A Common Leadership Mistake

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In my previous blog on Personal Accountability I asked a key question. I asked, “what do you fill the gap with when there is a variance between your expectations and your experience?” For example, if you expect someone to perform a certain way but you experience a performance below your expectations, how do you respond? I think the proper response is to trust first and spend time asking the right questions to figure out why there is a variance, but this is where I see leaders make a common leadership mistake over and over.

My personal experience is the default of many leaders is to attribute performance problems to people problems. If there is a gap in performance expectations and experience, many leaders think the problem must be the person. They conclude that all you need to do is change the person to solve the problem. Although sometimes this may work and a change is needed, there are other factors to consider when someone’s performance does not meet expectations.

Through the years, I have adopted the following formula to help me evaluate performance when there is a gap between expectations and experience.

High Performance = Attitude x Effort x Skills x Support

If you multiply anything by zero you get zero, so all of these components must be present for someone to have the opportunity to perform at a high level.

Attitude: This is the first place to start. Does the person bring positive energy and attitude to the team? Are they energy vampires who feed the negative flywheel of doom that can permeate many organizations? Are they good teammates? Do they have a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset? The other aspects of high performance can be taught or developed, but attitude is a personal decision each person needs to make moment to moment and can make/break performance. This is one aspect that is in the direct control of the individual you lead.

Skills: Does the person have the skills necessary to do what I am asking them to do? If they don’t, then it’s my responsibility as a leader to help them obtain the appropriate skills or move them to another seat on the bus that better aligns with their skills inventory.

This quote resonates when it comes to asking questions about skill fit:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”

Getting your people in the right seat on the bus is a leadership issue and it is a leader’s responsibility to have these conversations to give your people the best chance to excel and be the best version of themselves.

Support: Does the person have the support they need to be successful at what I am asking them to do? Am I effectively supporting them and removing obstacles from their path? This is where the flashlight shines on the leader and the evaluation is on how the leader is doing at providing appropriate support.

Effort: To me this has two parts:

1. Is the person self-motivated and putting forth the needed effort to be a high performer? Do they do their work the right way an in alignment with your behavioral standards?

2. Is the organization doing everything it can do to motivate this person or doing things to demotivate them? Have you created a psychologically safe environment built on trust where your people feel free and safe to bring their very best every day?

Both sides, the person and the organization, need to be evaluated.

At the end of the day, sometimes it really is the person and a change is needed. In that case, swift action should be taken. Having the resolve to remove low performers is something that separates great companies and teams from those who are only good at best. However, there are other factors that influence performance that need to be evaluated. Be slow to conclude the person is the problem before asking these additional questions to understand why there is a performance gap.

The next time you have a performance review, or a one-on-one with one of your direct reports, try this out. Spend time asking them if they have the skills necessary to do their job, if they are getting the support they need and if there is anything, positive or negative, impacting their attitude, effort and motivation.

You might be surprised by what you learn.

Leader. Storyteller. My passion is to inspire and instruct others on how to go further faster and live their purpose.

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