The uncomfortable truth about leading performance

Reading time: 5 minutes

If you’re a leader, you’re a leader of people. If you’re a leader of people, you’re looking to get the best possible performance from them. Therefore, an important element of leadership is to focus the best attention and energy of your people onto doing the things they need to do to get the results you want.

As leaders of performance there are tensions we need to work with. In doing so we’re looking to find the best possible balance point.

Over the years I’ve seen examples of the good, bad and ugly. And I’ve noticed 7 interrelated and overlapping truths that represent some of the uncomfortable truth of leading performance:

1. Being a director doesn’t mean being directive.

Just because you’re called a director, that doesn’t mean you can simply be directive. Some leaders seem to think that their title gives them the right to tell people what to do and how to do it. That’s okay if you don’t mind slowly squeezing the motivation out of the people you lead. When someone consistently tells you what to do, how do you feel? Simply, if you want to get the best performance out of people, be less directive. Instead set direction.

2. Expert leader or leader of experts?

The best leaders seem to view their role as being the leader of experts, not the expert leader. Your job is to select your team and lead them in a way that best gets the job done through the people. If you like having a long queue of people waiting for you to answer their questions, then be an expert leader. If not, change YOUR behaviour as the leader. Seek to make the most of and develop the expertise of the people around you.

3. You can be challenging AND caring.

If you challenge without being seen to care, you’ll get a particular response; that you might not like. If you care without being challenging, then you’re not leading performance, you’re running a care in the community programme. And that’s fine… if you’re running a care in the community programme. Knowing how to care and how to challenge so you get the best out of the unique people in your team is your challenge. Do you care enough to get the balance right?

4. Constructive commitment to dissatisfaction

Everyone’s job is to critique the way we do things and try to make things better. We can always do better. And that also means you, the leader. No, not that your job is to critique others; your job is also to be critiqued – by yourself and by others. Lead by being humble. None of us are perfect. Pretending to be perfect is just complete bollocks. None of us are. None of us can be. So let’s not expect it. Of anyone. Including ourselves. Let people know what you’re working on to improve. Seek feedback about what you can do to better lead your people. If you don’t, then when you ask people to share their development or improvement plans, simply expect them to follow your lead. 

5. Can you handle the truth?

The truth really matters. Really. Matters. Armed with the truth you’ve got a chance of making good decisions based on accurate judgment. Without it you’re groping around in the dark – which is fun when you luckily grab hold of the right thing, but not when you don’t! If you do ANYTHING, and I mean anything, that might lead to people…

  • Fearing sharing bad news;
  • Keeping problems to themselves until they’ve come up with solutions;
  • Brushing issues and problems under the carpet because they fear blame or an angry response (or being fired);
  • Coming to conversations looking to justify the best possible rating from you because your rating of them is attached to their reward.

…then simply expect people to keep the truth from you until it becomes a huge great humungous problem and can’t be missed. If you’re getting nasty surprises that is, in both senses, your problem. You’ve got it and maybe you’re helping to create it. What are you doing to change that?

6. Culture spreads.

If you want to grow a business with a robust culture, then recruit and promote people who represent and can shape the culture you want – not just the ones with the most technical expertise in their role. Yep, we know that cultural and values based stuff is difficult to evidence and be objective about – but sometimes this so-called soft stuff really is the hard stuff to do. And it’s the stuff that matters most. As we work with leaders in growing businesses, the choice that seems to slow down that growth is they put task and technical skill (easy to measure) ahead of values and behaviours (difficult to measure). Culture is the way things get done. The people who shape the way things get done do it through their beliefs, their attitudes, their behaviours, their values, the things that matter to them. Value these things equally (or even slightly ahead of) technical skills, and you’ll get the culture you deserve. And if you don’t? You’ll get the culture you deserve.

7. Control means letting go of control.

Individual control is a myth. Collective control is a possibility. As leaders, if we give too much control away, before people are ready, chaos can ensue. If we don’t give away enough control (more often the case), people can end up feeling undervalued and frustrated. So, as leaders of performance, we’re looking for people who “get it” (both what they need to do and how they need to do it) and who can develop the capability (with support, training, coaching, advice) to do the things they need to do. Then they’re ready and you can work together to create the maximum collective sense of control. If you tend to keep hold of too much control as a leader, yes, you might be okay in the short term, but you’ll be out of control of some different things in the medium to long term (good people leaving, morale taking a bit of a nosedive, results starting to suffer, your own career slowing down). How much autonomy you give to people is a choice. Are you being a control freak or creating the maximum collective sense of control?

None of these things is easy as a leader and there are no simple answers. There are leadership choices and consequences. There are tensions all over the place and you need to find the balance that works for you, in your context, with your team. But please be mindful that sometimes the optimum path is the one that makes you, as the leader, the most uncomfortable. But that might just be the thing you need to do to get you to the results you want.

I hope you enjoyed this thought piece and for more great stuff on Leadership just click here.