Performance Management with Individuals and Teams

(by George Telfer)

"What gets measured gets done; what gets recognised gets done even better."

The way that individuals and teams are managed and led will impact both positively and negatively on the performance of an organisation. Effective management can be viewed as the achievement of an organisation’s objectives through the performance of its people; therefore if managers are seeking to achieve results through people, it is vital that they think carefully about the way they manage them. Managing individual and team performance within the wider complexities of a management role requires an holistic approach in setting performance measures that will highlight the crucial links between individual and team performance and the development of an organisational culture that aspires to learn and achieve peak performance.

Measuring performance and the capability of people to deliver successful results can in themselves distinguish a successful organisation from others and has established performance management as one of the core elements in effective human resource management. The important rise of HRM as a strategic function has further contributed to the emergence of performance management, directly linking individual and team performance with a series of management measurements and procedures that develop a shared understanding of the aims of the organisation and what is necessary for individuals and teams to perform. This has provided another important link between performance management and performance appraisal.

The common thread running through the functions, roles and skills of management is that individual managers have to take responsibility for their staff and manage them effectively. It is clear, therefore, that managers need to develop ‘people skills’ if they are going to be successful. The more traditional task and results focused role of the manager is increasingly under threat here because, in discussing people, we inevitably enter the realm of leadership and the complex debate that surrounds leadership in relation to and in contrast with management. At this point, it will be helpful to define the relationship between the two and the role they both play in performance management.

Ralph Stodgill’s historic 1950’s definition of leadership as “the process of influencing the activities of an organised group in its efforts towards goal setting and goal achievement” would seem, sixty years on, to be more aligned with the role of modern management. In its broadest sense, management encompasses everything managers do in their roles within the organisation. As such, it is a complex and multiple function. Leadership is more focused because it deals specifically with people both in an individual and team context. To achieve the highest levels of performance it is critical that people perform at the highest level of their ability and potential and the key to all progress and success is being able to lead, manage and enable people to do just this.

Managers will tend to focus their attention and energies on the roles they play and in the events that occur in multiple decision-making processes, whereas leaders focus more on how these events and decisions will affect people. Good managers are able to plan, organise, delegate, direct and control the resources they have to achieve improved performance and in doing so they tend to follow the formal policies, rules and procedural regulations of the organisation that employs them, and in this sense it can often be better termed as administration. Leadership is more about 'showing the way'; giving a sense of direction, although managers can sometimes misunderstand this; interpreting ‘directing’ as always having to tell people what to do, when, where and how to do it, but not always why; and thereby only gaining compliance rather than a true commitment. Although effective management enables people to understand information and instructions, leadership is more about influencing and inspiring people; not by ordering and controlling but by stimulating creativity and imagination. Moreover, leaders not only influence people towards an objective, they create the desire in people to want to achieve it. In short, as Warren Bennis says “managers do things right, while leaders do the right things” and leaders, in the truest sense and as David Gilbert-Smith claims “win the hearts and minds of people to achieve a common purpose” thus achieving higher levels of individual and team performance.

Performance management is open to a number of different interpretations, denoting a system whereby the level of intervention remains more towards the employees’ level, with the overall intention of aligning individual performance with organisational performance. Understanding an organisation or a team also requires an understanding of the individuals within that team; yet even today, more than a century after the emergence of 'scientific management theory', the way individuals are managed in many organisations remains far removed from the core principles of early and more enlightened management theorists. Fredrick Taylor (1856–1915), although more focused on the managers' role in improving productivity, defined the true objective of management as being the maximum prosperity of both owner and employee and that the former should not necessarily be at the expense of the latter. The ‘classical theories’ of Henri Fayol (1841-1925) et al saw the key functions of management as forecasting, planning, organising, commanding, coordinating and controlling and stressed the need for clear objectives, decision making and task assignment. Max Weber (1864-1920) defined organisations as complex bureaucratic institutions and demonstrated characteristic processes that are instantly recognisable even today. In the 1920’s, Elton Mayo asserted that people are also driven by social needs through their interactions with other human beings; his famous ‘Hawthorne studies’ at the Western Electric Company being described as the single most important social scientific experiment of the twentieth century. The more recent emergence of ‘management by objectives’ was undoubtedly influenced by Fayol’s classical theories yet Etzioni (1964) demonstrated that people are often no more than passive agents under the power of those who control economic incentives and therefore require close monitoring to neutralise the capricious nature of human behaviour. Although this ‘human relations theory’ marked a significant break with classical theory, nevertheless, individuals still obviously remain motivated by economic incentives. More recently, writers such as Charles Perrow and Peter Senge view the organisation as a more systemic function with every decision and action, taken or not, inextricably linked to every other one and the separation of manager, team and task both inappropriate and unrealistic.

A model that highlights the differences in how individuals and teams are managed was first developed by Douglas McGregor in the 1960’s and is still used today in the field of performance management. Although criticised for its apparent rigidity and two-dimensional nature, Theory X and Theory Y remains a valid tool in understanding the impact of positive and negative management styles on individual and team performance. McGregor maintained that there are two fundamental approaches to managing individuals, with Theory X generally producing poorer results. More enlightened managers, using theory Y, achieve superior performances from people as well as enabling them to grow and develop. Both styles align with how a manager views human nature with Theory X seeing the average person as being disdainful of work and avoiding it whenever possible. Preferring to be directed, they avoid responsibility, seeking personal security above all else. Theory Y, however, sees work as a natural activity, with people applying self-control and self-direction in the pursuit of organisational objectives without the need for excessive external controls.

Any bias towards individualism in organisations need not get in the way of team performance although any personal development plan to bring about improved performance should link with the organisations’ overall strategy. Methodology and effective evaluation are further critical success factors in improving performance and include the development of self-knowledge and the reshaping of personal perspectives and mindsets. Daniel Goleman has also pointed out that personal motivation will also influence performance with people being more moved to pursue learning that fits with their own values, becoming both an opportunity for personal development as well as improving the company’s bottom-line.

Work attitudes have certainly changed, with employees expecting greater participation and increasing opportunities for self-development. Managers therefore need to remain adaptable and committed and in this context a sense of historical evolution may explain the diversity of thinking around the role that motivation plays in improving performance. Thirty years ago, motivation theories evolved directly from Taylor’s earlier ‘Scientific Management Theory’ and his ideas on the more efficient utilisation of an organisation’s human resources. However, attempts at constructing new theories now rest on our contemporary assumptions about human behaviour and consequently a key role of management has been in maintaining high levels of motivation among workers to ensure higher levels of performance.

According to Timothy Gallwey, the desire to succeed fuels all performance and generates the impulses that move us towards purposeful actions. Successfully managing individual performance starts by identifying where individuals are performing well and where they may need further development. If a manager truly knows what motivates an individual, they have at their disposal a very powerful tool for doing just that. Accurate diagnosis of any problems is essential as is the manager working closely with individuals. Studies show that where a significant coaching and mentoring relationship exists, both promotions and remuneration are greater for the individual, as is the level of commitment shown to the organisation. However, the presence of a coach or mentor alone does not automatically lead to positive outcomes and bad or enforced coaching strategies or company mentoring schemes may actually prove destructive.

The first step in developing any improved performance initiative is to determine the needs of the organisation. Management models have provided a reliable way of measuring and managing team performance by generating qualitative and quantitative feedback data from team members and outside influences and utilising practical measurement tools to enable problems to be diagnosed and insights to be explored. One of the deeper attractions of working in a team is that it allows people to transcend their own limitations of knowledge, ability and performance but achieving a balance between the interests and self-expression of an individual on the one hand and a team on the other is one of the most challenging tasks of management. One of the most pragmatic and widely used tools to determine the nature of a team was devised by Brian Tuckman in 1984 who presented the four stages of team development now widely used throughout the world to assess the quality of a team's performance. The model describes the four developmental stages as ‘Forming’, ‘Storming’, ‘Norming’ and ‘Performing and although wrongly interpereted as a linear progression rather than an ever-changing and often daily cycle, it remains a useful tool for group discussion. Management styles need to be matched to the developmental stage of the team and measures of team performance have also provided clear evidence that teams want limited management intervention at ‘start-up’ yet will still complain of a lack of direction, an inability to make decisions and a lack of recognition for their efforts as they continue to develop if the balance is not there.

Within the field of managing team performance, models and theories abound. John Adair talks of the three variables in his action-centred leadership model (Leader, Team and Task) and the need to achieve the common task, the need which each individual has by virtue of being human, and the need to be held together as a working team, acknowledging that there are too many actions that make it impossible for any one person alone to manage. Nevertheless, he maintains that management must remain accountable for all three variables. Furthermore, a model used by the Centre for Creative Leadership in California to identify the three essential functions of direction, design and development demonstrates how teams continue to develop. Henry Mintzberg concluded that managers perform different but highly interrelated roles attributable to their jobs, one of which relates to the human dimension of understanding and motivating people.

Tom Peters appears to support the proposal that management plays a key role in team performance when he concludes:

“I observe the power of the team as so great that it is often wise to violate common sense and force the team structure on almost anything … Companies that do so will achieve a greater focus, stronger task orientation, more innovation and enhanced individual commitment.”

However, as Patrick Lencioni claims in his 'Five Dysfunctions of a Team'; teamwork comes down to practising a small set of principles over a long period of time. It is not a matter of mastering subtle, sophisticated theories but rather by embracing common sense with uncommon levels of discipline and persistence. Teams succeed because they are human and by acknowledging their imperfections they overcome the natural tendencies that make trust, conflict, commitment, accountability and a focus on results so elusive.

Performance relates strongly to the capacity of organisations and managers to embrace change and exemplifies the systemic, interconnected nature of organisational life. The various types of change being experienced by managers have been classified as demographic, social, cultural, economic, political and technological and are reflective of the increasing turbulence on the landscape of today’s business environment. There is, however, no single text that authoritatively sets out a singular approach to managing change although the route towards a clearer understanding of the management of change began more than sixty years ago with the work of Kurt Lewin. His focus was on human and social factors; the so called ‘softer side’ of managing change, with his ‘force field’ theory referring to three stages of change underpinned by a ‘learning environment’. His ‘unfreezing, change, and refreezing’ principles aimed at reshaping employee beliefs, thereby setting up a new set of group dynamics that would embrace change and lead to sustainable performance. This was in sharp contrast to the development of an alternative ‘hard systems’ approach which called for a more structured series of processes and working practices mapped out and driven through by strong and robust management structures. Although every business’s change strategy is unique, this dual approach to change management continues; defined as the two alternative ‘hard and soft’ approaches to change. The effective combinations of these two contrasting approaches reap benefits in profitability and productivity, thus resolving the tension between the two and satisfying shareholders whilst still building viable organisations.

An organisation’s ability to realise and sustain its desired vision depends upon the training its employees receive and is an essential component in individual and team performance. Furthermore, developing the original ideas of Bruce Garrett, Peter Strachan talks of the creation of ‘learning organisations’:

“To survive and prosper in today’s turbulent and rapidly changing business environment, organisations may need to innovate and transform their traditionally managed structured organisations into learning organisations.”

A key feature in managing this transformational change is through team-working, allowing us to imagine organisations as ‘living things’ that can learn. A learning organisation is one that facilitates the learning of all its members and continually transforms itself, accentuating a number of important issues such as self-development and the continuous improvement that creates able performers. Shared knowledge leads to shared visions and the organisations future which can be facilitated by managerial leadership.

Bruce Garratt first gave rise to the term ‘organisational learning’ claiming that learning organisations enable their members to create positive outcomes such as competitive advantage and a closer alignment with their external environment. Furthermore, certain writers in the field of social constructivism believe that learning is constructed socially and situationally and that individuals are able to shape the environment they desire through their social interactions within organisations and groups. People in workplace settings have the capacity to learn all the time and the problem for organisations that fail to learn is because managers do not have the systems that capture and review it or that they are not creating the emotional climate that encourages people to share often very different learning experiences.

The responsibility of all leaders (and managers) is to help people to perform and to see the ‘big picture’ by defining a shared vision for everyone. As Peter Senge points out however, leadership is not about teaching people how to achieve that vision, it is more about fostering learning. Managers must also realise, therefore, that learning has to permeate the entire organisation. Becoming a learning organisation is about managers fully understanding peoples’ expectations and doing what is necessary to help them improve.

A team is a group of people working together towards a shared and common goal that combines individual skill, talent and abilities, for which they are all accountable, with a clear direction and is perhaps the most important single step in team performance and defining the essential characteristics of a team; not its bonding, togetherness or empowerment but its inner disciplines, therefore unlearning whatever is getting in the way of moving individuals within the team towards its desired goals. Managers must therefore be prepared to assign time and effort to support this as well as the willingness to take risks and foster talent if they truly want to develop their people. Core to any relationship is the importance of a positive and interactive atmosphere created by managers through building rapport and trust, and a clear understanding of mutual objectives.

It is important that individuals and teams are aligned with the overall objectives of the organisation as almost inevitably, performance management has an evaluative and developmental dimension to it, thereby linking performance to rewards and providing a visible and measurable platform for the development of the individual. Effective management is vital when it comes to eliciting commitment from employees but it is no easy matter to develop a consistent and integrated set of management techniques. Reward systems used as a change mechanism can be effective when used to create a more pronounced performance oriented culture, and management policies that promote mutual goals and encompass reward and responsibility clearly lead to enhanced commitment from employees. However, are managers as truly committed to performance management as they are to issues related to their primary management specialism? Until performance management is seen as a primary function of management (and as the most challenging) it may remain sidelined by ‘silo mentalities’ and conflicting priorities.

Teams, however, are not the solution to every problem. At times, they can also be wasteful and disruptive, yet nevertheless they do out-perform individuals in almost every situation. However, in straight efficiency and cost terms, if a single person has enough information to complete a task, he or she can run rings around a team assigned to the same task if facing misunderstandings, conflicting cultures and personality clashes.

However, it is not financial acumen, winning strategies, knowledge, technology or individual brilliance that remains the ultimate competitive advantage. That accolade lies with the ability and capacity to learn - alongside outstanding teamwork; firstly because the continuation of learning is so powerful and secondly, because it is so uncommon. However, a team should not then see itself in a purely learning role and expect the manager to make every decision on the team's behalf. Achieving high performance is as much about belief in the purpose and commitment of the team to make collective decisions and act upon them; too many managers behave as though their selection as team leader is the only thing that matters. Power needs to be distributed throughout the team and the interests of all parties harmonised. Individual team members are the social capital of any organisation, capable of outstanding development and their participation in key decision-making should be valued. Within a ‘single leader’ discipline, the formal leader is in control and responsible for the direction and success of the group but this should not be so with team disciplines. When applied appropriately, only the team can succeed and only the team can fail. Individual accountability still matters, as does management accountability, but unless it is combined with mutual accountability and common levels of commitment to achieve collective results, individuals and teams cannot truly perform.

For all managers the development of the individual and the team is central to their objective of achieving results through other people. Building a team however is not a bolt-on process that can be applied when management has the time. It is a practical action-centred part of being a successful manager. As the group develops, the requirements placed on managers will vary as will the individual needs of group members. The ability to cope with change and its ever-increasing pace will define the ultimate performance capability of any team or individual.


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