How different would it look if…

Synopsis: short read on interpretation of performance and motivation. Deals with how to agree that someone is underperforming (there is no strengths based thinking in this blog, it’s about agreeing it is going wrong…)

One of the hardest challenges in organisations – and indeed society – is where two people have available the same information and draw radically different conclusions. It can be hard to fathom and hard to engage when your world view leads you to a (seemingly) unavoidable conclusion – yet someone else ends up somewhere else. Because for most of us perspective and emotion are layered over facts.

In work you see it in cases of fundamental attribution error/correspondence bias, where we allow far more leniency for context in our own performance but more readily assume that underperformance in others is due to character/capability. I also think people are often more likely to give some slack for context in our own teams than in others.

That doesn’t, however, mean that nobody is ever underperforming, but it probably means we need to do two things

i) be a bit harsher or clinical with ourselves in terms of appraising our own performance

ii) ensure that we have sufficient context to understand challenges facing others

It doesn’t mean that once you understand those challenges that people can’t be accountable for not surmounting them – but assessing work devoid of context is as unhelpful as not setting standards in the first place.

One of the questions I often ask is ‘How different would it look if… ‘

For instance if you have the same information about someone you think is underperforming as someone else (who thinks they are performing…) then ask

‘Once I’ve taken into account context… how different would things have looked if someone I did rate had completed the project/been in the role?’

This approach shifts the focus from the person to thinking about acceptable outcomes in context. It shifts the conversation, quite often, to not being an emotive one about whether the person is ‘good/bad/indifferent’ but a more constructive one about shared expectations and the gap to actual performance

  • What are the outcomes we can both agree we think could have been achieved in the situation?
  • Do we both think they’ve been achieved?
  • Why?
  • So what do we need to do?

I’ve written before about the mantra of ‘Cold assessment of the facts, warm development of behaviours’ and to do this we need to be clear thinking enough to understand acceptable levels of performance in context before we take next steps. And we need to be fair and open in the way we do that.

  1. Context – understand it
  2. Clarity – over what was achievable
  3. Contrast – with what was
  4. Constructive steps forward – to address gaps

Because people love lists that all start with the same letter.

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