Anyone who has been in a leadership position will have faced the prospect of “managing the poor performer”. You know the ones… they never deliver those reports on time and when they do, it’s delivered below standard. Or they have just lost an important client for the organisation… and the list goes on.
But what if I suggest that leaders of all kinds are actually complicit in an employee’s lack of success? What if the reverse of the Pygmalion effect were to occur… that our employees live down to the low expectations that our leaders have of them?
Manzoni and Barsoux in the HBR, suggest that most leaders will reinforce an organisational dynamic that will set up our under-performers to fail. This dynamic starts as soon as a leader begins to worry that the employee’s performance is not up to standard. The following concept tells us why!
One of the primitive parts of your brain is called your Reticular Activating System (RAS). Have you noticed after buying something that you seem to see that brand everywhere? This is your RAS at work. Think of your RAS as the part of the brain which only allows information relevant to our own goals through. As a leader, one of your goals is to ensure the performance of your team. If we have poor performers that may stop you from reaching your goals, what are you going to focus on…. their poor performance!
To add to this dilemma, quantum physics may be weighing in on this effect. Professor R.C. Henry, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at John Hopkins University suggest that:
“As observers, we are personally involved with the creation of our own reality. Physicists are being forced to admit that the universe is a “mental” construction.”
What we see as leaders, we train ourselves to see more of. What we believe we will see, we will create more of, based on the laws of quantum physics…
So why is this relevant? It’s relevant because new physics, as mentioned above, is pointing to the fact that the observer shapes the reality they are experiencing. The way we think and perceive others, as leaders, could be responsible for the resulting behaviour of our employees. As leaders, we are creating more of the behaviours that we DON’T want – or in other words creating our own self-fulfilling prophecies!
What does this look like in our leadership behaviour?
There is a distinct difference in the way a leader treats their strong performers and their underperformers. Let me give you some examples;
- Leaders will ask the opinion of high-performing subordinates on elements such as policy, procedures and team decisions. The under performer will rarely be asked for input on such matters
- High performers will often be given interesting and challenging work. The underperformer is constantly given routine tasks or safe assignments
- In times of team conflict, the strong performer will be asked their opinion whereas the underperformer will need to impose their opinion or choose to not be heard at all
- The leader will treat a mistake from the high performer as an opportunity for them to grow, whereas the underperformer mistakes may be treated as additional evidence towards the bad attitude and limited capability
- Leaders often seek the company of high performers. The underperformers are on a need-to-see basis.
(adapted from Manzoni and Barsoux)
Anyone cringing yet? Yep, it’s a tough one. Give yourself a break though. Our brains are wired to protect us, and remember our RAS is designed to let in the information that support our goals.
What to do?
- Be aware of the possibility of the “Negative Pygmalion Effect”. Awareness is the first step in the behavioural change process.
- Seek feedback from trusted advisors around you. In Kouze and Posner’s “The Leadership Challenge”, the authors suggest that exemplary leaders regularly ask for feedback on how his/her actions affect people’s performance. Are you treating your high performers differently?
- Have a meeting with your employee to discuss three things:
- the performance of the employee,
- the role of the boss in supporting the employee, and
- the relationship between the employee and the leader. Is there any tension and how can this be reduced?
- Base all discussions on evidence rather than emotion. In this circumstance, it is useful to question, “is my employee really as bad as I thought he/she is, or this is my exhaustion and emotion?”
- Consider the cost benefit. Despite the best efforts, sometimes performance and relationships will not increase. However, the benefits of your investment will be seen by your team. They are less likely to feel dispensable if they make a mistake.
So are the links between physiology, quantum physics and psychology tenuous? Well, I’ve done enough academic research to know that this has more holes than a tennis racquet. But common sense suggests that the concept of seeking feedback and changing our leadership behaviour to potentially save our poorer performers is worth considering. Depending on which study you read the cost of staff turnover range from 50-150% of an individual’s annual salary.
If you believe you have tried it all, and the cost of keeping the employee outweighs the benefits, then have the courage to do something about it.
Before moving them on, it may be worth looking through the lens of physiology, quantum physics and psychology. The dollars saved by retaining staff and encouraging performance is significant… and there are no holes in that theory!