Walking the tightrope of performance management.

You receive a complaint from an employee: their manager is bullying them. However, you also discover the employee is underperforming. How do we navigate the narrow path between performance management and bullying, and avoid these situations occurring?
Is it an issue of management style?

A recent article by Benedict Carey for The New York Times collated findings on the detrimental effect of a “tough love” approach to management. “A boss who ‘demands’ excellence is no more likely to produce it then the boss who requests or nurtures it, and likely less so,” writes Carey.

Indeed, erring towards the negative or corrective approach to performance management can cause the exact opposite effect: “Morale and company loyalty plunge, tardiness increases and sick days are more frequent”. Simply put, employees disengage.

Nonetheless, despite the research, there remains a belief among managers that negative or corrective feedback makes them a better leader. A survey by Harvard Business Review found that 73% managers see themselves as highly effective when they give criticism.

However, it is also widely understood that positive reinforcement, praise and recognition yield results. Research, commissioned by the O.C. Tanner Institute and conducted by the Cicero Group, identified performance recognition as “a strong driver of employee engagement” with 79% employees who received strong recognition feeling highly engaged with their work, compared to only 25% receiving weak recognition.

So there seems to be a disconnect between what employees want – and, crucially, are receptive to – and what managers believe will yield results as the Harvard Business Review report explains:

“Leaders obviously carry some incorrect beliefs about the value and benefits of different forms of feedback. They vastly underestimate the power and necessity of positive reinforcement. Conversely, they greatly overestimate the value and benefit of negative or corrective feedback. In all, they misjudge the impact negative feedback has on how they are perceived by their colleagues, bosses, and direct reports”.

Why is there a resistance to providing positive reinforcement? A resistance to pandering to the needs of the millennial “snowflake generation”? An association of “nurture” with female characteristics and therefore somehow seen as a weakness? A result of managers borne out of environments with no formal management structure or training?

The danger of ill-equipped leaders and a belief in the success of negative feedback is that managers begin to adopt bullying behaviours. As Carey observes, in the absence of a formal hierarchy, “leaders tend to emerge organically, and common traits of those who assume the role include boldness, a healthy ego and a sense of entitlement” – that is, those who can crow the loudest, not necessarily those who can lead, inspire and develop a team.

Rather, as Carey notes, “Bullying bosses undermine their own teams”. As a result, it is near impossible to inspire loyalty in a team, when they feel undermined and betrayed by their manager. Plus, it makes speaking out against bullying, harassing or discriminatory behaviour all that more difficult when the person in authority – a position of trust as well as power – is the perpetrator.
So, what can be done?

Give positive feedback but also do not shy away from difficult conversations. Identifying and appreciating differences in your people – different skill sets, ways of working, approaches and attitudes – is essential for being an effective manager. A supportive, motivational, reasonable and fair manager will inspire a team to achieve their aspirations and overcome challenges much more than one who demands, shouts, swears and stamps their foot.

A formal structure for performance monitoring is also key – as is management training for the leadership team. Managers need to be equipped with the skills as well as the time and space to provide feedback. This will give both parties the opportunity to set clear expectations of what is required of them and raise any issues to be overcome; rather than calling people out in front of others (in particular during moments of high pressure) or embarrassing them with a “telling off”.

Finally, take a look at your workplace culture. Bullying bosses are a symptom of a toxic workplace. Supportive managers who value and recognise diversity in their people mirror a supportive and inclusive workplace. I know which manager I’d rather be.

At Tell Jane, we provide training for performance management and can support your organisation in assessing your processes for monitoring performance, as well as ridding your workplace of any toxic behaviours. Talk to us at Tell Jane to find out more by emailing lisa@telljane.co.uk.

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