Leadership: The Catch 22 of High Performance Management

The markets and shareholders of private organisations require high performance which provide results in the short term – consistently, every quarter.  This causes the leaders to develop performance management processes which will “ensure” all employees operate at a higher and higher level. The focus is on results.

The senior executives’ remuneration packages are based on strong financial performance. So even if the CEO and their team are ethical and not egocentric they understand where the focus has to be. But is this approach sustainable in the 21st Century?

The focus has to be on beating the KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) on a continual basis which results in a high probability of stress occurring throughout the organisation and that stress is likely to cause people to revert subconsciously to default “stone-age” behaviours which are commanding, selfish and uncaring. That is where the engagement starts to fall apart and drives the whole organisation towards using Pace-setting and Commanding styles of leadership.

These are dissonant styles according to Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee (The New Leader’s 2002)

What many leaders don’t realise is that this approach is not sustainable unless they nurture, develop and engage with all the people in the organisation and get them to OWN the desire to perform to a high level. That is the only way to stop stress turning into dis-stress.

More forward thinking leaders know this intellectually but most of them don’t know HOW to actually achieve it. It requires them to use Coaching, Affiliative and Democratic style of leadership, style that not many CEOs have experience or competence in.

This means the leaders in the organisation have to develop these new leadership styles – which requires they have to change themselves by developing new behaviours that become new habits.

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing themselves”

Leo Tolstoy, Russian novelist and social reformer (1828 – 1910)

So the way to support organisations is to help leaders be more aware of what happens in such situations and to arm them with knowledge and practical techniques that help them maintain or develop behaviours that will engage and motivate their people whilst not damaging performance.

The core components are:

  • Understanding we are in an ever-faster changing world and that living on this edge of chaos cannot be managed successfully by traditional leadership approaches.
  • Understanding emotional intelligence and learning how we get hijacked by our emotions into behaviours that are not conducive to performance (despite the deep desire to perform highly) – and more importantly how we have the power to overcome these hurdles.
  • Get an understanding of our preferred and most competent leadership styles and which other styles we might need to develop to be fully competent in our jobs. And then realise which new granular behaviours would enhance our performance in those leadership styles and obtain the support to develop and embed those behaviours.
  • Determine in detail the culture we want to create and from that which leadership styles we need to develop across the organisation to facilitate the development and maintenance of that desired culture.
  • Learn specifically to develop a relationship contract with our direct reports and other people so that everyone is absolutely clear as to their behavioural responsibility and accountability as well as performance metrics.
  • Bring our values to full consciousness so that we are sure we are always acting in the best interests of the organisation and its stakeholders, not just ourselves.
  • Learn how we can enhance our decision making by harnessing our intuition and instinct to create more insights and hence better solutions.

And the perceived Catch 22? Developing and embedding these new behaviours takes time to learn and practice but in a “performance management” environment there is no time to do anything other than the actions that directly and immediately create performance.

The reality of course is there is no alternative: we have to do both. Everyone (the leaders certainly, but also everybody else) taking a small about of time on a regular basis to identify, learn and practice new behaviours  is the most certain way to create a sustainable high performing organisation.

Note: A Catch-22 is a paradoxical situation in which an individual cannot or is incapable of avoiding a problem because of contradictory constraints or rules.  The term comes from the satirical and historical novel, Catch-22 written  by the American author Joseph Heller.

Joseph’s son Eric Heller writes “When Dad started Catch-22 in 1953, it was called Catch-18. Later, he and his young editor, Robert Gottlieb, changed the title because Leon Uris’s novel had usurped the number with Mila 18.   Read more in the Paris Review.

3 Responses to “Leadership: The Catch 22 of High Performance Management”

  1. 1 Richard Woollaston 22/01/2013 at 2:48 pm

    This is really quite fascinating for me in that it ties in to a couple of other aspects of human social behaviour in which I am interested. My graduate paper (many years ago) looked at the relationship between Piaget’s typology of development and sociopolitical behaviour in different regime types. In essence Piaget proposed three staged of development – egotistical (where the self is experienced as the source of behavioural motivation); peer group (where behaviour is aligned to that of the peer group rather than the self); and abstract principle (where behaviour is influenced by ideas and principles that lie beyond self- and peer group- motivated factors). The power of the peer group is evidenced in the article: “The markets and shareholders of private organisations require high performance which provide results in the short term – consistently, every quarter. This causes the leaders to develop performance management processes which will “ensure” all employees operate at a higher and higher level. The focus is on results.” Thus the leader needs to make an extra effort to incorporate more ‘principled’ thinking into his/her behaviour.

    The other source of interest is the concept of Systems Thinking advocated by John Seddon of Vanguard Consulting. He powerfully advocates the empowerment of individuals in organisations as a way of reducing what he calls ‘failure demand’ – the tendency of over-systematised organisations to generate more work because the systems can’t absorb variety. This parallels the ‘peer group’ discipline enforced by rigid systems and the ‘abstract principle’ behaviour encouraged by empowerment.

    This perhaps leads towards a conclusion that management should place focus not only on their own behaviours but also encouraging empowered behaviours in employees as part of their social duty?

  2. 2 Sebastian 22/01/2013 at 12:24 pm

    Excellent. It explains so much of what is happening in NHS health care at present, and many people know that something is wrong but find it hard to express. This gives an excellent narrative and explanation how we should envisage a cultural change to happen.

  3. 3 Janice Steed 08/10/2012 at 9:21 am

    Very clear, helpful and relevant!

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