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The Only Way is Up: How boosting performance can increase the bottom-line

Elaine Wilson, Managing Consultant, ASK Europe plc

When profits are down, it is often assumed that performance and morale will follow suit. We would suggest, not least as a means of looking afresh at current circumstances, considering if ‘cause and effect’ actually works in the opposite direction: that good relationships, a positive atmosphere and effective performance are the drivers of profits rather than its consequences?

Elaine-Wilson-HRThat might sound either like common sense or utter daftness, depending on your outlook, but try reversing another truism: that people join organisations but leave managers. When times are tough, the last thing most organisations would want to do would be to lose valuable team players, whatever their level. The answer lies with managers – and specifically with their unique influence, not only as to whether people stay, but whether they do so gladly, willingly and productively. More than pay, benefits or charismatic corporate leaders, managers are critical to building a strong workplace. Their presence – not merely in the sense of ‘charisma’ but in the sense of being fully in play within the organisation – is the nexus of great performance, and of many of the factors that contribute to it.

One of the primary tools of managing is one whose worth we may be increasingly under-rating: conversation. Managing people effectively depends in part on having ‘conversations that count’ with them, day in and day out. Crucially, managers should also remember that conversation uses two human organs: mouths and ears. Tasks need to be completed, of course, but that should surely be taken as read? If not, this level of failure needs to be the first topic for debate, but preliminary daily conversations should head off any such need.

Part of the perfect manager’s conversational repertoire is to answer the question ‘What is expected of me?’ While some managers will focus on process as much as outcomes – indeed, some may tell others exactly what to do – better managers recognise that clarifying expectations creates certainty, and that focusing on required outcomes also allows each person to find their own route to delivering them. Not only are the outcomes more likely to be achieved, but staff are afforded opportunities to feel they are making a real personal contribution (rather than a merely contractual one) – and may even introduce process innovations as a result. Planning for success brings greater benefits than micro-managing for compliance.

The second question good managers will answer frequently for their direct reports – even when it is not directly asked – is ‘How am I doing?’ Another cliché – that no news is good news – deserves to be challenged: in terms of managing performance, a failure to praise and encourage or provide positive feedback may not only sap morale, but can also kill off the good behaviours that the manager might wish to see. Having used their ears as well as their mouths, good managers build relationships where feedback is an essential contributing element.

Think of feedback as a bank account: acknowledging an individual’s strengths and abilities builds a healthy balance that doesn’t leave them feeling overdrawn when a small withdrawal (in the form of corrective feedback or constructive criticism) is needed. Any under performance is challenged in the moment, but the relationship isn’t damaged as a result: the recipient still feels valued and respected and their performance is more likely to improve.

There is a related question, which many managers are less effective at answering for their people: “How can I develop and grow?” It’s a question that is easier to answer where the manager knows and understands the individual who is asking. Lasting motivation is closely linked to personal longer-term goals and aspirations: apart from managers, people also leave jobs that aren’t leading them anywhere that they wish to go. The manager who understands aspirations, who works to align tasks with personal motivations, who delegates ‘stretch’ tasks that provide welcome opportunities as well as (possibly less welcome) challenges, and who uses coaching techniques to boost both capability and confidence is the manager who creates, not just better performance, but a more engaged and committed team. This kind of manager also maintains relationships more effectively and considerately: rather than the Golden Rule (‘Treat others as you would wish to be treated’), they adopt the Platinum Rule – treating others as they wish to be treated.

A related point that the best managers recognise is most people aspire to succeed, and that helping them do so is a key part of their own role. Doing so is a matter more of presence than position: managing and leading are behaviours more than job titles. Role-modelling behaviours and living values are powerful tools that guide, encourage and inspire others: while the analogy may be the stuff of cliché, the best managers and leaders are like gardeners, creating and cultivating environments where people can flourish and achieve their true potential.

In doing so, they not only increase morale, engagement and performance: they also serve to retain talents – and talents that they have helped to develop and enhance. By demonstrating their faith in the potential and the abilities of others, they both earn and demonstrate a quality that underpins almost every aspect of high-performance teams – and of sustainable organisations: trust.

The leadership style that they demonstrate in doing so will be personally authentic, and will demonstrate key traits: open and transparent, self-effacing rather than self-promoting, and empathetic. They will see the conversations that they conduct as opportunities not only to understand their personal impact (and adjust their behaviour accordingly), but to understand others. Asking the right questions is not only a way to develop the informed relationships that support them in guiding others to success, but also a way to understand the emotional atmosphere of the team. Whether profits are up or down, the best managers and leaders know that the route to improved performance remains the same – by inspiring, developing and growing the people who will deliver it.