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Dear Workforce How to Go Beyond a Pat on the Back?

September 7, 2011

Dear Tongue-Tied:

There are three types of performance conversations to which the "80/20 rule" applies.

The basic idea is this: 80 percent of employees are somewhere in the middle of performance. Ten percent of employees are awesome, demonstrated by consistently exceeding their goals. The remaining 10 percent of employees are at the bottom, reflected in a regular demonstration of mediocrity at its best.

Three types of performance conversation apply to each level. The first is "Coaching for Greatness," and it is used with employees who are significantly achieving goals. The second is "Managing for Outcomes," utilized for employees who are performing somewhat to fairly well but are definitely not lighting the world on fire. The third segment, "Working for Improvement," targets employees at the bottom of performance.

Coaching for Greatness: 10 percent of employees

It is true that supervisors should provide positive feedback when employees achieve their goals. This approach keeps employees motivated to continue to work hard, be engaged and have positive outcomes. I have seen this approach work time and time again in multiple industries, corporations and even the U.S. Marine Corps.

People respond in new and creative ways when they receive recognition and reward for a job well done. Employees in this segment are the achievers, and the approach supervisors could use is focused on Coaching for Greatness. The opportunity is in harnessing the productive energies of employees who are your star performers.

It is important to discover their motivations and tap into applying their high-quality skills in ways that will drive the organization forward. For instance, you might select your top 10 best sales reps and have them design the sales training. Others might want to be mentors. The key is to provide star performers with options that integrate their talents with the company's needs. By establishing buy-in and ownership, a win-win situation will be created, nurtured and deployed.

Managing for Outcomes: 80 percent of employees

The reality is that many employees are in this segment. They constitute the majority of people who are somewhat, sort of, kind of and maybe getting by enough to continue to have a job. Within this cohort, some have the potential to be star performers, while others do not.

Depending on the type of business you are in, you may or may not be able to keep everyone. In this recession, many people have lost their jobs. The reality is that you have to do what is best for your company and its mission.

To determine your star performers, the performance conversation should focus on understanding the barriers inhibiting an employee from taking it to the next level. By diagnosing the barriers, supervisors are better positioned to develop mutually beneficial solutions for the employee to maximize their job performance. If an employee has barriers removed and is still not reaching goals, then it is a question of external factors, internal factors, motivation, decision-making and/or behaviors.

The supervisor must embrace an investigative mind-set to uncover these areas and assist the employee toward consistently achieving their goals. As long as an employee asks questions, sincerely wants to improve and has had some success, it makes sense to continue to mentor and train them. Time will tell, but at least you are putting your best foot forward and giving the person every opportunity to be successful. Star performers do not always start as stars.

Working for Improvement: 10 percent of employees

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, was a big fan of terminating 10 percent of his managers on an annual basis. Welch believed it moved GE closer to its goals of being No. 1 or No. 2 in the markets it served. There is some value in Welch's approach.

Certainly, it is not helpful for poor performers to continue to be poor. But conversations with poor performers should be oriented around a performance-improvement plan that sets specific goals, with due dates and measurable outcomes. The performance-improvement plan is a last resort. If employees don't achieve the goals, they need to know the consequences. Depending on the supervisor and the situation, the consequence could be continuation of the plan, suspension or termination.

The other option is to assess the poor performers' strengths, weaknesses and personality. A person might not be a good fit for sales but might be an all-star performer in another area. Supervisors need to learn to be open, flexible, innovative and supportive.

SOURCE: Dana E. Jarvis, School of Leadership and Professional Advancement, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, March 27, 2009

LEARN MORE: Sometimes, tender-loving care is needed to bring out the best in employees.

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.