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Better Performance Management Starts With 3 Simple Questions

What’s your lever? What’s the thing that allows you to “lift” your workforce? Let’s unpack this one concept at a time, starting with performance management. Then we’ll explore a way to streamline the communication process and diagnose performance problems.


1. a bar used to lift a weight. 2. a simple mechanical tool turning on a fulcrum that magnifies force applied at one point and transfers it to a second point.

Of all the things you do as a manager, helping your staff perform better is the most important. We like to say it’s your highest-leverage task. Apply steady effort on your end and you can lift employees to their full potential, benefitting everyone and everything in an organization—including the bottom line.

But what’s your lever? What’s the thing that allows you to “lift” your workforce?

Simple: Great business managers use communication as a lever to enhance performance and bring out the best in their employees. But—this is the complicated part—communication is a two-way street that makes no assumptions and involves listening to as well as talking with.

Let’s unpack this one concept at a time, starting with performance management. Then we’ll explore a way to streamline the communication process and diagnose performance problems.

The Heart of Performance Management

Performance management is not a new concept. It’s been in the manager’s domain for decades, with a vast literature on best practices. New electronic tools and technologies have made their way into the marketplace to bolster organizations’ efforts. As valuable as these new tools are, the heart of performance management remains a process that includes the following steps:

  • Step 1: Set goals and expectations

  • Step 2: Monitor and assess performance

  • Step 3: Provide feedback and coaching

Pretty basic, right? The challenge for managers is in the execution. Robert Mager, a world-renowned educational thought leader in human performance and instructional design, wrote a great book on the topic with Peter Pipe, Analyzing Performance Problems. They provide a full-page flow chart of questions to ask and paths to follow to diagnose problems. It’s an elegant method. But managers in the real world see performance problems on the shop floor or in the field and don’t have the time to work through twenty or so questions.

Down to Diagnostic Essentials

When time is tight, or you just need to cut to the chase, we recommend a quicker method. Managers can diagnose the cause of a performance problem very efficiently by asking three simple questions.

Question 1: What?

The first question is so simple and obvious that most managers forget to ask it of their employees: Do you know what to do? The biggest mistake most of us make is assuming that our employees know what to do. Competing demands are packed into every hour of the workday; there are so many things an employee could be doing at any given time. Those who don’t receive clear direction are off doing good things unrelated to what’s most important… carrying out agreed-upon tactics to achieve the organization’s strategic goals.

In its landmark research compiled in First, Break All the Rules, the Gallup organization found the most effective managers were able to help employees answer the question, “What is expected of me?” This means more than just “What tasks should I accomplish?” It means “What does a good job look like?”

Question 2: How?

What a good job looks like leads to the second question: Do you know how to do it? If you’re facing performance problems, it’s possible your staff may not know. They may be reluctant to tell you because they think they should already know how to do specific tasks; they fear that asking for help may jeopardize their standing or even their job. Of course, this is faulty reasoning because underperformance will ultimately lead to the very thing they fear the most—termination.

Because of rapidly evolving methods or new market information the best approach to successfully accomplishing a task will change periodically. For example, when product specifications and features change, sales representatives might understand exactly what they should be doing, but may be less able to do it.

Managers with foresight expect the problem of “how.” They are ready to ask, “Do you know how to do get this done? What do you need from me?” In some cases, extended training is required; a job-shadowing opportunity with a top performer could provide a good learning experience. Regardless of the intervention, managers in this situation must help the employee learn.

Question 3: Why?

The most insidious type of performance problem occurs when an employee understands what to do and has the skill to do it but just doesn’t perform as required. Many theories address a lack of motivation among otherwise capable employees, but our third question is crucial to motivating employees to perform better: Do you understand why you do what you do, and why the company is in business? Do you understand how your job and the quality of your work relate to the success of the whole organization?

When managers ask “why,” they open a new and robust dialogue on the topic of strategic alignment—how everyone, especially a frontline employee, contributes in an important way to achieving corporate strategic goals. So often, employees feel disconnected from the mission, vision, and values of an organization because they don’t know what they are, don’t understand them, or don’t see them as vital to the work the company does. They don’t get the tie-in. And unfortunately, they often can’t see how achieving corporate goals makes their own lives better.

This is where great managers separate themselves from the merely adequate— they instill a sense of purpose and contribution in their employees. They help create in their employees’ thoughts, feelings, and behavior a clarity about what the organization is doing, why it’s doing it, and how their jobs connect to all the other causal factors moving the organization forward. These managers will succeed in improving the performance and well-being of their employees.

Managers with foresight expect the problem of "how."

The Key to Strategic Alignment

Managers are the motivating force in performance management. They must use their communication “lever” to provide the “lift” that individual contributors need to perform at their best. As valuable as high-tech tools and applications are, they cannot replace the need for managers who understand the organization’s strategy and execution plans, and who use effective interpersonal skills to ensure that all players know what to do, how to do it, and most importantly, why they are doing it.

For more ideas on performance management and helping your managers inspire your employees, contact us.

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