GE used to do something like this – have their managers rank all their direct reports into three groups, with the bottom feeders (the underperformers) singled out for smaller (or no) raises, remediation, or termination. In fact, countless other firms stumbled over one another to adopt the Welch Way (also known as Rank and Yank). Over time this practice was discredited – the initial healthy competition among staff gave way to brutal backstabbing. Whispers of discrimination led to a dramatic increase in white shoe and briefcase sightings, and good old-fashioned camaraderie morphed into suck-up fests unrivaled in modern history.
Spun into a Lather
Here’s the problem as I see it. Companies have spun themselves into a lather trying to avoid employee appraisal policies that are subjective. Grade, reward and punish people based solely on mathematics. What could go wrong? Pretty much everything. Did someone miss a few deadlines? Why? Were there some customer complaints against an employee? Why? Were sales down in someone’s territory last quarter? Why?
Every time you ask why – boom – subjective. The problem is…..everything in life is subjective. It can’t be scrubbed or lawyered away. So what’s a beleaguered company owner (or HR person or division manager) to do?
Life is Subjective
Be honest. Accept that work, as part of life, is and will always be subjective. Embrace the concept, then share it with your staff from day one and be 100% sure everyone understands. Does anyone doubt that when they were hired, it was because one or more existing company staff had a “good feeling” about them, or “believed” that their skills and personality and work ethic were a “good fit” for the organization? This is how business gets done, people, and it works the same whether you’re on the way in or heading out!
So Brian, you have convinced me that the world runs on subjectivity. But getting back to the original issue, how do you keep your teams fueled up and running at peak efficiency while identifying those individuals who just aren’t working out?
Glad you asked – back in February I blogged about leadership and how I prepare my teams for battle. There are two main steps, equip and release. Leaders lead by giving their teams the knowledge, tools, and mindset to be successful. Once I believe (subjective) that my staff has been thoroughly equipped, they are released to put these skills, ideas and instincts to work. I monitor their progress, and yes, that does include objective measures like sales. But I also watch how they interact with prospects (do they listen), customers (are they comfortable), fellow employees (do they play nice), and a million other things – most of which are subjective. Even before equipping and releasing, there is something I call cultivating. At the company level, cultivating is creating an environment that encourages, facilitates, and rewards success. At the individual level, it is identifying people who are worthy of more or specialized attention, and then providing it. So my strategy is to cultivate promising people by running an attractive place of business, a place that incubates and nurtures them until they are equipped to excel at their jobs.
Transfer or Terminate
But what happens if my gut instincts (subjective) are wrong? Two things happen. I take a fresh look at the situation and ask if this person might be more ideally suited for another position (a transfer) within the company. If so, we start the equip and release process again, hopefully with a more positive outcome. However, if we have nothing currently suitable for this person, or if I have just decided to cut my losses, termination is the only remaining avenue. I am great at what I do, and I enjoy teaching it to willing students. But, there will be a certain small percentage of new hires that either can’t do it, or won’t buy into it, and that’s reality.
I can only teach what I know, and not wanting to waste anyone’s time, I will only teach what I know works. If a mistake is made (subjective and objective) and further efforts at remediation are not warranted, just pull the shitweeds and move on.
When you are face down on the dirty concrete, laying in a pool of sweat and skank and still bleeding from the impact, what do you do? First thing I recommend – since you have some time to kill (until the buzzards find you), how about reflecting on exactly how you became 3D street graffiti? I don’t mean literally – there had to have been a multi-story plunge off a balcony at some point very recently. I mean what did you do? How did you let your business get so far out of whack that this was the result?
Let’s cue up a soothing smooth jazz soundtrack and ask the experts. Pain is part of growing, they say, so stay positive (if pain is part of growing you’ll be about 40 feet tall in a few minutes). How about this one – those who argue the most accomplish the least. Guess I’m not allowed to argue against that one. Gotta love this too – your scars are a symbol of your strength. If true the Iron Man suit should be a perfect fit after we hose you down a bit. What about every little struggle is a step forward? I guess that’s supposed to be comforting, but should we all go through life screwing up on purpose? And here is the winner of the “Jesus Take the Wheel” Award for most unconvincing abdication of responsibility in a documentary: What’s meant to be is meant to be. This is my all-time least favorite excuse for anything, and anyone who reads me knows why.
Stop! This is all bullshit. Can anyone really say that laying in a pool of blood unable to breathe is a good thing? A teachable moment? Nothing in the preceding paragraph answers the question – how the hell did you let this happen? What did you do? More importantly, who did you fail?
Exactly. The question here is not what you did or didn’t do, but who did you fail. Failing, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The vast majority of baseball players fail more than two out of every three times at the plate. Entrepreneurs launching businesses fail nine out of ten times. One quarter of U.S. Presidents lost at least once before landing the White House. And excuse me as I reach for the Xanax, but it takes tens of thousands of promising compounds to get one effective new drug to market. But the flip side of failure is you learn. You get better at hitting. You learn more effective business practices, smarter reporting, and you meet people that have wisdom you can use. Politicians, after they lose, learn what to say to get elected and start saying it ad nauseam. Big Pharma (and all other pharmas) keep plugging away because the rewards are huge for a winner. Given this argument, even Gordon Gekko might have agreed that failure, for lack of a better word, is good.
So if failure is a normal byproduct of life, why are you lying broken and bloodied on the pavement? It’s who you failed. If you fail at work, hopefully it was because you were being proactive, or trying to improve something. If you fail fixing the front walk, you can always hire a handyman to bail you out. But if you fail friends or family when they are counting on you, it’s like rejection. You rejected them by not holding up your end of the bargain. And rejection can never be undone. Do this a couple of times and you will find yourself alone. And this hurts. A lot.
Those people are your foundation and they are irreplaceable, so keep your priorities straight. There is no excuse for letting their tanks run dry. Attend to their needs regularly and with great care. And listen. Really listen. Remember, they are the angels who will lift you off the pavement when you are laying there helpless. Without them, it’s straight to Hell.