Recently, Goldman Sachs again made the headlines in the business news, but this time for something different than the usual financial news about the company. It has decided to move away from its 9-point system for performance evaluations to providing employees with more timely and frequent performance feedback. It will still keep its 360-degree feedback process as well as have managers rate employees as outstanding, good, or needs improvement. However, it will create an online platform whereby employees can get feedback at any time. Dozens of other companies, such as Apple, Netflix, Accenture and even GE, have been moving away from these annual evaluations and rankings in favor of providing more timely and more frequent feedback.
Over the years, there has been considerable research on performance management; despite all this research, managers and employees, as well as HR professionals, continue to be dissatisfied with its failure to achieve the goal of actually improving performance. I will not go into all the reasons why performance management is broken (see Pulakos and O’Leary, 2011 for a comprehensive review), but would like to focus on the specific issue of how to improve individual performance.
In organizations where I have been involved in revising and helping to implement new performance management systems, I continue to be surprised at the intense attention paid to the forms and the rating systems that will be used, despite the fact that one of the greatest pay-offs from performance reviews is with the coaching and feedback that the employee receives. Of course, I have to remind myself that since these ratings are often used to allocate rewards, such scrutiny is understandable.
Many critics of performance management systems identify organizational or managerial issues as root causes for their failures. For example, Pulakos et al. (2015), in their excellent review article, ask: what can organizations do or not do to fix performance management? In their earlier article they summarized research that indicates that the quality of the manager-employee relationship is a key driver for maximizing performance management. There is no doubt that managers’ behaviors, particularly their coaching and listening skills, are important.
But what I find missing in much of these discussions is the role of the appraisee, or the employee. To be fair, Pulakos and O’Leary do mention that “Depending on employees’ personalities, they will be more or less open to feedback and more or less willing to accept it.” (p. 158) I believe that most individuals working in organizations want to improve their performance, whether they are CEOs of the company or brand new workers who have just joined the company. Even those who have many years of experience working in a discipline - such as a surgeon, a truck driver, a professional athlete, a musician, or a jeweler – recognize that they always have something more to learn (except for an arrogant few, of course).
So one could reframe this issue of fixing performance management by asking instead, what can individuals do to improve their performance? I am adapting a concept from Marshall Goldsmith who wrote, in his recent book Triggers, that companies tend to ask passive questions when addressing the issue of employee engagement. Here’s how Goldsmith describes this:
“When people are asked passive questions they almost invariably provide ‘environmental’ answers. Thus, if an employee answers ‘no’ when asked, ‘Do you have clear goals?’ the reasons are attributed to external factors such as ‘My manager can’t make up his mind’ or ‘The company changes strategy every month.’ The employee seldom looks within to take responsibility and say, ‘It’s my fault.’” (pp. 192-193)
Anders Ericsson is a professor who has done considerable research about what it takes to improve performance. Most of his research has been with surgeons, musicians, athletes, chess players, and other individuals who want to improve their specific skills (e.g., memorizing strings of digits). In his new book Peak (Ericsson and Pool, 2016), Professor Ericsson writes about three myths regarding performance improvement. One is a belief that our abilities are limited by our inherited or genetic characteristics. The second is that doing the same thing over and over will make us better. The third is if we try hard enough, we will get better. Ericsson and his colleagues have studied the differences between those who are the best in their field (e.g., musicians, chess players) and those who are good but not outstanding. One variable that was not a differentiator was the number of hours spent practicing. Gladwell (2008) has suggested the 10,000-hour rule – that for someone to be an expert, one has to practice for about 10,000 hours. There has been quite a bit of debate about the 10,000-hour rule and the role of aptitude or natural ability. There is no question that to be good or expert at something, you have to practice and put in the time. The 10,000-hour rule is an average so there will be some variability depending on a number of factors, including the natural ability of the person and the nature of the endeavor. Someone who already has an aptitude for math will more than likely spend fewer than 10,000 hours reaching a certain level than someone who does not have the same aptitude.
However, according to Ericsson, the key to improving performance lies in deliberate practice, which he and his colleagues (Ericsson et al., 1993) refer to as “activities defined … for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.” And an important element in deliberate practice is mental representation, which is “a mental structure that corresponds to an object, an idea, a collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about.” (p. 58). Ericsson claims that much of deliberate practice involves developing efficient mental representations. His examples include expert chess masters with their skill in seeing the board many moves ahead and surgeons who conceptualize complex contingency plans before going into surgery.
Here are three specific strategies that you can use to improve your performance. First, periodically conduct an in-depth self-assessment. This is not always easy for we have a tendency to hold a cognitive bias called the “better-than-average-effect.” For example, over 90 percent of drivers believe that they are in the top 50 percent in driving ability. In his workshops, management consultant Marshall Goldsmith (Goldsmith 2007) sometimes asks people in the audience (most of whom are managers and executives) to raise their hands if they believe they are in the top 10 percent of performers in their company. Typically, over 50 percent of the audience raises their hands (of course, it is possible that Goldsmith’s audience is not a random sample, and that it is likely that his audience may indeed be among the top performers in their organization). In a study of prisoners, even this population rated themselves better than the average inmate and better than the non-prison community on a number of traits, such as being moral, trustworthy, honest, and compassionate (Sedikides et al. 2014).
We need to acknowledge that we all have this tendency to view ourselves in a more favorable light than we should. While such a tendency may be good for our self-confidence it may prevent us from doing what we need to do to improve ourselves, especially if we start believing that we are better than average and therefore don’t really need to change. It is important therefore to seek feedback from others. You want to be able to approach someone who has your best interests at heart, and who does not have a personal agenda. According to Stone and Stone (2002), those who seek critical feedback tend to get higher performance ratings. They point to at least two reasons for this. One, when you’re getting feedback, you find out what you need to do better. You can ask questions that will help your understanding, and you can start to work on how to get better at something. Two, you send a message that you are not only interested in what others have to say but that you are humble enough to listen to critical feedback. This can influence others’ perceptions of you as someone who is open to change and willing to listen to others. Goldsmith and Morgan’s (2004) research involving more than 11,000 leaders and 86,000 of their co-workers from eight major corporations concluded that leaders who ask, listen, learn and consistently follow up are seen as more effective leaders.
Second, and this is what Ericsson emphasizes, is to focus on a specific skill. He says that you have to be engaged and focused in what you are doing. Don’t just go through the motions; you have to concentrate, and this is hard work. “If your mind is wandering or you’re relaxed and just having fun, you probably won’t improve.” (p. 151). Also, you try to do something you cannot do and practice it over and over. The author says: “As a rule of thumb, I think that anyone who hopes to improve a skill in a particular area should devote an hour or more each day to practice that can be done with full concentration.” (p. 169) Newport (2012) describes this well: (Deliberate practice) is “… where you deliberately stretch your abilities beyond where you’re comfortable and then receive ruthless feedback on your performance.” (p. 101)
Many years ago, I visited the Chilean National Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago on a weekend after spending several days working with several Chilean executives. The museum had a special exhibit on Picasso’s works. One of his most famous paintings is Guernica, and it was indeed magnificent, seen close up. But what impressed me were the hundreds of small sketches alongside this enormous painting. They were sketches of different characters in the painting, and showed the hard work that Picasso did to perfect the final product. I had assumed that Picasso was a genius who could paint something from scratch without much effort. As Ericsson states: “… research on the most successful creative people in various fields, particularly science, finds that creativity goes hand in hand with the ability to work hard and maintain focus over long stretches of time.” (p. 205)
In an article about Serena Williams, the sportswriter Jason Gay (2016) watched her one hot afternoon in New York in 2015 as she hit serves for an hour and a half with her coach in a practice court. For a while, there were quite a few spectators but they soon got bored. Serena kept hitting and hitting “… until she felt she’d gotten it right.” Gay has observed that the greatest athletes work the hardest, and that Serena has a reputation as being one of the hardest workers in the sport. He quotes her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou: “The number of hours is one thing, but (more) impressive is the effort.”
What about improving your performance as a manager? For example, Rosenzweig (2014) points out that deliberate practice may be more suited to some types of activities, like hitting a tennis ball with your forehand or playing a short musical piece on the piano. When the activity is of short duration, when feedback is immediate, when the order of the tasks in the activity is sequential (versus concurrent), and when performance is absolute (versus relative), then deliberate practice tends to be more useful than not. Rosenzweig gives the example of a cosmetics salesperson going door to door, where deliberate practice would help because these conditions are present.
On the surface, deliberate practice might not apply to improving your performance as a manager. After all, the duration is long, the feedback is slow, activities can be concurrent, and a manager’s performance is almost certainly always being compared to others’. Nonetheless, it is important to identify those specific leadership skills you want to improve, rather than simply having a goal to become a better leader. By breaking a manager’s tasks and activities and focusing on specific sets of activities, global managers could benefit from deliberate practice. Take Youseff, a global manager I was coaching who wanted to improve his ability to lead global meetings (an important set of tasks for global leaders). We broke down his overall goal into specific sub-tasks, such as developing clear agendas and running meetings effectively. He identified the specific meetings where he wanted to practice his meeting skills, and solicited feedback from the team both during the meeting and after the meeting (in one-on-one discussions). We designed a short checklist of questions for him to ask team members about their satisfaction with the meetings, and so he was able to measure short-term performance. Over time, Youseff was able to pinpoint areas where he could improve, and through coaching and practice, was able to improve his meeting skills. While deliberate practice may have its limitations, setting aside the time to practice, along with getting feedback, will help you improve your global leadership.
Third, push yourself out of your comfort zone and try to do things that are not easy for you. Ericsson recommends getting a teacher. For managers, I would recommend getting a coach or a mentor (more on this in a subsequent blog post). Of course the organizational context matters, as does your relationship with your manager. But there are things you can do independent of these factors that can make a difference to your own performance as a manager. As Ericsson has pointed out: “In the long run it is the ones who practice more who prevail, not the ones who had some initial advantage in intelligence or some other talent.” (p. 233)
Ericsson, A., Krampe, R. and Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review, 100 (3): 363-406.
Ericsson, A. and Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Gay, J. (2016). She’s Got Game. WSJ, The Wall Street Journal Magazine. July/August.
Gladwell, Malcolm. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Hachette.
Goldsmith, Marshall. (2007). What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful. New York: Profile Books.
Goldsmith, M. (2015). Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts - Becoming the Person You Want to Be. New York: Crown Business.
Goldsmith, Marshall, and Howard Morgan. (2004). Leadership Is a Contact Sport. Strategy + Business, 36: 70-79.
Newport, Cal. (2012). So Good They Can’t Ignore You. New York: Hachette Book Group.
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Pulakos, E. et al. (2015). Performance Management Can Be Fixed: An On-the-Job Experiential Learning Approach for Complex Behavior Change. Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 8 (1): 51-78.
Rosenzweig, Phil. (2014). Left Brain, Right Stuff: How Leaders Make Winning Decisions. New York: PublicAffairs.
Sedikides, Constantine, Rosie Meek, Mark D. Alicke, and Sarah Taylor (2014). Behind Bars but Above the Bar: Prisoners Consider Themselves More Prosocial Than Non-Prisoners. British Journal of Social Psychology, 53 (2): 396–403.
Stone-Romero, E., and Stone, D. (2002). Cross-cultural Differences in Responses to Feedback: Implications for Individual, Group, and Organizational Effectiveness. Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management, 21: 275-332.