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Your Performance Improvement Trap

We all want to be good at SOMEthing. When performance improvement is on your mind, it’s easy to fall for one particular trap that will surely hold you back.

For instance, it might be a trap for me to write on this topic myself. Why? Because somebody else has already written about it so well. Allow me to introduce you to Garold Markle, who is an expert at performance improvement in the workplace. We’ve been friends for a long time, and I am glad to see his book, Catalytic Coaching: The End of the Performance Review, continue to do so well. As you’ll see, one of his strengths is writing. Now I turn the “pen” over to him, so he can share with you…

THE WEAKNESS TRAP

By Garold L. Markle

What is the best thing to do with a weakness? According to the Gallup Poll data, the most successful managers don’t normally try to fix an employee’s weakness. Instead, they work around it. Ignore it, if possible. While this sounds counter intuitive to some, it actually agrees with what most of us have noticed in life. Consider coaching.

What would a football coach do with a short but fast player who has quick hands? Try to fatten him up and make him stronger? Of course not. The coach would place him in the defensive backfield where speed and agility are key. He would charge the small, fast guy with getting faster. Meanwhile, he’d take his biggest, strongest player and challenge him to become bigger and stronger.

“Markle! Don’t put the ball on the floor!!” That’s what my basketball coach used to scream at me. 40 years later, the words still echo in my ears. At six foot seven inches tall, I was not a very adept dribbler. When I tried to dribble, the ball would hit one of my feet almost as often as it hit the floor. On the other hand, I could rebound with the best of them. So what did the coach do with me? He asked me to stand under the basket and retrieve missed shots. Did he ask me to work on my dribbling? Are you kidding? He actually forbade me from doing it. I got benched if I dribbled the ball, even if I did it successfully. The coach made it clear that my playing time would be determined by my ability to rebound. If I wanted to maximize my contribution to the team, I would not attempt to become some kind of well rounded version of Michael Jordan. I would emulate Dennis Rodman – the ultimate rebounding specialist.

In Catalytic Coaching we ask managers to select four “Areas for Improvement” that they want a direct report to focus on for the upcoming year. Since we compel them to do this immediately after discussing “Strengths” it‘s quite natural that people draw the wrong conclusions. Their mind thinks in parallel structure. They select four things that form the person’s competitive advantage and call those Strengths. They assume then that the next section is where they “write him up” for his shortcomings. If they follow this instinctual path, however, they will greatly reduce the effectiveness of the coaching process. They’ll fall quickly into The Weakness Trap spending good energy on a bad idea.

For a fully functioning employee, Areas for Improvement are more productively focused on Strengths that a coach would like to see more of. I can recall several years ago praising an executive assistant for her “Organization Skills” under the Strengths section only to request that she use these abilities more aggressively as an Area for Improvement. Rather than smile with bemusement at how I muddled my complicated travel plans, I challenged her to take them on as one of her responsibilities. Was she deficient in travel planning? Absolutely not. She had never been asked to do it. It was, however, a wonderful way for her to enhance her contribution.

No matter what I say to managers and supervisors in coaching training sessions, people seem to miss this point. When I work with them one on one (in a ritual we call “In-Flight Training”) it is often their biggest revelation. “I didn’t know we could ask her to do more of what she’s good at,” they’ll say, despite the fact that I made this point several times in class. Once they have this experience, however, the light comes on and they advance to a different level of coaching effectiveness.

When people tell me that coaching becomes redundant over the years, often the reason is that they’ve fallen into a rut of treating Areas for Improvement like Weaknesses. Here’s what someone told me recently. “I’ve written Thomas up as needing to work on his Analytical Skills for the last three years. I can do it again, but I don’t really think he’s going to improve.” When I asked if Thomas was worth keeping, the answer was both quick and unequivocal. “Absolutely! He produces a high volume of work.” The only thing needed here was for the coach to refocus his employee’s improvement efforts on things that were more realistic and valuable. Challenge Thomas to do more heavy lifting, just don’t assign him tasks that require heavy analysis.

The same ideas apply at home. When a child walks through the door with a report card showing five As, two Bs and one D, what do we always talk to her about? The low grade, of course. We tell her how the subpar subject matter is critical to proper growth and development and force her to spend more time focused on areas in which she’s potentially ill equipped to excel. Instead of lecturing our mathematically-inclined daughter on the merits of mastering English and Geography, if that’s where she’s behind, perhaps we’d be better served to encourage her to focus the bulk of her attention on Physics and Calculus, where she sits at the head of her class. After all, who cares whether the nuclear physicist that designs the first truly viable electric car can write creatively or explain haiku? And her computer or secretary can clean up her misspelled words.

So how do we avoid The Weakness Trap? Consider taking the following actions:

  1. Design Around Weaknesses. Whenever possible shift roles and responsibilities to give those who work for you a chance to focus on what they’re good at and what they enjoy. Fit the job to the people and the people to the job. Not all accountants have to have identical responsibilities. The same goes for supervisors, managers and executive assistants. Few of us are universally talented. It is more important to create a team that wins through working together than to mandate that all jobs with similar titles are carbon copies.
  2. Shorten Improvement Cycles. If you’ve got a direct report that has a weakness that you can’t build out of her position (for example, a manager who can’t delegate), give her a limited amount of focused attention to make the improvement. In general, if she can’t start making demonstrable progress in a one to three month period, she is not worth spending additional time on. Great sports coaches move quickly when they determine that a player’s aptitude is insufficient for a given role. Remember that “Catalytic” means speeding the pace of significant change. In business, time is money. Repurposing or replacing usually beat rewiring.
  3. Focus on Strengths. Do your homework to determine what people are good at. Things they have a competitive advantage at. Identify activities that give them energy. Knowing someone’s weaknesses is valuable information for selection and placement decisions. If they’re not tall enough, fast enough, agile enough (in other words, a poor match for the position), consider making a change. If you’re going to coach them where they’re at, however, the key is to take what they’re good at and make it better. Do that and someday the Gallup Poll researchers will be writing stories about you.


About the Author of The Weakness Trap:

Garold Markle is author of Catalytic Coaching: The End of the Performance Review and No More Performance Evaluations! Gary is also founder and CEO of Energage, Inc. For more of his teachings go to www.energage.com.

This article was first published in Catalytic Connection in August of 2009. Copyright 2009 by Energage, Inc. Reprinted with permission of Garold L. Markle, glmarkle@energage.com.

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Comments (0) Mar 01 2010

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Why Performance Improvement is an Uphill Battle

By Paul Johnson

1,190 words. Abstract: Performance improvement can be easy when you avoid your uphill battles. Get past the three myths that are thwarting the success of you and your team.

Who doesn’t get frustrated once in awhile? Either we’re disappointed with our own failure to achieve a goal, or with the failure of someone else we were counting on to perform.

  • We work hard and achieve a deadline, but we know the quality of our work has fallen short.
  • We’re counting on someone to hit their sales target, but revenues will fall short… again.
  • We’ve shown someone over and over how to do something new, but they just don’t “get it.”

Many of us are challenged with the performance improvement of someone, whether that someone is someone else or ourselves. If you’re frustrated in your efforts to reach goals, perhaps you need a better plan for achieving results.

While many factors affect performance improvement, one subtle aspect is often overlooked. By recognizing and managing this aspect, you have an opportunity to avoid the frustration and wasted effort that otherwise occurs. This may be your chance to avoid repeating the same failure-inducing mistake over and over again.

Stop Mything Out

Three myths stand in the way of recognizing and applying a solution. The first myth is the common promotion of the idea that education and skill-building results in success. While those factors are important, we need to accept that learning a topic does not mean you’re assured of applying it successfully, especially in a competitive environment. Going to a training class will help you gain additional skills, but at some point performance improvement plateaus regardless of how much training is received. Yes, education and training support success, but there is more.

The second myth is that hard work is necessary for success. Instead, I contend that most people work too hard but don’t practice enough. If the work is hard, I suggest you may be wasting your efforts on the wrong work. On the other hand, when you find work that is fun and easy for you, continual practice will lead to higher and higher levels of performance improvement. Your practice must be focused on work that is right for you. Work easy and practice hard.

The third myth is that people assume that people who succeed in one area know how to succeed in them all. We see this all the time when people get promoted. Those that fail to achieve in their new roles are scrutinized for their failures. We wonder what’s wrong with them, when there may be nothing wrong with them at all. It’s silly to assume anyone can be good at everything we ask of them. I can tell you from first-hand experience that it IS hard to say “no” when presented with an “opportunity.”

Picture the Perfect Pachyderm

One key insight can help us resolve all these myths and help us understand where and how performance improvement is truly possible. I wish I could take credit for this idea, but it really comes from nature. I guess we could call it a big idea, because I learned it from studying elephants.

These days you rarely hear the words “war” and “elephant” in the same sentence. Yet War Elephants were an important combat tool in Asia and the Mediterranean centuries ago. Armies would enlist elephants to participate in the charge against the enemy to instill fear and breakup their lines. And fearful the enemy should be. Unlike horses, elephants have no reservations about trampling humans. Their thick skins made them relatively difficult to wound with common weapons of the time, and their strength allowed them to carry armor to make that possibility even more remote. Then, to literally top things off, soldiers would strap a mini-fort, called a howdah, to the top of the elephant. Here, a handful of archers could reside with a birds-eye view of their opponents.

Many of us have heard of the Carthaginian general Hannibal. He is noted for taking his army over the Alps to attack the Roman Empire from the north in a surprise attack. In addition to 40,000 troops, Hannibal brought several dozen War Elephants to Europe to traverse the Alps. Unfortunately, Hannibal wasn’t aware of a significant shortcoming of elephants.

Find the Fate-ful Flaw

We can’t really blame Hannibal for this knowledge shortfall, because he never had a chance to meet Professor Fritz Vollrath from Oxford University. Professor Vollrath’s research team did a study on African elephants, using global positioning system (GPS) devices to track elephants crossing the savannas. They discovered that elephants “don’t do hills.” Elephants routinely avoid any types of slopes and hills, as even minor hills make them really hungry. Elephants only eat vegetation, and they need lots of it. Climbing hills requires a significant boost in calorie consumption and that means finding lots more to eat. The researchers reported, “Climbing 100 meters [@300 ft] would burn [2,500 calories] which would have to be either replenished by an extra half hour of foraging or paid for by using up body reserves.”

Now imagine you’re Hannibal, trying to get dozens of elephants over mountains not hundreds, but thousands of feet high. The elephants see the slopes and their instincts tell them not to climb them, but their human handlers drive them forward. Then they get hungry because there’s not enough food growing on the mountain slopes. And a ticked-off elephant has no reservations about trampling people. THAT must have been a fun journey. Sadly, all but a handful of elephants died crossing the Alps.

Role with the Flow

The lesson that elephants (and other animals) can teach us is this: humans are versatile, but no one is good at everything. Performance improvement comes easiest when a human who is “wired” to succeed in a specific endeavor is placed in that role.

  • We know Michael Jordan as a phenomenal performer in basketball, yet he was much less impressive in a baseball uniform no matter how much hard work and practice he was willing to perform.
  • We saw Susan Boyle become an “overnight success” at the age of 47 on the “Britain’s Got Talent” contest. She owned the stage once given the opportunity to demonstrate the gifts and abilities she has owned all her life.
  • I bet we can all name our own examples of people who have taken advantage of every education and training opportunity presented to them, yet are still identified with mediocre performance and lackluster results.

Hopefully that’s not you. Or maybe it is.

Don’t Do Hills

Your uphill battle may not be going literally uphill as it is for elephants. Yet we each face our own challenges. Some of these challenges we were never designed to overcome. When a task seems like an uphill battle to you, consider that maybe, just maybe, you were never intended to do it. Instead, find those tasks which come easy to you, where learning is easy and practice is fun. Aim for performance improvement in those areas where you are “wired” to do well.

We each have our own unique set of gifts, talents and abilities. It may be hard to find them in yourself and in other people but, when you do, results will come fast and success will be easy.

© 2009 Paul Johnson. All rights reserved.

About the author
Paul Johnson is the keynote speaker who describes his approach to transformational leadership at http://TroubleBreaker.com. He enables companies to achieve breakthrough growth and team performance improvement at http://ShortcutsToResults.com.

Note: This article is available for reprint at no charge. We only ask that you include our copyright notice in your reprint, along with the About the Author information we provide at the end of the article.

A Question for your Comments: When did you say “Yes” to an “opportunity” when later you discovered you should have said “No, thanks”?

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Comments (0) Nov 01 2009

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Where the Winners in Business Come From

By Paul Johnson

1,289 words. Abstract: The A-players in business don’t appear out of thin air. A lot goes into their development as winners. And parents have a lot to do with where the core of their development comes from.

You and I both probably had painful childhood experiences that involved winning and losing. I was always picked last when choosing teams for pick-up basketball games. Perhaps you had YOUR heart set on making a team or winning a contest, and it just didn’t happen. You can still remember the hurt to this day.

Today I’m concerned for our children. Both as a parent and as a member of society, I’m interested in the raising of psychologically healthy and strong children who will one day (sooner than we might like to think) be contributing to society, running our businesses and leading our country. I’m concerned that parents are letting the pain from their past corrupt the children of the present.

Who’s a Loser?
I was listening to a radio talk show this morning when the on-their personalities tossed this controversy into the air: should children be labeled winners and losers? They cited several news stories to fan the flames.

  • One was about children’s sporting events where no score was kept; because no team could be defeated, there could be no losers.
  • Another was about a trend at children’s birthday parties, where everyone got a prize. Playing games like Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey would be done for entertainment, but no specific price would be awarded because it would be wrong to declare a winner, thus making all the other children losers.
  • Finally, mention was made of the grading scale used in schools, which stratifies students into categories of winners and losers.

As you might imagine, many called into the radio station. A sustained debate ensued about whether children should be allowed to compete when the outcome apparently risks labeling many as losers.

Unfortunately, there was no clear winner. I’d like to change that.

Worth the Debate
I applaud all parents who care enough to have an opinion on this topic, because it’s important. We want to avoid sending ill-equipped offspring into careers where they will fail to reach optimum levels of satisfaction and reward. Parents seem happiest when their children are productive, happy, satisfied, and eventually living purposeful lives as adults. Yet this ongoing debate about whether children should compete seems to leave parents unhappy if not angered.

I happen to agree with both sides of the argument. The points I’ll offer shortly should clarify that apparent contradiction. Now for the disclaimer; I am not a psychologist. I only have two qualifications that qualify me to address this issue: I was once a child (duh), and I also am fortunate to be the parent of several children who are now adults. Hopefully my insights will serve you.

Put the Ending First
I am opposed to labeling anyone, young or old, losers. I’m not really in favor of labeling people at all, but if there must be labels, let them be positive ones like the term “winner.” So how could there be winners but no losers? Because there’s a big difference between winners and losers, and winning and losing.

Losing a game does not automatically earn anyone the label of loser. The term “losing” is simply the reflection of the score of a particular event that took place at a specific instance in time. In other words, winning and losing have nothing to do with being a winner or loser. Sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose. Except in basketball; I always lose. But that doesn’t make me a loser. I can win, and do win at lots of other things. And so do our children. It’s the -ING, not the -ER, that we should be concerned with and should be the focus in our use of language.

Winning Requires Luck
We tend to associate the terms winning and losing with all games. However, I contend there is a better word than winning to use in some instances.

Games generally require some combination of luck and skill. Some games are almost pure luck, others almost pure skill. Choosing the winning number on a roulette wheel is almost pure luck. Winning at Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey is also a rather lucky endeavor. However, where sports are concerned, the emphasis shifts to skill. Players in these games can most certainly influence the outcome of the game based on how skillfully they execute the requirements of the game. Where skill is not only encouraged but required, it’s an insult to the players to conclude that one team “won” the game. While we might be able to point to a few exceptions, the reality is that players usually earn the victory.

I made this distinction some years back when I heard my wife talking to one of her friends. I was in sales at the time, and had just qualified for our annual President’s Club incentive trip. She was explaining to her friend how I had won a trip to Hawaii. After she hung up the phone, I explained that I didn’t win anything. After working like a dog and skillfully applying the expertise I had developed over the years, I earned that trip as a reward. Clearly I was winning in my job, and I felt like a winner, but make no mistake about it; it was clear to me and my bosses that I had earned that reward.

Make sure your children can tell the difference between winning and earning. No one can afford to live their lives dependent on luck. If we want our children to develop their skills and learning, we should separate winning from earning.

Born to Earn
It’s obvious that winning is more fun than losing. Success is better than failure. Ideally, we would like to win at everything. But we can’t. We’re each born with a different set of gifts, a different set of strengths. We can develop these into useful and productive skills that will help us earn opportunities to win.

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Dr. Howard Gardner explains in his 1983 book titled Frames of Mind that there are at least seven different forms of human intelligence. In this initial book, he labeled them:

  • Linguistic (spoken and written language)
  • Logical-Mathematical
  • Musical
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic
  • Spatial (patterns of space)
  • Intrapersonal
  • Interpersonal

This means that some will be more inclined to win at music while others are inclined to win at math. Or running. Or writing. Or shearing sheep.

I like to see people playing games that they CAN win, even though sometimes they won’t. I get excited when I see young people figure out that they’re really good at something they also really like to do. That is usually the kernel for a productive and satisfying career.

The Business of Growing Winners

So what can parents do to raise happy, healthy children who will become satisfied, productive contributors to the world? First of all, forget about saving your child from pain. They’re going to fall down. They’re going to be disappointed. There will be many unhappy moments. Get over it, because they will. Let your child try stuff. Give them opportunities to discover their strengths and to sample the things that they might be good at.

Even more important, let them figure out how THEY have fun. Not everyone enjoys spelling bees, but some people do. Not everyone enjoys practicing music, but some people do. Not everyone enjoys standing in the outfield when there are no dandelions to pick, but some people do.

Let’s give our children opportunities to try winning and losing; that will make them winners. Let’s help them understand that some games are won, and some victories are earned. Let’s help children explore their gifts and discover their strengths so they will confidently know how they can win in this game of life. One day they may be working in the next office over from you.

© 2009 Paul Johnson. All rights reserved.

About The Author:
Paul Johnson is the keynote speaker who gives teams the courage, motivation, and insight to overcome obstacles and create breakthrough growth opportunities at http://TroubleBreaker.com. Learn about business growth topics at http://Paul-Johnson.com.

Note: This article is available for reprint at no charge. We only ask that you include our copyright notice in your reprint, along with the About the Author information we provide at the end of the article.

A Question for your Comments: What game did you win that was really earned?

Posted: under Managing Change (Leadership).
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Comments (0) Oct 01 2009