Managing employee performance as we return to work during a pandemic

According to a 2019 article, ”Here’s the No. 1 reason why employees quit their jobs,“ the No. 1 reason is a lack of recognition for the work they’ve performed.  Research showed that 79% of employees who quit their jobs leave because they feel underappreciated, while a whopping 82% leave because their supervisor does not meaningfully acknowledge the contributions they make.  Sometimes a simple “thank you” goes a long way.

But a lack of recognition is merely one symptom of a larger disease that can cripple a company if left undiagnosed and untreated.  Strong work environments hinge on many variables to function; and if any of the pieces falls out of place, the system breaks down.  These elements comprise a company’s cultural engine, which we call the Performance System.

Performance Systems comprise an interconnected web of elements that influence people to perform certain behaviors; these behaviors can be desirable or undesirable, so they are worth managers’ attention. Great Performance Systems are a reason people stay with a company for years; poor Performance Systems are what push them away.  So how does one make a great Performance System?  The answer is relatively simple – strong Performance Systems run on a manager’s empathy for team members.  Just as a car engine undergoes preventive maintenance to keep running smoothly, a manager enhances the team’s Performance Systems by fostering a work environment that regularly recognizes and takes actions that encourage positive, consistent performance.

Great managers genuinely care about the people who work for them. They consider their employees’ perspectives in their decision-making.  Great managers recognize that employees don’t intrinsically wish to underperform.  They have the wisdom to know that underperformance is a symptom of obstacles hindering someone’s success and that it’s their job, as a manager, to clear them.  The best managers provide constant, prompt and guided feedback that praises peoples’ good work and pinpoints how they can improve with direction.  Good managers have the awareness to appraise whether team members feel incentivized to do their work and that they have the resources they need.  When good managers don’t know what’s wrong, they find out.  Great Performance Systems are a constant conversation between employer and employee, where an employer seeks to understand before they seek to be understood.

Sometimes Performance Systems change as a result of external factors beyond anyone’s control.  The COVID-19 pandemic is a living example of that. These turbulent times demand that managers consider how their team members are feeling and are flexible and supportive.  Essential workers may be fearful for their health, a strong negative consequence.  Companies who failed to recognize this and take actions to address the health hazards fail their employees and damage their Performance Systems.  For employees working from home, many face a difficult work environment due to  home conditions  that make them less productive.  Young children who require care and attention can conflict with the demands of work and quickly create a negative situation that raises tension.  As a recent example, Jimmy Fallon runs The Tonight Show from a playhouse of a home complete with restless children as a lighthearted showcase for some of these challenges.  Good managers must be aware of how evolving conditions and a range of challenges are affecting their team members and then, work with them to accommodate performance expectations.

Work environments that make it easy for team members to feel like they’re failing – i.e. the “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” syndrome – are destined to see high employee turnover and low performance.  In those work environments the performer doesn’t want to fail; it’s the cards they’ve been dealt that make success elusive.  And while the circumstances of those cards aren’t always within an employer’s control, leadership at a proactive employer will make sure their team members don’t draw a “losing hand” and will help them to find a different path to success.

According to a Gartner survey of 800 global HR executives in March, 88% encouraged or required employees to work from home. This trend is beginning to ease but will continue to some degree for months to come and may be permanent for some employees. The time is ripe for a good look at employees’ evolving Performance Systems in order to support an effective work-at-home culture and a safe at-work environment. Leaders must put the right pieces in place by considering their team members’ perspectives. As conditions evolve, the Performance System needs to be front and center in making decisions that affect employees.

About Kepner-Tregoe

For more than six decades, Kepner-Tregoe has empowered organizations through a proven, structured approach to problem solving. As the leader in problem-solving, KT has helped thousands of organizations solve millions of problems through more effective root cause analysis and decision-making skills. Through our unique blend of training and consulting, our clients demonstrate improved efficiency, higher quality and greater customer satisfaction while reducing their costs.

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