Consulting guru Alan Weiss writes, in his February newsletter, that “We often believe that praise will help people solidify improvements and continue to grow, and critique will often correct poor performance and help people to do better.” That is often the underlying assumption in performance discussion, even the appraisal event. However, Weiss goes on to say “While these dynamics often work, they often don’t or, at least, have no bearing on the actual change in behavior.” If that is true, what do we need to do to actually improve someone’s performance?
Regression to the mean
According to Wikipedia regression to the mean is defined as:
“…the phenomenon that if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on its second measurement—and if it is extreme on its second measurement, it will tend to have been closer to the average on its first. To avoid making incorrect inferences, regression toward the mean must be considered when designing scientific experiments and interpreting data.”
Weiss says “it signifies that performance will usually adjust to the mean without any feedback at all.” This means that when we have an employee perform exceedingly well at something the next time that performance will drop back to where they had been performing before. This becomes a dilemma for managers when they praise an employee but that praise does not result in sustained performance. What do we need to do to improve that performance?
Just praising improved performance and expecting it to be sustained as a result of the performance is, for the most part, futile. It might work on rats but humans are a bit more complex. We have other things in our environments that reward our return to lower performance. Weiss suggests that when we see an employee perform very well we find out why they performed so well. The converse is also true when someone is performing very poorly we also need to understand why. Weiss says “Most critique, feedback, and training focus on symptoms, or blame, or standards, or what to do, or how to do it.” To him the critical part of performance is understanding the “why.” Find out from the employee what was different that time. What circumstances were altered? Who, if anybody, was involved?
Going through this kind of coaching analysis (aka management) will not only help you understand but it may also help the employee understand why their performance improved or degraded. However, it does have to happen in the moment to be effective. At year end the process is useless.