When It’s Time To Talk Performance…

Animals have an ingrained system to warn them of dangers. These instincts have been honed for each species over centuries by natural selection. Same goes for the project species that are roaming your halls and conference rooms. Neuroscience research shows that we can sense that something is wrong long before our conscious mind picks up on it (and much longer till we do something about it). Convincing you to be proactive is almost futile, unless you have a simple strategy that will make it easy to talk about the issues that drive performance and a guarantee of improved success (yes, I’ll make that bold claim).

The primary challenge with having any performance conversation is minimizing the initial emotional response so that the discussion can focus on the facts and solutions. The human brain is hardwired to detect danger, automatically switching into “fight or flight” mode to prepare the body for survival. This system is great to avoid being run down while crossing the street after lunch, but not a great system for dealing with issues critical to your project team’s survival. David Rock’s book Your Brain at Work (ref link) highlights five critical factors that trigger an emotional response in humans:

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness

You can see why calling someone out in a meeting about performance would cause the human brain to go on red alert for every one of these factors listed above. This approach may create short term results, but the long term impact to the individual and others on the team are disastrous from a performance perspective. Let’s sketch out another approach that is easier for the brains in the room to adapt to.

1. Announce Your Intent to Better Understand Performance Drivers
Start by sharing some insights into why addressing performance issues are especially important on this project in addition to your high-level approach. The “why” provides the team with a shared purpose (relatedness and status), the approach let’s members know what’s coming up (certainty) and ensuring involvement provides the sense of involvement (autonomy) that will counteract the red flags that will arise from past experiences into these treacherous waters.

2. Define What and How to Measure
Knowing the logic behind the tracking system provides confidence (fairness and certainty) to override the skepticism of at least a critical few. Focusing on team goals (relatedness) and rewards associated with meeting/exceeding these goals (status) will help build momentum leading up to the start. Yes, the pacing of these initial steps is important, so be patient and keep it simple to start with.

3. Take Initial Measurements (Objective data & Subjective Surveys)
Part 1: provide business metrics data using graphical displays that highlight goals, current values, trends and timelines. (Certainty and fairness)

Part 2: do an initial, anonymous survey on factors related to team effectiveness to get the team’s perspective on “what’s working” and “what’s not” (autonomy). Don’t act immediately on these first survey results (fairness). Allow individuals to get comfortable talking about the team’s performance while you establish trends that will provide additional context to the numbers (relatedness)

4. Experiment with and Improvements Celebrate Successes
Focus on “what’s working” list to start with to learn why and ensure that we don’t lose ground on these areas of success (certainty). Recognize both team and personal contributions (status). Pick ONE area of low performance that can directly impact a key business metric. Track the impact of experimental changes using both the subjective survey and the resulting metrics data to understand correlations. Continue to improve in small, steady steps.
Expect people to be a bit skeptical and sarcastic when you start collecting data, but remember that new habits are only formed through persistence to consistent actions. Anonymity in the survey process is essential for building trust in your approach early on. Show how you can more easily focus on the big issues without having names attached. Let the team decide when and how to improve up the process (autonomy). When executive management starts to notice the improved numbers, pass that information on to the team (status).
Today’s Challenge: Download the team assessment survey and see how you rate the team’s effectiveness

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