Saturday 20 November 2021

Performance Management

The other day, over dinner and a glass or two, I was asked by a senior academic what I thought was the biggest issue that Universities needed to address, in the context of management and leadership.  I said performance management; and he - and the other members of the University at dinner (both academics and professional services staff) agreed with an enthusiasm that slightly took me aback. (It wasn't as though I was paying for the wine, either...).

Whether it is the most important or not is clearly debatable; but it is certainly important. And I think the context in which we think about it needs re-examining.

Too often, we treat performance management as the unpleasant business of dealing with poor performance; which is a bureaucratic, as well as an emotional, nightmare.

However, I think it is better conceived of as a leadership task, and a positive one, at that.  For if we take performance management seriously, it is surely about the leader's responsibility to create the environment (context, culture, systems, structures) in which people are most likely to be both willing and able to give of their best. 

That is likely to include maximising autonomy, where ever possible; offering clarity about context and desirable outcomes; modelling the positive values that the institution aspires to; noticing and honouring both effort and results; encouraging and enabling teamwork and collaboration; and so on.  

It also means casting a critical eye over all the other good, but perhaps slightly peripheral, things we aspire to do, and considering whether pursuing them (or pursuing them at this time, or in this way) will have deleterious effect on on people's willingness and desire to give of their best; and when necessary, fighting off some of the well-intentioned but burdensome initiatives that bureaucracies have a peculiar gift for imposing.

It will also include addressing poor performance; not least because one of the things that people find really disheartening is to work their socks off, and then see others, apparently, getting away with doing little or nothing. But addressing poor performance is only a small, albeit crucial, element in a genuine performance management approach: there is so much more to it than that!


With thanks to  Lefteris kallergis and Prince Akachi for sharing their photos on Unsplash

Thursday 11 November 2021

The Cleverness of Me

Occasionally, I meet someone who mentions that they read and like my blog. Typically, they say that is because I don't spend all my time talking about how wonderful I am and what clever things I am just doing (and, by the way, buy now!).

So based on that haphazard approach to understanding my readers' interests, I have decided to write a blog post about how wonderful I am and a clever thing I have just done (though still lacking that incisive sales pitch, alas). 

Having said which, it did take me some time...  

So, to start at the beginning: when the children were smaller (they are now all in their 20s and have moved out) I was from time to time frustrated to find that all the pencils in the house were blunt. So I bought one of those rather good pencil sharpeners - you know, the kind you remember from junior school (at least, if you are of my generation). But the problem was, where to mount it? Because you cannot use it without screwing it down: otherwise you would need one hand to hold it, one to hold the pencil, and a third to turn the handle.

My dilemma was that the old dining table that I use as a desk is rather nice beech, and I was reluctant to drive screws into it. So I had the bright idea of fastening it to the shelves above my desk: but allowing for the handle and the length of a pencil, that would have taken the best part of a foot (30 cm for you youngsters) of available shelf space out of use: and we never have enough shelf space.

And then, the other day, with that flair for genius that is my stock-in-trade, and a mere 20 years or so after first buying the thing, I realised that I could screw it to the bottom of a shelf - for it works just as well upside down!

And I have been as happy as can be ever since: and all of our pencils have been sharpened. 


With thanks to Marcus Spiske for sharing his photo on Unsplash

Friday 5 November 2021

Ease and discomfort

One of the components of Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment (qv passim) is Ease. Kline sees this primarily as a freedom from urgency. Her thesis is that people think better in our presence if they know that we have time for them and that we are happy for them to take their time in developing and articulating their thinking.  And I think that she is right.  I would also add a freedom from being judged, as a contributor to that sense of ease.

On the other hand, I am also keenly aware of the importance of discomfort. If we go to the leading edge of our thinking, and explore the unknown, that may be uncomfortable.  Further, the Thinking Environment process itself is uncomfortable for some people: it is so contrary to their habits and expectations (eg the complete absence of interruption) that it can feel odd. So I often reassure people that I am quite comfortable with their being uncomfortable...

So how do I reconcile those two? And do I need to?  I quite like paradox - it often takes us to interesting places.

And as so often, this blog post is my thinking out loud about the subject, as it were.  It is work in progress, not a settled position.

My current thinking is this: if we look at why Ease is so important, I think it is for a few reasons.  One is that if people feel some urgency, the risk is that they go by the most direct route from Problem A to Solution B.  But that most direct route is the well-trodden path in their mind (or the strongest links in the neural network, if you prefer). Which means that they are likely to think what they always think, when addressing such questions under time pressure. And that in turn means that new insights are less likely.  Whereas, if they take a more rambling route, if they allow their mind to play with ideas, to explore some of the by-ways, they may see things from a different perspective, see new links and new possible pathways: and that may be where insight arises.

The second reason is that urgency risks stimulating the sympathetic nervous system: that fight/flight response, when our amygdala releases adrenaline etc into our system to respond to a (perceived) threat. Whereas ease allows us to operate out of our rational, pro-social mind, focused more on long term goals than short term survival, enabling a more expansive and humane consideration of the issues we are addressing.

So perhaps my role is to create sufficient ease that the thinker is able to go to the uncomfortable non-habitual or even dangerous places, and experience the discomfort of doing so, in such a psychologically safe space that the fight/flight response is not stimulated. 


With thanks to Ian Stauffer, Kai Bossom and Lionello DelPiccolo for sharing their photos on Unsplash