We want our people to perform at their best. No doubt about that. Regardless of your personal intentions - whether you want to look good as a manager or you want to make sure your business stays healthy, we all want our people to do their best work.
When people start to underperform, when they start to let us down, our initial impulse is to take back some control. We might decrease some responsibilities, take back some of the project, or micro manage them just a little in order to make ourselves feel more comfortable. This is human nature. We have a goal that is being threatened, so we take back some responsibility.
But how does this impact the person doing the work?
If we look at the way we manage our top performers, versus the way we manage our underperformers, we'd see two completely different management approaches. And while this seems logical on the surface, it seems ludicrous when you dig a little further. I'll break down the logic:
You do ABC - and someone performs really well.
You have someone that isn't performing well - and you really want them to do well - so you do XYZ, instead of ABC.
In other words, we manage high performers like high performers. And we manage underachievers like underachievers - even though we want them to be high performers.
That doesn't sound so logical.
And a big component of this is a feeling of control. When we take control away from people, their ability to think critically, to problem solve and to control emotions and behaviours is compromised. As leaders, we tend to give our high performers a lot of control, and our underachievers less. This might end up being a self-fulfilling cycle.
In a study last year, a group of people were given a problem solving test and their scores were recorded. Each of the participants were then asked to describe a person in their lives that they thought was controlling. For 15 minutes, they were asked to describe the person, their actions and specific situations. After this interview, they were given another (equivalent) problem-solving test and each and every one of them performed about 30% worse.
Just the thought of someone controlling us decreases our ability to problem-solve by 30%!
But it turns out actual control isn't completely necessary. In many research experiments using computer tasks, just the feeling of control can reignite someone's performance. As with most things, perception is more important than reality.
So here are some key considerations for giving people the feeling of more control.
1) Be more organized to delegate
To delegate well and give people control, you have to be more organized than when you simply do it yourself. Give yourself and your direct reports longer lead times, that allow them to get their work done, get some feedback and then redo it it if necessary. When your direct report gets it wrong too close to the deadline, you have very little choice but to take it back and do it yourself
2) Delegate pieces of projects, rather than the whole thing
In doing this, you're bound to find things that people are proficient at. Remember, the sweet spot for development is at the juncture of challenge and support - too much of either is a poor recipe for learning. Give people pieces of the project that you are happy for them to control, rather than setting them up to fail by asking them to do the entire thing.
3) Create the perception of control
People always need to feel like they control something. There are always things that we have no control over - such as deadlines. But there are also things that we can make sure people do have control over - that might be the way in which the work gets done, the timeline for milestones or even the color of the binding for the final report. These small things can actually make a big difference to the way people perform.
People do their best work when they feel like we trust them and when they have a sense of control. Not when they are operating on fear or worried about making mistakes.
These simple things might just help your underachievers turn their game around.