How do you get a group of battle-hardened professionals to continue to improve their skills and to stay at the top of their game?
This challenge is no more pressing right now than in the public sector where headteachers, police chiefs, nursing managers and many others are facing budget cuts, a workforce worn down by continual change, and ever-increasing expectations from the ‘customer’. How can anyone motivate, engage and nurture high standards of performance in such an environment?
I have the privilege of working with leaders addressing this question. I see new targets being set, training provided, staff being encouraged to ‘raise the bar’, support being offered, and much time and effort being expended by highly committed team members. And yet it is striking how in spite of such effort, many organisations are seeing very little improvement in performance, and at worst some are seeing standards deteriorate.
My experience suggests that many organisations are missing a vital first step; a step that is essential in creating the conditions where target-setting, training, and performance management can deliver results; a step that is commonly over-looked or to which mere lip-service is paid.
In a nutshell, this first step is for individuals’ strengths to be recognised and to be made use of at work in a way that is regular and conscious.
In their book First Break All the Rules, Buckingham and Coffman provide a list of 12 questions that, when answered positively by a group of employees, indicate a strong working environment where high performance is likely. Of the top four questions, two are:
- At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
- In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for good work?
Having gone through much change in recent years, how many established teachers, nurses and policemen still know with absolute confidence and certainty what they do best? How many can describe specific occasions over the last month where they have done something for which they feel a sense of pride? How many of their bosses know exactly what these things are? And then how many bosses provide recognition for them, by offering praise and also by giving further opportunities to utilise and develop these strengths?
Until leaders help to generate such confidence amongst their people, their attempts to motivate towards new targets will continue to have limited success.