive comments she received energized her and contributed to her continued enthusiasm. When someone’s performance deteriorates, the gaps are what the manager most readily notices and gives attention to. While, of course, the deficiencies must be addressed, the individual often then receives only criticism. Even given constructively, if there is no balancing positive feedback, the comments become depleting. We observe consistently that managers who make the effort to find the positives, even if it takes some searching, and then gives recognition for them have a much stronger track record in turning individuals’ performance around.

Refuse To Label

Lisa, like so many had been labeled and too frequently it is impossible for the employee to remove the image that has been attached to them. People tend to see what they expect to see and so once some one has been given a label it is that trait that people most readily see. For example if labeled as negative, a person may also display positive behaviour, but it is any sign of negativity that is most quickly noticed and sometimes even imagined due to misunderstanding. The label is then reinforced and becomes larger.

In the program, although Lisa had been described to the facilitator as negative, she was allowed a fresh start. Anything she said or did was taken at face value. No preconceived perceptions were at play.
When managers refuse to label people they see strengths and opportunities for performance improvement that otherwise would be overlooked.

Create Ownership

The program emphasized that we each must take ownership for changing whatever less than positive situation in which we might find ourselves and then helped people develop the confidence to do so.
Managers can achieve this by asking: What will you do to turn things around? When can I expect to see change? How can I support you in doing this?
Essential is the manager’s expression of belief that the individual is capable of achieving what they are aiming for. Also key is the manager following up regularly to check process and to cheer the individual along.

Provide Clear Expectations

It was clear to participants in the program exactly what they were expected to achieve by the end of the program. In addition to these given expectations individuals were invited to establish their personal goals. There were frequent opportunities during the program for individuals to check their progress and to request further support from the facilitator in achieving their goals and meeting expectations.
Managers frequently are not sufficiently clear and specific about what is required for the employee to improve their performance. Too often they then leave the individual to struggle on their own. Managers who see themselves as coaches devote the required time to support individuals in their development. When this happens not only is poor performance most quickly turned around, but poor performance is much less likely to occur in the first place.

Underperformance is one of the challenges most frequently identified by managers. Managers who see themselves as sharing responsibility for turning the employees performance see more improvement faster.

About The Author:

Leslie Bendaly is recognized as a leading thinker and practitioner in the areas of organizational leadership, teamwork and change.

She is the founding partner of Kinect Inc. and author of several books on leadership including on Strength in Numbers, Winner Instinct, Organization 2005, Games Teams Play and Leadership on the Run. Leslie co-authored her latest book, Improving Healthcare Team Performance: The 7 Requirements for Excellence in Patient Care with Nicole Bendaly.

Her models, tools and books are used in organizations worldwide and her books have been selected as mandatory reading for MBA and other postgraduate programs in both the U.S.A. and Canada.

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