Practical Developmental Ideas #A1 March 2004

This issue is about managing performance. A person’s performance depends on the person, their manager, colleagues, and the organisation. I hope to provide a few ideas that may stimulate thought or remind you of something you already know. I am also using this ezine to ask for your feedback. I am sorry it is late getting to you this time.

A request for your feedback, please

This is the tenth issue of these ezines. Please will you let me know if you want to continue receiving them or not? I would also appreciate your comments on what you are getting from the ezines and and/or any ideas on how to make them better.

Managing performance

People and organisations are very complicated. People are the most complicated things in the known universe, so it would be very surprising if there were one simple thing that would help them perform better.

One of the times I performed at my best was when I was doing my PhD, in organic chemistry. This work fitted my values and skills because I loved finding things out, trying new things and thinking and the topic was clear and fascinating. I had an excellent supervisor who listened and was enthusiastic about what I discovered and helped me make sense of it. My colleagues were stimulating and fun. We had enough resources to do what we needed to do and the systems for doing things helped rather than got in the way. These good practices helped me work hard and effectively and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The bold items are about how the person, manager, colleagues and the organisation can enhance performance. The rest of this ezine will give some ideas about what people can do to help.

If you look at the times when you performed best, you will find what is important to you.

What can you do to enhance your own performance?

Ø       Talk to someone

When you explain to someone else what you are doing and that person listens, your thinking gets clearer. It is so simple. You are stuck for a word or the computer programme won’t do what you want. Ten seconds after grumbling to a friend, you know what to do! This works for complicated issues too, though it may take longer.

You may find it helpful to organise time where you take turns helping each other in a slightly more formal way. I have written about this “coconsulting” on my site and in an earlier ezine. Taking it in turns formally can help you learn about how to help by listening and make sure the relationship is reciprocal, for fairness, and confidential, for safety.

Ø       Ask for what you need

You often know what you need and sometimes just asking for it can be very effective. A senior civil servant who is an excellent manager had a boss that did not listen to her or involve her. We worked out that what she needed was half an hour of his undivided attention now and then. When she asked for this directly, she got it.

We cannot read each other’s minds, thank goodness. Everybody has blind spots. I can’t always read accurately what my wife wants after nearly forty years together, so what hope is there of reading the mind of a colleague? It is very unrealistic to expect other people to notice what you want, if you don’t tell them!

Ø       Ask for feedback

We can’t know how other people see us, unless we ask. We may have strengths that we don’t recognise and weaknesses that we are unaware of, or deny. Feedback is hard to hear, even from people who we know care about us. Even receiving positive feedback can be difficult. It is risky to say modestly, “It was nothing” as the feedback giver may not bother again.

I don’t like the sick feeling I get when something has not worked and I ask what went wrong and why, or think about those questions. In my better moments, I think that at least something positive will have come from the “failure” and that things going wrong are inevitable when you are try something new.

What can we do as managers and consultants to help people perform?

Ø       Encourage people to take responsibility for their own learning

Managers can set a climate and culture that encourages people to learn actively. This might start at induction. I would like to see new starters going out into the organisation in pairs to find out what they need. This starts people being responsible for their own learning right at the beginning.

Consultants and trainers can use discovery and experiential methods for almost any learning. Even “dry” subjects will come alive when people do their own research.

Ø       Provide structures and processes that encourage development

Learning takes time, so in busy organisations we need structures and processes that are easy to arrange and can easily fit in to a normal working day. You will all have your favourites.

I quite like temporary task forces where people from across the organisation, and at different levels, work together on a knotty issue. These groups meet occasionally and can be quite informal. My first OD experience was on a task force on career development. We came up with an innovative solution, to set up an internal career counselling service and then planned carefully about how to sell this to the management group. When they said “yes”, we were thrilled. We all learned a lot about how to work together creatively and how to influence.

You already know about my interest in coconsulting, where people take turns listening to each other. Many organisations use action-learning sets too. Some organisations provide learning resource rooms with books and audiovisual resources and there is much e learning about.

Senior people will often appreciate talking to someone from outside the organisation who can listen, support, challenge and offer new ideas and viewpoints. I think many consultants, including me, need to appreciate more how valuable “just” listening can be.

Although organisations must have a way to ensure that people are paid fairly, an “annual appraisal” should not be the only time boss and employee get together to discuss performance. Regular, informal friendly chats throughout the year are much more useful. You can supplement casual conversations with more structured approaches like Role Negotiation or Team of Two if you like. In writing this, I realise I have not had feedback on my performance as a consultant for many years, except about particular successes or otherwise. Do you have these conversations?

What can colleagues to do help people perform?

Ø       Offer support

We all are stuck or confused sometimes and like to talk to someone who is interested and does not judge us. Most of us like to hear when we have done a good job or that people enjoy our company. Listening and appreciation are simple things to give and make a big difference. Happy organisations probably have a lot of this informal support in place.

We ran a counselling course and ended it with an exercise where every person wrote down what he or she had valued most about everyone else on the event. I saw one of the people after the event. Tom was very dour normally but just as we finished chatting, he opened a drawer and pulled out his “appreciations”. He said, “I was very sceptical about the exercise, but since then, whenever I feel down I pull out my sheet and realise I am not so bad after all!”

Ø       Offer feedback

Appreciation, above is positive feedback and this is the easiest to hear and to give thought neither is easy. Sometimes things don’t work out and we make mistakes or bad judgements or are grumpy. People can give critical feedback bluntly but still be caring. A few managers will say things like, “You are technically excellent but you won’t get any further in this organisation until you learn how to be less aggressive in meetings”. This is a firm clear, critical message but tempered by “But I know someone who may be able to help you with this, would you be willing to talk to him?” In this way, the manager showed he cared, even if the person did not take up the offer. This is a real example and she did take up the offer and changed her behaviour.

The above is an example of a manager offering feedback, but we can also help our colleagues with the combination of a very clear message about behaviour and unambiguous caring for the individual.

Ø       Ask them what they need and give it

No one can read another’s mind. Many people are scared to ask for what they need because they fear rejection. If we can take a little time to ask the people we work with or offer a service to, what they need and give it this make everything goes well.

What can organisations do to help people perform?

Ø       Do and encourage all of the above by example

“Organisation” means the senior management of an enterprise. Their example is a very powerful influence on performance. If they do all the things in the short list above, people will get the idea that improving performance is important and valued. Example is far more influential than argument.

Ø       Link improving performance to the reward system

One company I know has “developing people” as a criterion in the performance assessment of managers. Managers knew that their ability to develop their people directly influenced their salary. This is a very direct way to encourage people to take development seriously.

They also get people interested in performance by giving every manager down to first line supervisor the right to give someone who has done an exceptional job a night out, with partner, on the firm. This has much more impact that an extra few pounds in the pay packet, apparently.

Ø       Run some workshops

You could run workshops to look at the specific factors in the organisation, or part of it that influence performance. You might use appreciative enquiry or open systems planning or some other holistic creative problem solving method to search for them. Then you could decide together which ones to progress. Every organisation will be different. I have an article about the creative organisation that lists some, but these draw from experience, not research. It might give some initial ideas though.

Ø       Critically examine your systems

Deming has claimed the systems that people work with are what determine their performance. He even argues that performance appraisal, with its focus on individuals, damages the performance of the organisation by encouraging internal competition and devaluing teamwork.

I do know that a company examined all the systems they used and asked what they cost and the benefit they gained from each and eliminated half of them! You can also run workshops for the people operating a system and have them think about how to do their work more simply. People will get rid of whole chunks of work and streamline their system so everyone’s performance improves together.

More information

You may find the articles on Influencing Skills, Designing Learning Events and the pieces on Listening and Appreciation useful.

Please send me your thoughts about performance management

The ideas above come from on my limited thinking and experience. I know the issues are important. You will have found different and interesting ways to help others do perform and to do so yourselves. If you email me your thoughts and experiences about how to do this, and then I will send something back to the list that will give a richer picture to us all.

Feedback please

Please will you let me know if you want to continue receiving them or not. I would also appreciate your comments on what you are getting from the ezines and and/or any ideas on how to make them better.

I hope you have found the information in this issue interesting and useful. The subjects I might cover in the next issues are: –

Conflict resolution

Designing learning events

Developing your people

Improving working relationships

Removing emotional blocks

Stimulating creative thinking

Thinking tools and processes

If you have any particular developmental interests, you would like me to cover, please let me know. I will try to respond if I can.


I enjoy helping clients think through real issues involving people. I like to stay in the background as coach or consultant and sometimes work with people to help them design and deliver developmental events.  If you need to know more please refer to, email or give me a call on +44 (0)1707 886553.

I have had one request recently to coach someone, by email and phone through the Influencing skills material on the site. If this, or face to face coaching, appeals to you about any of the material, I would be glad to hear from you.

Many of the readers of this newsletter are consultants themselves. I have learned a great deal from other consultants over the years so I am glad to have this opportunity to offer something back.

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick