Written by Jeremiah Martin
Published: 16 December 2019
Engagement and Performance are both key areas that a manager must manage. An organization filled with folks who hate their job or who are unable to perform is headed for disaster. It really is quite unfortunate then that "Performance" and "Engagement", despite their importance, are incredibly squishy concepts that depend on unique efforts and experiences of every member of a team. This presents a daunting challenge to managers, that few appear to be meeting well.
However, this may be because the tools that we use to approach problems within the workplace lead us to the wrong conclusions about how to achieve important, but squishy goals.
Spreadsheets, organization charts, and project plans can often give the impression the workplace is a structured and predictable place. It is important to keep in mind however, that the reason we have these tools in the first place is precisely because work is immensely complicated and unpredictable. Schedules, standing meetings, and sales forecasts serve as tools aimed at clarifying the workplace (e.g. “We meet at 10 a.m. every day for 20 minutes"), allowing us to focus our attention on problems that are relevant to our goals.
The wrong conclusion one might draw from seeing all of these highly structured tools in a highly productive workplace is that the structure itself is getting the work done. A few of you reading this right now may have very *vibrant* memories of bosses who have come to this incorrect view. Let’s call it the Architects Error. This Architects Error can lead to a focus on finding places where workers vary from a predefined structure and driving them to conform. While such an approach might work if your organization has an incredibly simple mission that it never plans on changing, this kind of arrangement is doomed in a dynamic modern work environment where constant change is a given. Although having a clear structure is incredibly useful for extremely concrete goals (e.g. “Build this building here"), adding unnecessary structure to the workplace can be a nightmare (e.g. “Fill out this form prior to using the restroom"). The goal of management must always be on helping workers work, rather than on simply imposing structure.
The Architects Error is precisely why efforts to increase engagement or effectively managing employee performance can be so off the mark. Structure becomes the objective, and in the process we lose site of the goals. This is particularly toxic for circumstances where important goals are relatively abstract, as is the case for Performance or Engagement.
The best way to avoid this Architect's Error is to turn to an example of people managing systems that have squishy objectives in a messy environment— Gardeners.
Although a garden is organized at a basic level, it's layout is largely based on simplifying things for the gardener and making sure that the plants receive enough of the basics to survive. Keeping the layout simple and accessible means that the Gardener can quickly see issue's and address them. Drooping plants or pesky weeds are seen, and after the Gardner makes a judgement, handled promptly. This is critical to the long-term success of their eventual harvest as well. Each plant over the course of the growing season may encounter issues, however, given that the gardener is able to build habits around tending to each of the plants, these issues neither overwhelm the Gardner's capacities nor are they allowed to spoil the harvest.
In trying to address Engagement or Performance issues, Gardeners have Architects beat. Given that each individual worker within the organization has unique experiences and challenges, we must make sure to develop systems and habits like a gardener.
The clearest way to accomplish this is by ensuring that you have some way seeing if you have an issue in the first place. This can be done by creating a performance review process or by using an empirically based engagement survey. There is a great deal of difference however, between seeing a weed and weeding it. This is why it is critical as a manager to develop habits based on these results. This is also, why we created the Engage INSIGHT platform, which directly ties your team’s engagement results to a set of best-practices recommendations that you can build a habits around. Platforms which unnecessary add complications to this process are simply repeating the Architects Error.
That is why, when managing squishy but important outcomes, we must take care of our garden.