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Positive Performance Management

3rd May 2019 Georgina Parker

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Wouldn’t life be fabulous without performance management? No more sweaty-palmed meetings with your manager, no more scratching around to hit an inconsequential KPI, no more filling in humiliating templates to justify your existence… sigh, what a world that would be.

The thing is, they are a necessary part of business across industries. They work right? They were developed by trained psychologists, right? They are constantly reviewed for their efficacy in a changing business, right? They help individuals identify their weaknesses and become brilliant where they were once totally useless right? RIGHT??

Erm, unlikely, nope and never.

I thought I would be considered a good leader if I successfully managed a team member through a performance management process and they came out the other side motivated, engaged and delivering against their targets but (judge me if you like) I have never managed this. Thankfully, I haven’t had to go through the process very often but it has never had the desired result and for a long time I saw this as my failing as a manager. My first self-preserving response was “well, you can lead a horse to water..” but that didn’t quite absolve me of my guilt because as a manager shouldn’t it be down to me to be able to make the horse drink? Given the autonomy I am lucky enough to have, I decided not to implement any more performance improvement processes until I was able to identify what would work, why and how otherwise I was wasting everyone’s time and inflicting unnecessary pain - on myself and the unlucky recipient.  

In the past, when an individual had not hit their targets for a number of months, the accepted modus operandi in the businesses I have worked in was to approach HR who would probably write some kind of letter, thinly veiling the impending doom, they would then send the manager the letter and an activity template that they would sit and discuss with the employee. I hated those meetings - it was suddenly formal and impersonal and flew in the face of everything I cherished about being a manager; building deep relationships with my team as human beings with different lives, personalities, and abilities. Nope, those things didn’t matter - this one magical template would fit all sizes. I wish I could now go back and ask the well-meaning HR person how this template was developed for our business and how it had been successful in the past and how many people who had successfully navigated the performance management process were still employed by the business 12 months later? 

Not all but most performance management processes involve focusing on the gaps, the weaknesses, the things the employee is NOT doing. Recently I heard a thought-provoking analogy, if a child shows a flair for mathematics but struggles with French, usually the child is encouraged to develop their mathematics skills even more and is taught to be good enough at French to pass the relevant exams. I propose that this is a far more sensible approach to take with employees. If an employee demonstrates aptitude and passion for something then perhaps we should nurture that and work on making them “good enough” at the other areas of their role. Focusing on the positive instead of the negative would likely reduce narrowing of focus and feelings of fear and stress which are productivity killers. This is the position that positive psychology adopts. Pioneers in positive psychology were frustrated by the focus on maladaptive behaviours, negative thinking, and mental illness and instead wanted the science to acknowledge the importance of positivity, happiness and well-being. In practice, positive psychology involves psychological interventions that foster positive attitudes towards subjective events, experiences, individual traits, and abilities. The premise being that we are able to reduce pathological thoughts that may culminate in a fixed, hopeless mindset and instead develop a sense of hopeful optimism. Positive psychologists work to build acceptance of an individual’s past, contentment in the present and excitement for the future.

According to the broaden-and-build theory (Fredrickson, 2004), experiencing positive emotions can translate into long term, productive cognitive outcomes. Much research has subsequently focused on the value of positive psychology when applied to an organisational setting. It has been found that displaying positive emotions positively correlates with personal accomplishment. Other research has identified a link between positive emotions and resilience. It has been validated that positive perceptions of job resources, defined as autonomy, coaching and cooperation and daily positive emotions translate to daily personal resources, defined as optimism, self-esteem and self-efficacy. Research has validated the role of self-efficacy in success. 

Self-efficacy and optimism are significant contributing factors in emotional, cognitive and physical engagement which in turn are significant predictors of success.

Although there is no one set of qualities that translate to perfect management there does appear to be a consensus of opinion that a good manager is not defined by their skills but by a number of intangible qualities including good listening skills, respect and empathy and a passion for mentoring and coaching (Sheth, 2018). These are critical qualities in a performance management scenario - qualities our trusty template doesn’t appear to promote. There are plenty of tools and templates available, usually used in executive coaching scenarios, that will serve to empower individuals and steer them towards success but they should not be reserved for those struggling, I‘m sure I don’t need to highlight the negative effect of singling people out for the wrong reasons.  

Before I get shouted down for my happy hippie approach, I am not a positive psychologist, I prefer adopting a more holistic approach and I do believe in the value of constructive criticism but I have learnt much from the tenets of positive psychology. For now, I choose to try and build up the individual strengths of each of my team members, recognising them as individuals with different intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, strengths and abilities. Does this mean that no performance challenges exist? No. Individuals will change and different priorities might emerge in their lives that adjust their levels of motivation, levels of resilience and self-efficacy change which might impact their behaviours. The point is holding a stick up to these people is counterproductive, it will demotivate and disengage. I would rather offer a carrot in the form of support and encouragement, at least if it doesn’t work out then I will know it is for the right reasons, for both parties. 

Bibliography

Bakker, A. B. (2013). Advances in positive organizational psychology. [electronic book]. Bingley, U.K.: Emerald, 2013. 

Chhajer, R., Rose, E. L., & Joseph, T. (2018). Role of self-efficacy, optimism and job engagement in positive change: Evidence from the Middle East. Vikalpa: The Journal for Decision Makers, 43(4), 222–235. 

Cohn, M. A., Fredrickson, B. L., Brown, S. L., Mikels, J. A., & Conway, A. M. (2009). Happiness unpacked: Positive emotions increase life satisfaction by building resilience. Emotion, 9(3), 361–368. 

Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 359(1449), 1367. 

Linley, P. A., Joseph, S., Harrington, S., & Wood, A. M. (2006). Positive psychology: Past, present and (possible) future. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 3–16. 10.1080/17439760500372796

Sheth, J. (2018). What makes a good manager? Journal of Customer Behaviour, 17(1), 159–161. 

Xanthopoulou, D., Bakker, A. B., Demerouti, E., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2012). A diary study on the happy worker: How job resources relate to positive emotions and personal resources. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 21(4), 489–517. 

Zapf, D., & Holz, M. (2006). On the positive and negative effects of emotion work in organizations. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 15(1), 1–28.