Stop abusing the word ‘Impact’ in performance discussions

Photo courtesy: Christian Faith

Photo courtesy: Christian Faith

How often have we heard a manager say, “You do good work, but I din’t see you bring impact?” A lot of performance management conversations ride on the back of ‘impact.’ While the smart (read crafty) employee uses it to steer the conversation for her/his benefit, it is the ultimate weapon that a manager uses to justify a promotion, increment, or an average rank to the guy s/he doesn’t like. Most of the ‘average blokes’ find it hard to defeat the impact argument during the performance review conversation. Most come out of the room grumbling without knowing why, while a few others even come out convinced though defeated. We grumble, we burn our blood, and we have endless conversations about why we deserved more but couldn’t get our fair share. We even grumble that the ‘smart-ass’ manipulator in the team, who has the IQ of a pocket calculator, has inched his way ahead by justifying his ‘impact.’

So what should the average bloke keep in mind the next time s/he hears about impact?

1. Too many impacts may bring the structure down. Physics has the answer to why any structure should not suffer too many impacts, big or small. Period. Running a business is not always about impact.

2. Nothing in this world is really an invention, but merely an improvement on somebody else’s work. The next time, when the pocket-calculator colleague boasts about her/his ‘life-altering idea’ it should not be too hard to prove that idea was merely borrowed.

3. Respect every individual’s uniqueness. There is no point for a manager to expect someone to share the same beliefs as himself. Employees who prove that they are perfectly in alignment with their manager’s beliefs have sold their souls and are now mere puppets. They seem to act and talk straight out of a script. The only fair thing to do is to make sure that every employee is respected and celebrated for her/his uniqueness.

4. I have the right to know where I really lag. Instead of hiding behind the shield of ‘impact’, it is alright to be forthcoming and make someone aware of her/his true weakness. A manager has a moral responsibility toward her/his team members, though it might even mean losing the employee in the near future. That’s what makes us different from army ants.

There may be others to this list, but these are my top ones.


Talent brand vs consumer brand

Many use the terms employer brand and talent brand interchangeably. It is inherently assumed that whatever the organisation wants to highlight about itself as an employer will be perceived likewise in the talent market. The reality remains far detached from perceptions. Social media has made it evident that perceptions of a workplace viewed from the rose-tinted glasses of an organisation’s senior management is different from actual perceptions that exist on the ground. Thus emerges a new management paradigm for an organisation- the talent brand.

It is important to note the differences between an organisation’s employer brand and talent brand. An organisation’s employer brand is a skilfully crafted message conveying how the organisation views itself as an employer. The employer brand typically includes positive messaging about its work culture, its commitment to employee welfare, and the benefits of working with the organisation. While the employer brand is an aspirational appeal to the market, a talent brand is the actual perception about an organisation from the point of view of its employees. While an employer brand can be idealistic and controllable, an organisation’s talent brand is grounded in facts and resides mostly outside the realms of direct organisational control. A preferred employer is one which is able to close the gap between the employer brand and the talent brand.

Employee as the consumer

From a marketing lens, branding is an exercise to enhance the reputation of a company’ products and services. As social media has increased the number of degrees of freedom for a consumer, the challenge of managing perceptions has steadily grown more complex. While social media continues to penetrate a wider base of consumers, a brand manager strives to convert challenges into opportunities. A brand no longer relies solely on the projection of a positive image but also depends on the management of perceptions. With growing number of complexities, organisations have started to realise that a branding strategy has to couple external messaging with perception management. The principles of branding for consumer brand, therefore, applies equally to the talent brand.
HR’s role in the organisation is consequently evolving into a brand and marketing role where the rules of the consumer market apply equally to the talent market. For an organisation’s HR, it is not difficult to predict that a Glassdoor rating will be as much an indicator of talent management effectiveness as hiring and attrition. This calls for a radical shift in the way HR views an employee – to that of a consumer.

Talent brand- a CEO’s agenda

Across the globe, growth continues to be the golden word for any leadership team. As tough economic conditions continue to prevail, leaders worry about how to sustain a profitable business. Business leaders argue that given these economic conditions, the only way to fuel growth is to get the right people on board and ensure that they are happy. When someone asks the question, ‘what is it about companies that continue to grow despite these tough conditions?’ CEOs unanimously agree that it is talent within these companies that propel growth and profitability. It would be fair to say that the only real engine of growth in such conditions is to have the right set of people on board.

Several compelling reasons exist as to why companies and HR need to redefine their focus on talent branding for sustenance in the future. Among them, the most important reason for growth is the need for innovation. The absence of innovation has seen several exceptional brands meet their demise in an age when the competitive landscape has become a pervasive threat. Several noteworthy brands have perished due to lack of innovation. Research in Motion and Kodak are classic examples of consumer brands which enjoyed high equity but succumbed very quickly to competitive pressures. While their competitors were sharpening their axe by building a strong base of innovators within the company, they failed to foresee the future by basking in the equity of their current consumer brand. Over time, newer and better products emerged in the consumer market and both the brands continue to shrink to this day. Both these industries, in fact, have seen the emergence of strong talent empires that are threatening to polarise the entire talent market in their respective segments globally.

Martin Seligman, an American psychologist’s seminal work on organisational psychology discussed the concept of positive psychology. Positive psychology is an organisation’s investment in happiness, human flourishing, exceptional wellbeing, energy and vitality, and meaningfulness and achievement. While most CEOs and talent heads talk about it, the real test of an organisation’s commitment to positive wellbeing is in the times of crisis. Are CEOs in Indian corporations really committed toward employee wellbeing? The leading management consulting firm McKinsey Corporation in a recent research study argues, “The vast majority of companies still gauge their performance using systems that measure internal financial results —systems based on metrics that don’t take sufficient notice of the real engines of wealth creation today: the knowledge, relationships, reputations, and other intangibles created by talented people and represented by investments in such activities as R&D, marketing, and training.”

Tough times reveal the real cracks in a company’s resource plans. Companies with strong talent brands are more prepared now for economic uncertainties of the future. Data from Fortune magazine’s top 100 best places to work companies in the last 10 years have consistently demonstrated a near 10 per cent difference in year-over-year growth than the market average despite these low-growth economic conditions. The renowned business author, Noelle Nelson, in his book ‘Make More Money by Making Your Employees Happy,’ quotes from the findings of a global employee survey which says that companies that effectively appreciate employee value enjoy a return on equity and assets more than triple that experienced firms enjoy. Is it possibly what differentiates an iconic brand from the rest?

Talent empires- the inevitability

As companies continue to face the consequence of economic corrections, the ability of an organisation to acquire and retain talent will be the single-most factor separating brands that exist and the ones that perish. Some progressive talent brands have already prepared their war strategy for the coming times. What makes some of the smartest talent across the globe flock to a Facebook, Pepsico, or Google brand? Is it their choice drive by the consumer brand or have these brands successfully created a strong perception as employers? Southwest Airlines is a typical example of a brand where employee live and breathe the brand. In the tough and competitive low-cost airline market, its talent brand is a strong driver of its product brand.

While companies brace themselves for the future, it will be only fair to say that a company which enjoys a strong talent brand will be able to attract talent from a larger global talent pool and make them stay longer. The linear correlation between growth and talent will never cease and thus, a company’s market share will be strongly linked to its talent market share. Such radical polarisation of preferences will likely lead to the creation of talent empires. While it is up for argument on whether the establishment of these talent empires is a step in the right direction for the global economy, one thing is certain— talent will be the bigger war field for business corporations compared to the consumer brand. At the centre of the war will be the CEO who will likely lead the aggression against its talent competitors, and will be a living proponent of the company’s employment values. Perhaps it would not be too farfetched to imagine the future CEO holding the talent brand and leading the aggression for talent market share.

Boston Bombings: Do you really care? Or are you merely paying lip service?

Organisational events can provide great insights to managers about how team members are engaged or disengaged

“Friends in Boston, be safe” read a status message on my Facebook newsfeed this morning. There was a downpour of status messages, twitter hash tags, and official statements released on social media in the last 24 hours expressing solidarity, and condemning the terrorist attacks in Boston. What strikes most to social media lurkers like me is the demographic distribution of people and entities who have posted solidarity messages on social media. A closer analysis of my newsfeeds after the Boston bombings reveals three distinct sets of social media citizens— the deeply concerned, the pretentious opportunist, and the openly unconcerned.

In many ways, this is how organisational employees behave whenever an organisational event occurs. Many react favourably or disprove of an organisational event such as a merger announcement, compensation changes, or senior leadership movements.  Needless to say, the perceptions about an individual are greatly driven by the reactions and behaviours that s/he projects to the world either intentionally or unintentionally. Here are the characteristics of the three organisational stereotypes and the consequent perceptions that the individual portrays. While not definitive measure, these behaviours may provide some predictive indicators about an employee’s commitment and engagement within an organisation.

Behavioural scientists recommend that managers should look out for some suggestive indicators in an employee’s behaviours whenever any disruptive organisational event happens.

The deeply concerned

The deeply concerned are the people who are truly and deeply affected by an organisational event either because it directly affects their everyday existence or out of genuine empathy toward the development.  On social media, some of the most emphatic messages on social media post the Boston bombings were from people who had friends or relatives, or who were emotionally affected by the loss of life.

While an individual may raise a vocal objection or word out eloquent praises about an organisational event, it would be wrong for a manager to brand an individual disengaged or engaged based on that.  The deeply concerned is one who understands and recognises the impact of the event in his everyday life and is prepared to take charge of how to deal with it. Rather than brand the deeply concerned as engaged or disengaged, it is important for the manager to identify if there are any concern areas and solicit the individual’s inputs to address them. The deeply concerned are perhaps the best resources to see an organisational change through to its logical and successful completion.

The pretentious opportunist

The pretentious opportunist is one who does not get affected by an event, but tries to portray an image of grave concern to friends and colleagues.  More often than not, it is likely that the pretentious opportunist is deeply disengaged but is trying to mask it with an external image that s/he is trying to portray.  The pretentious opportunist may also show concerned optimism/pessimism to portray an image of being “cool, likeable, and popular.”  A manager has to watch out for the pretentious opportunist as it is difficult to understand how the individual affects the morale of others in the team.

The unconcerned

A manager might easily misunderstand the unconcerned as the disengaged. The unconcerned simply can be an individual who has not been affected directly or indirectly by an event, and hence has chosen to maintain honest silence over insincere expression.  In an attempt to avoid portrayal as an unconcerned citizen, a few unconcerned ones might even have the tendency to migrate to the territory of the pretentious opportunist.  It is, therefore, important for the manager to avoid subconsciously labelling the unconcerned as disengaged.

While they may trigger varied reactions, a disruptive organisational event presents managers with the opportunity to truly understand the level of engagement in their teams.

So, are you a DRIFTer?

Creating the perfect output every single time in the highly complicated job environment may not be as impossible as it sounds

“Do it right the first time” or DRIFT is a concept that got introduced into the business lexicon from the manufacturing industry in the 1980s.  The concept refers to setting up processes and systems in such a way that the distribution receives goods from production just once but without errors.

Psychologists and visionaries have closely looked at the theory to understand ways by which an individual can implement this to their daily work. John Wooden a Hall of Fame basketball player and coach famously quoted, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?”

DRIFT can potentially reduce the cost of production by eliminating the need for carrying excessive inventory or the need to manage customer returns. The concept is simple—whatever comes into production has zero probability of error. In other words, whatever, goes out of the assembly line is done right the first time.

Time and motion experiments reveal that the cumulative time required for executing projects by applying DRIFT principles are much lower compared to conventional techniques.  It is not hard to imagine how life becomes easier for someone who develops the aptitude to do things right at the first go. A professional who churns around the perfect output time and again enjoys greater confidence and trust among managers and colleagues. He or she is better able to manage time and is more engaged with his or her work.

The cost of rework includes not just additional time and effort but also the risk of losing brand equity.  So how does one apply the principle of DRIFT to their daily work? Experts recommend that an individual needs to shed some conventional mind-sets in order to become a DRIFTer.

I do not have time to think about it

As an intensive and highly technical quality control exercise, DRIFT needs significant investment of time and effort to put together systems, processes, and controls to ensure zero error output at the first go.  Individuals and organizations often fail to see that though it involves investing time initially, the returns are high and long-lasting.  The starting point of becoming a DRIFTer is by shedding the barrier of reluctance.

DRIFT does not apply to my job

While a manufacturing concept, the concepts of DRIFT can be applied to every job, every role, and every industry. Research indicates that the most common uses of DRIFT principles outside the manufacturing industry are among professionals in the software, home improvement, and auto repair industry.  There is no evidence to suggest that the concept does not apply to other industries.

I need to employ a consultant

No one knows your job or how you work better than you! It is extremely important for a professional to break down his job into activities and map them to his or her potential failure points.  While the job activity breakdown for two professionals in the same role might look fairly similar, the failure points are really dependant on the individual’s work strengths and weaknesses and therefore unique.

It CAN be done right the first time

No self-improvement plan can work out perfectly the first time, and neither will DRIFT. Unless one works in an assembly line with a fixed set of activities and output expectations, one needs to be persistent with his efforts to find out better ways of doing things right.

The globally renowned author and management thinker Atul Gawande argues that every professional can develop the capability to do things with “no-error” efficiency. Gawande recommends a simple tactical starting point in one’s efforts to become DRIFT compliant— a checklist!

The LOL manager

Effective team management need not always be serious business. Humor, used appropriately, can do wonders for driving team engagement.

Humor, perhaps, is one of the most effective and yet under-appreciated tactics of communication. While most managers continue to investigate ways of how to build more engaged teams, they view (if not overlook) humor as a trifling appendage to a large and complicated engagement model. In the absence of factual analysis and survey data, there are no real studies that establish the impact of humor on team engagement. Many engagement experts, however, reveal that teams managed by a manager with a funny bone are typically more engaged and productive.

Studies reveal that humor has two key attributes that can help a manager drive engagement and productivity within the team― reduce stress and develop an emotional connect. In the stress-loaded working environment that characterize today’s job conditions, experts recommend that an employees need to de-stress at regular intervals to avoid burnouts. Corporate health consulting firm, Helpguide, recommends humor as an essential component of manager training to deal with workplace stress.

Present day working conditions are also characterized by the shift from an industrialized ecosystem to a knowledge-based ecosystem. In a knowledge-based ecosystem, collaboration has become the key to efficient execution, thereby making effective communication critical for success. Communication experts have proven that the most effective communications are characterized by the ability to trigger an emotional connect with the recipient. Humor is a proven tactic that good communicators employ to build an emotional connect with their audience. Social media expert, Mark Ivey, remarks, “Some of the most popular brands on social media platforms are ones that have effectively created messages that are funny or offbeat. After all, who can resist a clever or a funny tweet or conversation starter?”

Anirban Roy who works as a senior planner in one of the largest global advertising firms reveals that stressful situations and long working hours are common aspects of his everyday job. He admits that humor aids in maintaining high spirits and team morale on difficult days. As Anirban puts it, “My current manager has a brilliant sense of humor: I have nick named him, the laughing buddha. He just keeps at it even when the going gets tough. It tells the team that despite all the deadlines and deathbeds in the workplace, there is room for humor and that work is never boring.”

Many managers, however, feel that being funny at the workplace comes at the cost of credibility and thus choose to avoid it. In the absence of gold standards, it is difficult to strike the fine balance between humor and credence. It is easy for team members to perceive a manager as less credible if s/he uses humor inappropriately. Apurva Chiranewala, who works in the strategy team of an online commerce firm says, “I think a witty and light hearted manager is always good to work with provided he/she uses his/her wit at appropriate times.” Many managers curb their light-heartedness at the workplace to maintain their professional image as a firm and credible leader. Deepten Chatterjee, Project Manager in an infrastructure advisory firm reveals, “a lot of senior level managers would perhaps prefer not to open up or show their lighter side to their teams in a formal, office-like environment (maybe there’s a feeling that if your juniors see you joking too much, they might end up not respecting you). However, such managers are also seen to be openly displaying their fun side in informal parties, and where there’s lesser risk of being perceived as being an over-the-top comedian.”

It is no secret that humor is serious business. Here is my take on when and how a manager can start off a laugh riot.

The policy paralysis

Most organizational employees are unaware of HR policies and where they’re housed.

A June 2012 survey by market research firm Business Environment suggests that almost half of organizational employees are not aware of their organizational HR policy. In the frenzy of work priorities, career aspirations, and business targets, organizational employees overlook the importance of HR policy; many even remain oblivious to the existence of an organizational HR policy. While most believe that the organizational HR policy is limited to the clauses of employment, the fact remains that an HR policy is a comprehensive manual that describes how organizational values translate into conduct and behavior during employment. It is a set of guidelines that details how an employee is expected to operate on a day to day basis and what are the non-negotiable guardrails of conduct and discipline.

While most have a formal HR policy, organizations across size and industry voice a common concern― employees violate the codes of the policy every day, oftentimes unaware of its existence and the potential repercussions of violation. Experts reason that there are many factors behind why employees are unaware of their organizational HR policy. Organizations have started realizing that lack of information about policy can end up in situations that are embarrassing and costly. A couple of the most common clauses of HR policy that employees breach are as follows.

Dress-code clause: Most employees feel that it is acceptable to violate the dress code policy of the organization every once in a while. Dress code violation is arguably the most commonly violated clause of an organizational HR policy. Employees feel that violating the dress code is acceptable during days when there are no client visits, on Fridays, and during days when management presence is thin. It is also common to hear that team members felt that it is acceptable to violate the dress code because they’ve seen a manager do it. While it may not constitute an agenda for a firm wide CEO address, it is important for HR to proactively and periodically reiterate the dress code policy of the organization to all employees through e-mail campaigns, portal messaging, and one-on-one interactions with managers.

Personal communication clause: Most employees are oblivious about what constitutes the acceptable domains of personal communication with office colleagues. It is difficult for an HR policy to capture all the aspects of acceptable communication. Most of the clauses on personal communication are really broad guidelines that are open to interpretation. While the organization should not get into hard monitoring measures to track each and every form of personal communication between colleagues, it needs to outline the norms of acceptable communication as definitively as possible.

While there can be many reasons why employees do not feel the necessity to educate themselves on HR policy, the most common causes are as follows.

Lack of training: In most organizations, training on HR policy is not mandatory. Most onboarding conversations are work-based; and broad organizational training is focused on career paths, performance management, and organizational values. It is necessary for an organization to ensure that all new hires are adequately briefed on the HR policy, including what constitute the broad clauses, what forms the organizational philosophy, and where the policy is housed (employee handbook, company portal etc.).

No recall incentive: In the scheme of work priorities, HR policy features among the employment mandates with the least recall value. An HR policy is typically referred to during situations of conflicts or disagreements. Most organizational employees believe that there is no real incentive attached to visiting and reading through the HR policy. Another key reason behind the lack of drive stems from the prevalent ‘democratization’ mindset among most organizational employees, “Everybody’s business is nobody’s business.” There are many ways by which HR can drive employees to educate themselves on HR policy. Quizzes and certification are known to be common ways by which this education can be incentivized.

An organization can potentially lose credibility and face embarrassing and costly litigation in the absence of an HR policy. Good and dynamic policy administration entails openness toward regular policy update, clear communication, and aspiration to create clauses that are definitive and exhaustive.

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The Hangman Style

Cut the final conversation to the bare essentials; it reduces the pain of termination.

Scene from the Oscar-winning flick, Moneyball. Administrator of the basketball team, Peter Brand is apprehensive; he is worried about how the person he is about to fire will react to “the news.” Brand calls the player in his office and coughs out a singular statement, “I’ve gotta let you go; Jack’s office will handle the paperwork.” As Brand walks out of the office he is reminded of what his mentor Billy told him minutes before― “Would you rather have one shot in the head than five in the chest and bleed to death?”

Most HR professionals feel that firing someone is the hardest part of the job. According to a June 2012 article published by Harvard Business Review, most managers let anxiety drive the process of firing rather than intellect. Many others believe in farming the dirty work to an HR associate. While HR managers continue to look for inventive ways to conduct the final conversation, experts believe that long oratories and delegation only aggravate the pain and intensity of departure for an employee.

Breaking the news of firing someone is an awkward conversation, which involves telling a person why his performance was below par or why his role has become redundant for the organization.  Oftentimes, these conversations can take an ugly turn, and spark a debate filled with arguments and disagreements. Most believe that it is better to prepare a targeted employee for the final day across a period of time to reduce the impact of shock. A termination can elicit unfavorable emotional reactions, such as feelings of rejection, depression, and drop in confidence in an employee. If managed poorly, a termination conversation can also lead to angry reactions that can have long-term repercussions for others in the team. In this age of social media, it has become even more important for organizations to be sensitive to termination conversations, as an individual’s personal and professional network has become independent of location and time. While many believe that subtle messaging about expected termination over a period of time acts as a buildup to the final conversation, research suggests that it is human predisposition for employees to shy away from expecting the worst. Most experts, therefore, suggest that the only real gesture of empathy that HR can demonstrate is by making the conversation direct and impassive. In many ways, therefore, the role of the HR manager during a termination is like that of a hangman. Just like a hangman, HR’s job is to pull the lever quickly and dispassionately to reduce the pain and anxiety of anticipation.

Here is a checklist of 10 things that an HR manager can do to make a termination less painful for an employee.

  1. Maintain clear and precise communication on the reason for termination
  2. Provide space for the terminated employee to put forward his point of view
  3. Avoid emotional reactions to the employee’s viewpoints
  4. Be prepared with the most expected answers
  5. Have all the paperwork ready before the conversation
  6. Communicate what the organization will communicate to the other employees about the departure
  7. Insist on having a face-to-face conversation
  8. Do not end the meeting on a low note
  9. Thank the employee for his contributions
  10. And of course, keep the conversation to the bare essentials