Wednesday, 5 April 2017

That touchy-feely stuff

Life's too short, and you can't do everything, and one of the things that fell off my radar for a while was Masterchef. Lately, though, I've caught up with it again (the 'professionals' series), and I've found it as compulsively watchable as ever.

But I was struck by something that goes beyond cooking.

People aren't used to getting praise.

Especially in the early rounds, where you've got people who haven't yet climbed into the higher branches of the professional tree, you can see that they've had little or no positive feedback at all in their careers.

A kind word from any of the judges, and you have some contestants going all teary-eyed. They've rarely had people in their professional lives tell them they're doing a good job.

And it's not just a  bit of recognition from Michelin-starred Marcus Wareing that's got people going all gooey. Sure, you might be a bit overwhelmed, too, if the big guy in your line of business said you were pretty good. But a bit of appreciation from Gregg Wallace (whose autobiography is well worth reading, by the way) or from Monica Galetti will do it too. You can see that praise has been thin on the ground for the contestants, even though - almost by definition given that they've entered this competition - they're talented and motivated people.

And it got me thinking about the poor business culture we've created. There's little or no leeway for making mistakes, there's a very low tolerance for risk (manifested, for example, in businesses' very high 'hurdle rates' for investments), there's bugger all appreciation of the difficulties of making decisions under uncertainty (the RBNZ in particular tends to get it in the neck, as I've argued), and hence or otherwise there's a focus, and with 20:20 hindsight at that, on shortcomings and blame.

You ever been through one of those corporate 'performance reviews'? "Well, I see you had 12 KPIs for this year, and you've achieved ten of them. Now, let's talk about those other two, shall we?".

Some companies are finally getting the gumption to dump the damn things, as you'll find in this fine Harvard Business Review article, 'The Performance Management Revolution'. Two brief extracts: it concludes by saying that
Performance appraisals wouldn’t be the least popular practice in business, as they’re widely believed to be, if something weren’t fundamentally wrong with them
and earlier says that the something fundamentally wrong thing is
With their heavy emphasis on financial rewards and punishments and their end-of-year structure, they hold people accountable for past behavior at the expense of improving current performance and grooming talent for the future, both of which are critical for organizations’ long-term survival 
I wouldn't usually bother wandering into management theory, except that I can't help feeling that poor management practices are part of our long-standing productivity under-performance. A while back I posted about some research which found that
43.5% of the productivity gap between us and the [United] States is down to our relatively weak management capabilities (and it's interesting that Australia, with a somewhat similar business environment to ours, comes out with a similar number, at 45%)
What I didn't add at the time, but Masterchef  has now prompted me to, is that, in turn, a lot of our relatively poor overall management practice is down to bad performance management and really bad people management. As this paper found, "People management is the weakest area for New Zealand manufacturers with the country ranking fourteenth among [seventeen] participating countries". Here's what the data looked like.

Other than on the terraces at the game, or after a few jars, we don't do that inspire-y motivation-y gooey praise-y thingy. We tend not to open up, and especially not if it risks being a bit confrontation-y. Look how we score (below) on 'addressing poor performance': by international standards, we just don't want to go there. 

Everyone, this election year, seems to have a list of policies that might help turn our productivity around: the New Zealand Initiative came out with one the other day, to mixed reactions. So here are two more from me.

The less important one is, Fred in Sales and Wilma in HR have been a drag on the business for years. You know it, their colleagues know it, and you've let it drift. Fix it.

The more important one is, focus on what people have been doing well. Let them know, and help them get even better. There aren't huge numbers of win-win policies, but praising a job well done not only makes people happier, but the research shows it improves personal, business and national performance.

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