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By Josh Hayman, associate, Legitimate Leadership.

Some time ago I was facilitating a workshop for middle managers on the topic of enabling employee contribution. As part of the session I posed the question: “What would your employees be doing if they were exhibiting excellence in the role?” The group had no difficulty in putting together a comprehensive list of behaviours and qualities that, for them, would indicate a person achieving excellence in a role.

They had, without any difficulty, given me their role-based criteria for excellence. In doing this exercise it was clear that the group, individually and collectively, had a very clear picture in their heads of what this thing called excellence looks like.

I then posed the question: “How many of you have had a conversation with your staff in which you have set these expectations out?” From a group of 20, only five participants put up their hands. I followed this up with a final question: “How many of you have a staff member who is currently fulfilling these expectations?” Only two people put up their hands.

I have since had the opportunity to pose this question to four more groups of similar size, with similar results. I believe that managers are missing a crucial opportunity to enable their staff to strive for excellence in their jobs. The Legitimate Leadership model holds that a key enabler of employee contribution is ensuring standards and expectations are clear to employees. I have come across two problems that get in the way of doing this well.

  1. EXCELLENCE IS DESCRIBED AS A RESULT, INSTEAD OF BEING SPECIFIC ABOUT WHAT THE EMPLOYEE SHOULD CONTRIBUTE TOWARD THAT RESULT. Expectations are often specified in performance agreements as results to be achieved, such as % productivity, sales volumes, order fill rates and so on. Over-achievement of results is always a product of things employees do consistently well. We don’t articulate these things that employees should do frequently enough, or clearly enough.
  2. EXCELLENCE IS REDUCED TO A PERFORMANCE RATING DESCRIPTION. The problem with this approach is that it does not actually tell the average employee what they need to do to be seen to be achieving excellence. The description on a rating scale (1-5) doesn’t tell you anything. “Exceeds expectations” is meaningless unless the manager is descriptively specific about what “Exceeds Expectations” actually looks like at the level of behaviour. Further, I find performance agreements are often geared toward specifying the minimum standard, but don’t talk enough about how to exceed it.

IF EMPLOYEES DON’T HAVE A CLEAR PICTURE OF WHAT EXCELLENCE LOOKS LIKE, ACHIEVEMENT OF IT WILL BE ACCIDENTAL.

The average employee absolutely cannot strive for excellence if they don’t have a crystal clear picture of what it looks like. There is no doubt in my mind that most managers have this picture clear in their own heads. What they fail to do is to place that same picture in the heads of their employees.

The fix is simple – regular conversations with your employees about what your picture of excellence looks like, and what help and type of support they require from you in order to strive for it.