Employees own their performance (not their manager…)

For years the received wisdom about managers is that they are responsible for their employees’ performance.  This is, when you think about it, more than a little bizarre. A manager can’t, after all, force someone to improve their performance.   We take a different view. We believe that the only person who can ultimately change and improve their performance is the employee themselves.   We can give them all the feedback and coaching in the world; we can create a staggering array of carrots and sticks; but in the end, only employees make their own choices about how they respond, only they own their performance.

What we do know is that the prime human motivators at work have been well researched and understood for decades – they just regularly get forgotten.   Our favourite summary of what motivates us is Dan Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.   As he reminds us, once we have got beyond our minimal survival needs, there are just three things that consistently motivate us:

  • Desire for Mastery – can I excel, am I recognised for being great at my role? How can I ‘get on’ here?
  • Desire for Autonomy – how much control and influence can I have over what I do and how I do it?
  • Desire for Shared Purpose – why are we doing this, why am I giving this my time and talent?

Mastery, Autonomy, Purpose – or as we call them – the MAP of motivation.

These ideas aren’t new, they’ve been around since 1950’s and were originally explored by Maslow and Herzberg.  Yet they are rarely included in performance management strategies.  Instead organisations turned to process to manage performance, not drivers of behaviour.

Too many organisations have reduced Purpose to ‘alignment with the strategy’; Mastery has morphed into development opportunities for ‘high potential’ employees;  Autonomy has got lost in an overwhelming mix of KPI’s, SLA’s, targets and business plans.

But processes may prevent the very behaviours needed for success.  For example 3M, the manufacturer of the iconic Post-it note, curtailed much open ended research and development in 2005 in the name of greater efficiency.  Their inventors weren’t given enough time to tinker with new products before they had to demonstrate commercial viability.  Dr Larry Wendling, staff vice president at 3M’s Corporate Research Laboratory admitted how process had de-railed them ‘We were letting the process (of managing performance) get in the way of doing the actual inventing.’

Too often Performance Management rewards the wrong behaviours for the wrong reasons – with damaging outcomes.

What we have seen time and again in our work is higher levels of employee engagement have a massive impact on overall performance.  Performance management is a highly effective way to raise engagement by enabling people to take greater ownership of their performance.

Ownership of performance allows employees to take responsibility for the impact of what they do, nit just work through a tick list of tasks.  Ownership challenges individuals to fully engage with what the organisation needs them to achieve and the behaviours it values.

Ownership goes beyond ‘being responsible for getting my work done’ and into ‘taking ownership of the outcome or impact of what I do’.  True ownership pushes employees to think about how they use their time and talent, how they prioritise their work, and the quality of work done.  It enables employees to make engage with the question – when is this good enough? when should I move on to the next thing? would more effort here be worth the outcome?

Having employees thinking like this, whether they are serving coffee or designing factory, is worth an enormous amount.  Employees who take a high level of ownership of their work are more likely to create a high performing environment delivering above average returns.  It takes time and effort to develop ownership, but it’s well worth it.