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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.

Posted: under Managing Change (Leadership).
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Comments (0) Mar 01 2010

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Who is Cheating You Now?

By Paul Johnson

1,500 words. Abstract: Perhaps you’re frustrated because your hard work to create a better life seems thwarted at every turn. Use this approach to win against the people and problems blocking the paths to the results you desire.

Despite all our efforts at work, sometimes it seems we make little economic progress. Over the years, many metaphors have been used to describe our despair. “I am…

  • running in place.”
  • a hamster on a wheel.”
  • stuck on a treadmill.”

My favorite is, “I feel like a dog on linoleum.” When we’re not getting ahead, who is cheating us out of the rewards we deserve for our efforts? Many are potentially to blame:

  • Bosses that show favoritism at work.
  • Unfair labor practices.
  • Oppressive decisions inflicted as a result of greed, jealousy or ego.

While it may be true that these events cheat you out of rewards and opportunities you deserve, these events are not the ones you should worry about or even attempt to fix.

The Waste of Life
When we’re feeling stuck and not making the progress we want, frustration is often the symptom. We’re frustrated with our failure to achieve, our failure to earn, and our failure to attain a position of comfort and stability. By escaping the tyranny that is holding us back, our liberation will give us the ability to enjoy steady progress and enjoy more of the fruits of our labors.

My inspiration for this article came from Chris Anderson and his new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price (Chris is also author of the best seller, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, published in 2006). In Free, Chris Anderson explores the concept of waste. He points out that in the animal kingdom, mammals (including humans) have an unusual attitude toward waste. In short, we have an unhealthy aversion to it.

It’s actually bred into us because of our procreation patterns. He points out that the Bluefin tuna releases up to 10 million fertilized eggs in a single spawning season. Of those, maybe 10 will make it to adulthood. That means one in a million survives, and the rest are wasted. While the numbers are smaller, the story is pretty much the same for insects, reptiles, amphibians and birds. Only mammals attempt to preserve every life.

I was watching the Discovery Channel and learned that hundreds of sea turtles hatch from a single nest in the sand and then scamper down the beach into the ocean. The camera showed how one of them didn’t make it; a crab caught it and was going to eat it for dinner. Admit it; don’t you feel terrible about that? While we can rationalize that that’s the way nature is supposed to work, we still don’t like it. Our nature tells us not to waste anything, even the life of a single baby sea turtle.

Waste Not, Want More
This means that, deep down, we believe we live in a world of scarcity. Resources are limited. The number of jobs is finite. Energy is expensive. And for every problem, there is only one right solution.

That last statement is the myth that is cheating you out of the progress you desire. In our search for the perfect answer to our problem, we continually seek more information, spend more time, and consume more resources. Why? Because we want to find the perfect risk-free approach. Why does risk repulse us? Because we are genetically programmed to avoid waste.

Perhaps your progress has been limited because you’ve been trying to engineer the perfect risk-free solution to each of your problems. Perhaps you should start considering that there may be a million answers to your problem. Pick one. Try it. Repeat as necessary.

This simple approach allowed Thomas Edison to bring us the light bulb. He “wasted” 999 versions so he could produce the one that worked. None of us care about those 999, yet they were critical to the process that eventually produced success. Understand that none of your failed efforts are ever really wasted as long as you don’t neglect one little thing.

While this may seem like a simple concept to understand, overcoming millions of years of evolution is no easy task for us. Let’s break this down into three distinct components that can make this concept easier for you to internalize.

I. Choose to Waste
See? You’re already feeling guilty. Here we are, living in an age when we’re trying to preserve our planet and the daily news is filled with reports of our dwindling oil reserves, food shortages and unemployment statistics. Yet there are many things you could choose to waste with little consequence to you or anyone else.

  • Long-distance minutes.
  • Space on your hard drive.
  • The fuzzy leftovers in the back of your fridge.
  • The clothes in your closet you’re really never going to wear again.

Sometimes I waste air-conditioning. On days that are warm, but not too warm, I turn on the air conditioning in my car and roll down the windows. I want the fresh air, the breeze and the connection to the outside, but it’s a little too warm to rely on just a breeze to keep me comfortable. I decided that once the air conditioning is running, having the windows up or down has negligible impact on my fuel consumption but major impact on my comfort.

Choosing to waste like this makes it easier when it comes time to face a problem and you have to make a choice. More often than not, the choices available are not mutually exclusive. Just pick one and get going. As long as you don’t neglect to learn something from each attempt — like Edison did — none are really wasted.

II. Take a Second Chance
After you’ve made a choice and tried it, you’ll often find that it doesn’t work. Be kind to yourself and give yourself a second chance (and a third and fourth as well). I routinely try new things. When they work, I keep doing them. If they don’t work, I try something else. Thomas J. Watson, former president of IBM had this to say: “The way to succeed is to double your error rate.” He understood the value of learning from mistakes, and as a result built IBM into a huge business.

I’ve spent the better part of my career in sales, and have frequently needed to take a second chance. In one case, a customer got a little aggressive deep in the negotiation phase. When I wouldn’t acquiesce to his demands, he threw me out of his office. I never saw or spoke to him again. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t get the order. I took a second chance and figured out a different way to “close the deal” and earn the commission.

III. Let Possessions Flow
At an early age, we all learn the word, “Mine!” We tend to get attached to and protective of our possessions like our houses, cars, and the money in our bank account. Instead of being a collector of possessions, I’m suggesting you accept that they will ebb and flow during your life like the tides of the oceans. Sometimes you’ll have to give something up for the opportunity to make progress.

In baseball, base runners know that they have to take their foot off first base to have any hope of attaining second base. They are vulnerable to being called out whenever they are not safely standing on a base (the only totally risk-free way of attaining second base is by hitting an out-of-the-park home run). Letting go is the key to achieving more.

Unfortunately, letting go is another form of waste to us mammals. This innate behavior was supposedly used successfully to hunt monkeys. A hole was cut in a coconut just large enough for a monkey’s open hand to enter. The coconut would be tethered to a nearby tree, and then some nuts would be placed inside. A passing monkey would discover the nuts, reach in and grab them, but couldn’t remove their hand because their closed fist was too large to fit through the opening. There they remained, unwilling to let go of the nuts even as the hunters returned to kill them.

Let Go and Get Going
Sometimes we need to be willing to release what’s already in our grasp so we can move on to something better. When you’re feeling stuck and yet afraid to let go of the familiar, consider that the worst case scenario is seldom the most probable scenario. The things we most fear rarely materialize. You CAN work around the obstacles that are making it difficult for you to achieve the progress and gain the rewards you desire and deserve. Always begin by believing that there is more than one “right” answer to the problem you’d like to solve. Pick one and get going. Don’t cheat yourself out of the better life you’re searching for.

© 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: When has taking a second chance paid off for you?

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Comments (0) Sep 01 2009