Performance Dichotomies: Defining Performance

As discussed in the last post, numerous business principles possess dichotomies.  However, it is important to consider the validity of overriding the human inclination that dichotomies are opposites and look for the shared elements present in much of what we encounter on a regular basis.  I recently met with a group of union leaders and senior managers in an organization that is struggling with finding common ground in the challenging economy.  Both groups started off the discussion by saying “we have nothing in common and never will.”  Both groups felt that the concerns and demands of the other were so foreign to their own expectations that nothing could be gained from even interacting together.  As we spent the afternoon together, it became evident that the two groups had much more in common than they first thought.  Both groups valued the customers, desired to preserve the current level of service, and wanted to keep the current team together by avoiding reductions in force.  The real difference came down to how the organization is best served when expending the very limited resources it had available.  From this basic foundation, they were able to begin to develop some type of compromise.

This example illustrates the principle that in a single or consistent environment, many assumed dichotomies may possess more in common than what is noticeable at first glance.  The commonalities could include similar assumptions, goals, methods, or events.  Think of plants or trees that possess the same root system, but appear above the ground at different places.  The plants appear in two different places, but come from the same source.

Attaining full performance is one of the primary enigmas of most organizations.  Countless articles, books, presentations, and myths have been developed to help an organization identify, devise, and execute methods for improving performance.  Our simple discussion here will not even come close to solving the riddle of full performance.  However, performance is a phenomenon that is impacted by dichotomies.

Three common dichotomies of performance relate to how we even identify or define it.  When a group of leaders and employees are asked “what is performance?” the answer varies depending on the experience, role, and position of the individual.  Three big performance definition dichotomies relate to:

  • Employee’s view – Leader’s view
  • Improvement – Sustainability
  • Effort – Outcome

Employee’s View – Leader’s View

Although employees and leaders may view performance outcomes similarly, it is more likely that there will be a discrepancy between the acceptable level or outcomes, methods for accomplishing, and current results.  How many times have you met with an employee that you provided lukewarm feedback to and the employee responded that he or she thought their performance was exceptional?  Leaders and employees alike consider their viewpoints many times to be diametrically opposed.  The real difference is not the viewpoint, but the expectation.  The level, method, and results are relatively fixed between both parties.  The real difference exists is if that combination is acceptable to both parties.

Improvement – Sustainability

Improving and sustaining performance are two related, but different process and outcome.  If an employee needs to improve, then specific actions and steps are needed to move from a less to a more desired level.  Changes have to occur in order to attempt to reach the desired level of performance.  Change is something that possesses intellectual as well as psychological investments to be successful.  If an employee is currently a high performer, then other actions are needed to maintain the desired level of performance over time.  Many times, we assume that if a person is a high performer he or she will remain a high performer. Empirical reality refutes that assumption.  Employee performance levels change over time and constant attention and investment is needed to reach and maintain high performance.   The reality is that a mix of skill building, feedback, mentoring, and coaching is needed to accomplish either.

Effort – Outcomes

It is part of human nature of associate effort with desired result.  Most of us have presented a review to an employee to hear in return that even if the performance expectation was not reached the amount of effort expended in trying should be acknowledged in the score.  At an early age, we begin to make the assumption that if we put a lot of effort into something the desired result should occur based on the effort expended.  In other words, we begin the association of effort and outcome.  Conversely, most of us as managers consider the two related, but not synonymous.  Effort is necessary, but not sufficient for attaining desired outcomes.  However, very rarely can outcomes be reached without effort.

Each of these definitional dichotomies possesses overlap in some form.  What about measuring performance? In our next post, we will explore three dichotomies of measurement.

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