Don’t confuse high performance with low maintenance

by Jill Malleck, OD Consultant

This article was originally published in the November 20, 2006 issue of Canadian HR Reporter. Subscribe to my monthly workplace/leadership newsletter at www.epiphanyatwork.com.

More than ever, everyone wants to be seen as a high performer at work. We know that those assigned the coveted designation are given the most generous pay increases and first chance at promotion. The confusion begins when you try to sort out the truth about what high performance looks like. The behaviours that research associates with great performance include creativity, innovation, risk-taking and initiative. But managing an employee with these attributes takes more of a leader’s time and skill. Employees are catching on that what they think of as high performance can quickly get them labeled as high maintenance.

Overworked managers don’t have time to deal with the spontaneity and surprises that top-notch thinkers exhibit. Frankly, they want low-maintenance employees. Inside too many hierarchical workplaces high performance now means doing the work the boss assigns and creating as little stir as possible. Even in sectors like technology and retail, where creativity reigns, autonomous managers have the power to douse the entrepreneurial spirit. They do this to ensure that there are fewer conflicts and faster implementation. The resulting short-term productivity gain hides the longer-term performance gap. Are your star performers those that are easiest to manage? Have you sacrificed better performance for low maintenance? Ask yourself these questions to find out. 

1.      How often do people disagree with you?  When everyone on the team always agrees with your direction and opinions, you can be sure they are managing up. Perhaps you react defensively and aggressively when questioned. Perhaps your voice gets stronger because you passionately state your strong opinions – and people chalk it up to aggression. Maybe you look embarrassed. How you choose to react will set the precedent for future challenges. On some teams, disagreeing with the boss is the kiss of death. It’s not enough for you to say in the team meeting “and if you disagree with this, come and see me later.” Let your team see someone disagree with you – and be thanked publicly for thinking independently. 

2.       Has a passive-aggressive culture formed? Outside of your immediate team lies the overall company culture. Culture is a shared system of beliefs, values and normative behaviours. It’s not unusual, in a company with a long history, to see people acting passively on the surface, while vigorously disagreeing less publicly.  Often this is the fallout of periods of downsizing, merging and reorganizing. The resultant fear of job loss, and historical tales shared amongst survivors, stops anyone from stepping outside the safety zone. When this happens it’s up to the senior leaders to find creative ways to build trust and reward risk-taking. In your own team you can ensure that no one gets punished for thinking differently than you do. And, you can protect your subordinates if other leaders try to stifle them.

3.      When was the last time you rewarded someone for trying – and failing? You can gauge how comfortable people are with failure by seeing how often they try something new. Most of us like to be competent, and learning puts us into the discomfort of incompetence for a time. We need to feel more supported when learning than at any other time. When you ask people to try something new, be patient with them during the learning process. Continue to support them and reward them for hanging in. Make yourself more available and visible than usual. Consider failures as learning moments and be vulnerable enough to tell stories about a time when you didn’t know it all. 

4.      Are your job descriptions and objectives too tightly written? If you or your HR department loves documentation, you may be giving too many details of how work is to be done. These documents alone may account for a lack of initiative and creative thinking – especially if they are followed to the letter and used to determine compensation. Of course, clarity around roles and responsibilities is a good thing. The key is to be clear without being prescriptive.  Within your team, ask people to work together and be more open to suggestions from their peers, when everyone is operating  in the interest of better results.

 5.      Is there time for creating and imagining? These days, everyone is running full speed. It’s not unusual for people to tell me they don’t take breaks or lunch during the work day – so they can leave work on time. Check if your staff are taking breaks. You might want to schedule a team lunch occasionally – provide food and let the group brainstorm, play games or just eat and relax. Take a project or problem and play a game where the group finishes the sentence, “What if we

6.      Are realists labeled as negative? There are many informal roles that are carried in groups. One of them – an important one – is that of the realist. This person stops a group that is running excitedly toward a disaster by pointing out some of the not-so-obvious risks. It can be annoying to be pulled up short on the way to the future! In some cultures, and on some projects, it is not OK to say “this won’t work.” Make sure there is a healthy respect for listening to the realist. 

7.      Is money spent fixing problems created by speedy implementations?  This is a good indicator that there is no process for disagreeing, and the realist is ignored (see above.) It can also point to a culture where everything is urgent and the first out of the gate wins. I’m all for getting things done efficiently, and that means right the first time. This not only saves money, it can save service crisis and business reputations as well.

Jill Malleck provides organization development consulting for major change initiatives, HR project and communications projects and teambuilding. Jill coaches individuals who are ready to develop a higher level of personal effectiveness.

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