Tommy Weir: how performance metamorphosis can be gradually induced in the workplace

Bringing about a change in attitude is not something that can be achieved right away. Rather it is a gradual process.

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If only there were a switch, like a light switch, that you could flick and immediately your company’s performance would get better. But there is not. Instead of being an instantaneous action, performance improvement is a process, a metamorphosis.

Like the creation of a butterfly coming from the metamorphosis of a caterpillar, performance improvement is an evolutionary process. It is not an instantaneous act, although many companies treat it as such.

The magic switch of performance is presumed to be the setting of targets. In reality by themselves they are just an illusion. There is no doubt that targets are important, but without performance behaviour and actions, they will idly rest in the performance management system and have no real impact.

Over coffee with the director general of a government agency, he explained how he transformed a “typical” government function into a performance machine. The process he went through was like the caterpillar creating the golden colour pupa where it underwent a remarkable transformation, in this instance into a high-performing organisation.

After being appointed director general, he was shocked what he found on day one – this agency was dirty and undisciplined. Focus number one of the performance metamorphosis was to clean up the appearance and build the performance behaviour. Wanting to know the details, I asked him: “How did you do this? Around the world government organisations are rarely, if ever, known for their performance.”

This director general said it was not that hard to do, but it took a whole lot of effort on his part. Here is how he went about the transformation – the performance improvement:

The first thing he did was to show up early and walk the halls. This simple but symbolic act showed the employees he was disciplined and serious about their performance and that of the agency. Almost immediately, word began to spread among the employees that the new boss was serious. Having an impact, but not a complete one, he came up the clever idea to welcome all of the employees each morning.

He got in early, very early, so he could be at the employee entrance before anyone arrived for the day. He was there when they punched in for their duty. Imagine the surprise on the latecomers’ faces when they walked up and saw him standing there. Within days, the simple behaviour of being on time started changing. Basic discipline is the bedrock for building performance behaviour.

His hands-on approach to shape the behaviour was not limited to the morning times. He walked the halls through the day, joining in the conversations when employees huddled in a colleague’s office or the passageways. He gently asked them: “What issues are you discussing? I want to help.” He knew what was really happening – they were loitering. Not wanting to be accusatory, he chose to refocus their attention to why they were at work, and that of course will be to work.

When he started out, he did not focus on results; rather the emphasis was the behaviour that would get the results. He changed the culture by shaping a performance behaviour.

Once the behaviour was in place, he gradually started introducing goals and objectives – the results. This was followed by the development and improvement of employees’ performance actions. All the while he never ceased monitoring, he kept and continues to monitor the behaviour and culture, not just the results. This is one of the key points of leadership success – to monitor the action that gets the results, not just the results.

Performance improvement is a process; you could call it performance metamorphosis, as there are stages that must be in place. Too often, we skip past the hard work that takes real guts, like what the director general did in building the performance behaviour. It is much easier to sit in a boardroom and approve key performance indicators (KPI). While it is easier, it has a limited impact on improving performance.

To make a performance metamorphosis you need to think in three phases: performance behaviour, performance results and performance actions.

Tommy Weir is a leadership adviser, the author of 10 Tips for Leading in the Middle East and other leadership writings and the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center