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What is Performance?

What is Performance?

Maybe this sounds a silly question, but it’s not. We live in a business society dominated by demands for ever greater performance. Yet until we’re clear what performance is, focusing on it will produce only confusion and frustration.

“Simple,” some people say. “Performance is getting the job done. Producing the result that you aimed at. Nothing else matters. There are no prizes for coming second.”

Of course, there are such prizes, but we’ll let that pass. It’s still worth thinking carefully about the prevalent idea that only delivering results counts as acceptable performance. If you don’t reach the objectives, may be you haven’t performed well enough.

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This is a seductive way of thinking. It sounds tough and practical. After all, if you don’t achieve what you want, what have you done? And in today’s ultra-macho business culture, sounding tough is important, even if the reality is rather different.

Looking a little closer, however, this approach to performance is simplistic and bound to cause trouble. No one can ensure a favorable outcome from their efforts. There are too many chance events to intervene between what someone does and what happens as a result. As the Scottish poet Robert Burns remarked more than two centuries ago: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” That’s Scots for “often go awry.” The future is full of unexpected events. Near impossible chances happen all the time. You do the best you can, then something unpredictable happens to frustrate your efforts. Are you responsible for this? Or for other people who mess up, or fail to deliver on their promises? Or the weather? The gyrations of the stock market? Wars and terrorist attacks?

Obviously not. So treating performance as unsatisfactory based on the outcome alone is neither reasonable nor fair. Management by objectives may be a useful way to focus effort towards a needed result, but appraisal by results is a poor strategy. There are too many variable left unaccounted for; too many areas that have major impacts on results ignored.

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It doesn’t work well in the rest of life either. If you set your heart on a particular outcome, and can find no satisfaction in anything else, you’re taking a notable gamble. Try as you may, the result can still be negative.

Responsibility versus Control

People constantly confuse responsibility with control. You may accept responsibility for running some part of a business, but that doesn’t mean that you can control exactly what happens in it. You can try to make things turn out as you want. You can work hard and use your best efforts. But you cannot control the outcome, whatever you do. Those who must work through others soon learn that they cannot control people, however draconian their leadership style. You can influence, attempt to persuade or motivate, but never control absolutely. Nor can you control external events. That’s the reality. Again, you can work, plan, strive, hope and worry, but you cannot control the result, whatever you do.

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To be responsible for something is to take on an obligation to do your very best to make that thing happen. It cannot be more. To pretend that failure is always down to the individuals responsible—that they should have controlled events as you wanted—is just macho nonsense. Incompetence may be punishable, but the inability to control the world is not.

Results affect us, even though they’re outside our control, but they’re no basis for judging performance—or for setting your life’s purpose. Far better to focus on the actions involved in seeking that result. They are within your control. You have to take the credit or the blame for what you do. So you might as well take the satisfaction available from doing something well, even if the eventual result was not what you wanted.

Forget judging people by results. Don’t base judgments of performance on something outside that person’s control. Judge by actions and inputs. Everyone is fully responsible for their actions. A failure that came about by chance after much purposeful hard work clearly shows higher performance than a chance success for someone who made little effort. Finding satisfaction and purpose in the action itself is far better than fixating on an outcome that lies mostly in the hands of chance. If doing something well increases the odds on success, that’s a pleasant bonus.

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Still not convinced? Winning is rarely as important as we assume, but if winning is all that counts, as in war, remember Napoleon. When someone asked him what kind of people he looked for to be generals, he replied: “Lucky ones.”

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization

    , is now available at all good bookstores.

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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