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Like Santa, you need ways to know who is truly good

‘Tis the season — yep, Halloween (giving to everyone who asks) and Thanksgiving (giving thanks with family) are behind us, and looming ahead is the joyous season that has Santa everywhere stealing the show.

But what about this question? “Who has been a good boy or girl?” Doesn’t Santa ask that question of each child sitting on his lap?

Do you have a boss? Does your boss have a boss? Does anyone not have a boss? Even the owner of the marina or the manufacturing plant where you may work does, in fact, have a boss — someone to report to — maybe the bank, a major customer or just a spouse. CEOs of the larger publicly held companies have a board of directors and shareholders to report to.

Shareholders have become accustomed to an increasing profit stream. Directors seem to be pressing more and more for increased profits, even if the market has not improved in that sector. And now there are activist directors who seek to get involved in operations issues. With the CEO/president feeling such increased pressure, how does that person hold other managers accountable? And how do the managers hold supervisors and operatives accountable (a current buzzword in politics, as well as business)?

The big question in business, however, is this: How would managerial folks define good?

Some managers will, in fact, be doing performance appraisals next month, and that is their question when looking for signs of performance that range from less than good to outstanding. There seem to be several things to consider in defining good, even as Santa does.

Consider each of these 10 focal points for you to get the “goodest” of the good.

  • Search and select. During the post-recession period many firms have cut costs by not actively recruiting new staff, limiting their hiring to those who have applied, and this rarely yields the best of the available market players. Now that more jobs seem to be opening, some businesses are finding they are losing quality employees to firms that are actively searching to fill slots.

Today investing in more active human resources initiatives may yield rewards. Selection from an array of candidates allows a firm to compare strengths and find the ones that will fit best into its culture.

  • Preach the culture. Visit any competitor and you will agree that the culture of your organization feels different from that of the other company. Make sure the new hires understand well “how we do things around here.” Is it desirable to obey policies, regulations and rules, or does the company culture reward those who are willing to skirt the policies and take alternative paths — and find success (recognition and profits for the firm)? What is acceptable behavior on and off the job? Perhaps the dress code even varies.
  • Share what it is that counts here. What are the expectations of sales or products produced or new contacts generated or packages filled and shipped? If a staff member is to be good, how will he/she know and how will you know? What is the staff member to do? Even if there is an up-to-date job description, is that what you really expect today? Do you not owe to it each employee to explain what good means?
  • How is “this that counts” measured? You do measure, don’t you? Oh, you can just tell whether the staff member is doing “good?” What is it that tells you that? Is it like that good boy or girl? Have they been extra-nice to you and done all the chores since Thanksgiving? Yes, that is the “halo effect” and boys and girls learn this strategy even prior to being employed. Many of these youngsters grow up to be excellent at convincing managers that they are good; however, there may be no observable data to prove that level of performance.

And the worst thing about this situation is that higher-level managers do not challenge the original performance assessment. So what should be measured? Well, what measures would prove that the job holder has been successful at pleasing customers? Generating new clients? Decreased the absentee rate? Reduced use of sick days? Increased production from a given machine?

What do you want to improve? Productivity increases when we measure the productivity, although the industrial engineer’s clipboard may not be the major prop. You may wish to ask each staff member what they think should be measured. You may be surprised by what they believe to be important and how it differs from your idea.

  • Who is the coach? Consider the high school football coach who greets a whole new class of student athletes each fall, many of whom did not play in middle school. Imagine all that needs to be taught. The coach is a teacher who usually has great patience, although it may not seem that way to the ill-prepared player.

Is not the same situation present in the workplace? Someone needs to help the new (or deficient) employee do what is needed in an efficient manner. Maybe the term trainer would fit equally well. What is to be done and how best to do it to fit the needs of the organization? Step up, coach, and help us here.

  • Give feedback. It is the responsibility of each employee to do what should be done and more. That is their job, after all. Some managers still take the position that feedback usually is only necessary when a staff member needs to be redirected or has been off-track. Some of these managers appear to look only for errors or bad performance. However, most have moved beyond this behavior and do, in fact, see good performance. Yet often there is still a reluctance to express satisfaction, even excitement, when a staff member does what is good or more. Feedback does guide future behavior; learn to give it often and watch performance improve. “How am I doing, boss?”
  • Role of the mentor? New as well as experienced employees often need encouragement. Cutting-edge senior managers recognize that the use of mentors who will be both observers and listening posts can be valuable. A mentor is someone who is looked up to and who can be approached for guidance in a wide array of actions. The process of mentoring may merely be a weekly or monthly lunch or coffee break together where either person can open any issues.

Mentors may be in the same department or elsewhere. Mentors can have the effect of keeping staff members on track and generating a positive attitude about improving performance. We all need someone to talk to about work or work-impacting issues at times. Yes, mentors will need some training, but they are not to be shrinks.

  • Differentiating the good from the not so good: Few managers believe they have poor or less-productive staff members. That, of course, would make the manager appear less diligent. If each manager were using agreed-upon data points, it would be far easier to differentiate between the good and the not-so-good performance. If the CEO were to present non-data-based information to board members, growing numbers of outspoken directors would question the future status of the CEO. Throughout the work setting, managers need to develop clear performance expectations and be able to document their assessment of the performance.
  • Formal feedback via performance review: Annually or more often, most progressive work organizations have a formal performance review, using some type of written document. These reviews are usually despised by managers, who must spend time preparing and perhaps being concerned about the employee’s reaction. The employee is anxious about the encounter and believes the whole process is subjective. This is a call to the HR professionals to work with managers at all levels to improve the formal feedback process. What issues might be raised that have not been raised one-on-one earlier?
  • What does Santa bring? Think now about those good boys and girls. What do they want from Santa? Yes, most good and bad boys and girls have a long list of desired Santa gifts. Employees are no different. They believe they deserve a reward, even if only for living another year. In the absence of credible performance data to the contrary, a reward is expected.

Millennials would not want the same reward as a father of millennials. An effort to match the desired reward with the rewards the company normally offers is critical. Is your company considering how to reward differently? Oh, yes, this is another touchy topic best reserved for a later discussion.

Ready for Santa to evaluate how good you are as a manager?

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail:

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue.



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