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Performance management lessons from the cockpit

 | November 23, 2016

At its most basic level, Performance Management is about establishing a goal and setting people off in the direction of that goal. Like a paper aeroplane, we might launch it in a particular direction to reach a desired destination. However, once launched there is nothing further we can do to influence its course. We must simply sit back and wait to see if it succeeds or fails.

This is what old style Performance Management was like. We would set people off with the best of intentions but then sit back and watch events unfold. Like digging up the black box flight recorder after the plane had crashed, we would wait until the end of the year to see if they had succeeded or failed and evaluate this through the annual review. However, it was too late to stop the plane crashing in the first place with costly consequences.

Of course, what the pilot really needs to ensure a successful flight is live information and this comes in the form of the cockpit flight instruments. The pilot needs to know:

• Are we on the right track?

• Are we doing the right things to stay on track?

• Are there any changes we need to take account of that might interfere?

They need constant feedback to guide and support them in order to get the best result no matter what they encounter en route. The pilot cannot rely on their own senses; in bad weather important visual cues are missing and the pilot can misinterpret other physical sensations. As a result they can emerge from a cloud and unexpectedly find themselves flying upside down. The pilot needs independent reliable information to help them and they must learn to trust what these instruments are telling them.

Importantly, the cockpit instruments are designed to make important information readily available, but feedback isn’t forced on the pilot unless there is a genuine emergency. Care is taken not to distract the pilot with too many threatening messages. The information provided is mostly positive or at least neutral in nature, reassuring the pilot there are doing OK or at least enabling the pilot to make minor adjustments before things go badly off course.

In spite of all the technology, the pilot is in charge of their own plane. The computers and instruments can only facilitate and support. It is crucial that the pilot is fully engaged in the flight and able to assume control the moment something complex or unexpected arises.

Having said that a good pilot will be encouraged to question and cross check their assumptions and decisions by consulting a range of information. Like all people, pilots can be blinded by bias, e.g. taking an overly optimistic view of the risks they face; being influenced by preconceptions of a situation. However, each piece of data on its own might be misleading; an holistic view is required.

Taking these lessons on board, successful Performance Management needs to:

Put the pilot in control: We know that the greater the level of involvement from employees the more positive the outcome from feedback discussions. They should believe they are in charge of their own plane and are taking the lead in terms of soliciting and interpreting feedback.

Frequent and informal: In work we know that more frequent contact creates a stronger relationship of trust. Just as the pilot must trust their instruments in order to gain the greatest benefit, so does the employee need to trust their manager. Research shows that the better the relationship, the greater the trust and the more positive the outcomes regardless of whether feedback is favourable or critical.

Real-time: Line managers can help individuals identify immediate opportunities for feedback. Particularly after key testing events; the sooner the feedback the better. The line manager should also create opportunities to review and consider this feedback as frequently as possible so that constant adjustments can be made.

Reliable holistic view: The manager should assist the employee in gathering feedback from a number of sources in order to compare perspectives, and assist the employee in interpreting these perspectives, bearing in mind the bias any one source of feedback may have been subject to.

Positive focus: Too often, line managers remain silent until there is a serious problem at which point what the employee hears are threatening sirens and alarms meaning the information is seen as a negative experience. Feedback should, first and foremost, be about what went right, building a belief in the ability to do well and helping the employee to make use of their strengths.

Warns when appropriate: The above point doesn’t mean being soft. The manager will need to vigorously help the employee build on their successes. In addition, when something is genuinely of concern; it should be clearly and confidently shared so that the employee can take action. It is much easier to deliver negative feedback if this is done within the context of constant positive dialogue.

Manages risks around Inclusion: The cockpit has no favourites. The data is equally available to all who choose to consult it. In work managers must work hard to overcome any natural bias towards certain people. We know that manager will have more frequent positive interaction with people they most identify with. To be inclusive they must be alert to how this differentiates the quality of the development support they give to particular individuals. However, more than this, they must proactively build trust with those individuals who might not assume to come looking for their input.

To read more of Laura Haycock's blogs on performance management and and other related business psychology topics, click here.

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