What do a yardstick and a mirror have in common?


One of the most important functions of a manager is performance management. This term sounds deceptively simple – performance management means managing the performance of others, getting people to perform at their best. There are countless methodologies, software, and tools available for supporting managers in this effort, but true performance management cannot be achieved by software alone. What happens after you set performance goals and measure progress toward them? What does a good manager do to address discrepancies where they exist? To answer these questions, it helps to have a framework through which to develop awareness and insights about what specific approaches might work best for yourself and your team.

At a conceptual level, managers manage others’ performance (and help others manager their own performance) by serving as a mirror and a yardstick. They reflect back to others where they are compared to where they ought to be, and they situate both points within the landscape of the team’s and organization’s broader goals. Once the gap between actual and ideal is measured, a manager needs to work with the individual to determine why that gap exists and provide supports to close it. There are three areas that need to be considered: motivation, alignment, and capacity.

  • Motivation is the mental-emotional drive to perform. It can be internal or external – a carrot or a stick that prods people to strive to reach a certain outcome. Individuals vary wildly in what is motivating to them, and the best managers are those who can read those differences and provide the right stimulus. Managers can provide external drivers (e.g., by providing recognition and rewards) or afford opportunities for people to draw on internal motivation (e.g., by showing them how what they do matters to others, creating a meaningful context, affording autonomy and growth experiences).
  • Alignment concerns whether effort is serving broader organizational aims (including vision, values, strategies, goals) as well as with team goals and individual performance and development goals. Doing the wrong thing very well is a performance problem. For example, consider a sales manager who is exceptionally talented at drumming up new business. However, his organization has made it a priority to focus on growing sales with existing customers because they believe it builds customer loyalty and retention and that repeat/add-on sales are more profitable in the long-term. This person may be motivated, working hard, and doing something well, but it isn’t the right thing and ultimately detracts from the organization’s overall performance.
  • Capacity is the ability to execute. This includes having the requisite skills, competencies, relationships, understanding, ability to focus, etc.. If there is a performance gap, is it due to a lack of skill that requires skill development or training? Is the person reaching burnout and in need encouragement to take some built-up vacation days? Do you need to link them up with a good contact in another department or set up a mentorship? What can you offer this person in order to expand their capacity to improve, whether it be expanding skills, energy, time, or their network?

Performance management involves clearly defining goals, situating those goals in the big picture, showing people how they are performing relative to those goals, determining the cause of performance gaps, and providing people the appropriate support to overcome those obstacles. While a good manager may effectively set goals and measure progress toward them, a truly great manager also has the skill to get insight into the root of the problem (is it a motivation, alignment, or capacity issue) and to read the individual’s style and preferences in order to choose an approach to close the gap that will resolve it while also building relationships and powering future performance.