Managers shouldn’t manage performance

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This post will probably be fairly short — I haven’t blogged in a few days due to a couple of different reasons, and mostly I wanted to dip my toe back in the water — and it’s probably somewhat similar to “management isn’t intuitive,” but here’s the essential idea.

If you lined up 100 people who are managers of others in their companies — and let’s say you do it across different organizations, different industries, etc. — and you asked them this question below, what do you think they’d say?

What exactly do you manage?

I would assume most would blurt out something this:

  • Deliverables!
  • Process!
  • Targets!
  • Performance!
  • Goals!
  • Priorities!
  • Revenue streams!
  • P&L!

All of those answers are right, and they’re also all horribly wrong.

When you manage other people — which means, at some base level, you are responsible for how they feel/perceive about their workday, which might be 1/3 of their life — you want to make sure they hit targets, yes, but you’re really managing the energy of your team and people.

Liz Ryan — Human Workplace gal — writes about this stuff all the time; here’s but one example. That article is about “Building Trust On Your Team” and she recommends that managers move back to a 1-on-1, organic format (I’d concur) and the script should be fairly basic:

  • How are you doing?
  • What’s in your way?
  • Could I remove any obstacles?
  • What else could I do for you?
  • Anything you want me to know?
  • Anything you want to know at my level?

There’s basically two reasons this makes sense, best I can tell:

  1. Most people tend to assume that a “bad employee” is someone who doesn’t hit the right targets or has a personality that clashes with the rest of the people he/she needs to work with. Because we don’t often have truly objective data on the workforce, those seem like pretty good ways to define it. But oftentimes a “bad employee” is really just a “good employee in the wrong contextual fit,” so if we improved that — maybe by starting to think about who actually does what — we could have a lot less cost around headcount, time-to-hire, recruiting, etc.
  2. Performance reviews are largely an outdated concept, and the reason is because — well, let’s say you’re chasing a bunch of goals and priorities around all year, right? And you only get one chance to hear how you’re doing, the good and the bad? How is that effective? If a customer-acquisition strategy isn’t working on about Day 5, you can bet the C-Suite will be holed up chasing a new strategy. Why do we treat our internal customers — i.e. our employees — differently than that?

So as a manager, yes, you have responsibility for targets and deliverables and certain metrics and revenue. But to make all those goals, you’re not actually managing those things. You’re managing the energy of your people.

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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