Co-Responsibility: The Essential Foundation for Effective Performance Collaboration

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

Leaders, would you like to get much better at managing performance?

There are lots of courses that will give you steps to follow. But they miss the crucial first step. What’s first needed is a radical shift in attitude. And without this shift, whatever follows will be sub-optimal for you, your direct reports, and overall business results.

In a previous article we made the distinction between leadership competencies (skills) and leadership capacity ( the “operating system” from which you implement those skills). Most leaders view themselves and leadership in a way that doesn’t work effectively in these times of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) and rapid change. In order to manage performance more effectively, you need to first shift your overall worldview to what we’ll describe as the vital Attitude of Co-Responsibility.

First, we don’t like the term “performance management.” We prefer to call this the process of performance collaboration, to imply that it should be a rich, interactive series of dialogues throughout the year, rather than an “event.” That will become clearer.

OK, here we go…..

We frequently ask groups of leaders, “Do you think your manager is co-responsible for how you show up, for your overall success in your role? Does your performance at least partially depend on what he or she does?” They quickly answer, “Of course.” We ask for details, and they talk about the extent to which their managers provide support, encouragement, resources, effective feedback, authority, healthy expectations, etc.

We then ask, “So, then, are you co-responsible for the performance of your direct reports?” They almost always hesitate, and then agree. If it’s true for them, it must be true for their direct reports.

Yet very few leaders reflect on this co-responsibility when having performance dialogues. This is one of the reasons evaluating your employees by giving them a “report card” on how they’re doing isn’t aligned with the reality of the situation, although most HR processes are set up this way.

How do you evaluate performance? When it’s time for yearly or biannual evaluations, do you give report cards (i.e., rate employees on whether they exceed expectations, meet expectations, need improvement, etc.)? Or are you one of those rare, higher-capacity leaders who understand that you’re evaluating an “us” rather than a “you”?

Higher-capacity leaders are those who are more effective at leading during times of accelerating complexity, uncertainty and rapid change. They understand that evaluation is always about how “we” are doing, rather than how “you” are doing; they know they are not separate from the performance of their direct reports, and they therefore embody the vital Attitude of Co-Responsibility.

Which one are you, when you sit down with one of your direct reports?

With an attitude of co-responsibility, you understand that many factors impact your direct reports’ performance. One, of course, has to do with them. What do they bring in terms of capacity, skill, motivation, engagement and attitude? But is this the most important factor? In general, we believe the answer is a resounding “no.” Your contributions are at least equally important, as well as the contributions of the greater context (e.g., organizational culture, current business environment, etc.).

How do you evaluate your contributions to their performance? When looking at all aspects of your direct report’s performance (including positive results) we invite you to ask two questions: (1) What might those results have to do with me? (2) What might those results have to do with us? Here, “us” includes team dynamics, team structure (clarity of roles, goals, access to resources, etc.), and the prevailing organizational culture.

Here are a few questions you can (and should) ask yourself before going into a performance dialogue:

What might these results have to do with me?

· Does this person have role clarity? And how would I know? (Hint: It’s not clear because you’ve said it. It’s clear if they’ve reported back exactly what they think it is, and you’ve agreed).

· How often do I invite them to step back and identify their current role-related strengths and challenges and collaboratively develop plans for becoming even more effective, building on the strengths and addressing the challenges as much as possible?

· To what extent do I create a context of safety, trust and openness? And how would I know that?

· Do I take time to really understand their perspectives to see how they view things and to collaboratively discuss how they can increase their effectiveness? Or do I quickly revert to telling them what to do because it seems to take less time and I assume I have the “right answer”?

· How effectively have I provided guidance and coaching, and am I actively building my coaching skills? Am I providing the support they need? Have I even asked them this question, and made it safe to get an honest response?

· How regularly do we meet? When we do meet, how much is about my own agenda, and how much do I ask what is most important to them?

· How often do I notice my impact on them, whether it’s positive (leaving them more motivated, engaged and hopeful) or negative (leaving them stressed, anxious and frustrated)?

· Do I run my team in a way that encourages them and rewards them for supporting each other, or do I run my team as a collection of individuals? Do I encourage competition or collaboration? How would I know?

· To what extent do I protect them from unreasonable expectations that come from above me? Do I push back, or just accept what’s unreasonable and then demand it of them? Do market conditions really support the targets to which my team is being held?

· On the team level, to what extent do they understand each others’ roles? What are the team dynamics? Do they have the tools and resources to do their jobs well? Are they in the right roles? How clear are their goals, and are they reasonable/attainable?

What might these results have to do with us?

Once you answer these questions to see how you are contributing to an individual’s performance, think about the impact of your organization as a whole. What is it like to work at your company? What is the real organizational culture? This isn’t what’s printed on the nice laminated cards. It’s what senior leaders actually pay attention to, what they model, how they act day to do, what they use as the basis for their decisions. This is what creates organizational culture.

So what is the organizational culture? To what extent does it support high performances, and to what extent does it impede? A few questions to consider:

· What are the expected behaviors of those who would like raises or promotions? What does the organization show that it actually values when you look at who gets promoted? We worked with one organization where they had “work-life balance” as a stated value, and then acknowledged that they never promoted anyone who actually exhibited that balance.

· What criteria are used for hiring new employees?

· How does the organization respond when people act in ways that are contrary to the stated values? What negative behaviors are tolerated from otherwise “high performers”?

· Do employees feel safe to challenge or disagree with senior leaders? Alternative perspectives should be welcomed, not punished.

· Are people often blamed for results that are out of their control?

· Does the culture encourage people to take healthy ownership of results, or to push decisions upward?

· How much energy is devoted to being liked or accepted, rather than to generating optimal business results?

· How much do leaders compete with each other? Do they get more acknowledgement for supporting each other or for putting down each others’ ideas?

· How much good conflict is there, with the lively integration of differing perspectives, or do people often not feel safe enough to say what they really think?

· How much bad conflict is there, where people are dismissive or disdaining of ideas that are different from their own?

· How safe is it to be innovative, to try something new, even if it doesn’t work out in the end?

· How much pressure is there to work long hours, as if this by itself reflects commitment and productivity?

Hopefully it’s becoming clear that asking these questions: “What might my direct report’s results have to do with me?” and “What might they have to do with the larger us (team, organization, business context)?” is needed to set you up for true performance collaboration.

You are co-responsible for the results of your direct reports, whether you like it or not.

Adopting an attitude of co-responsibility isn’t easy. It requires you to be vulnerable and look at your own accountability for results, as well as the impact of the overall organization. You must look at your own challenges, as well as your own strengths.

But imagine if you started your performance dialogues with something along the lines of, “Let’s see how we have been doing?” Although it might be scary, can you also see how freeing that would be? How much your direct reports would welcome it?

And, perhaps most importantly, wouldn’t you love it if your manager started all performance dialogues with you in the same way? If that’s what you’d want for yourself, you have the obligation to offer the same to those who are in your care. Have courage. Be and act co-responsibly.

Clear Impact Consulting Group is Dr. Joel M. Rothaizer, MCC and Dr. Sandra L. Hill. Hopefully, this article has stimulated some new thinking. We welcome hearing from you. Please click here to subscribe to our newsletter LeaderShifts. You can email us at partners@clear-impact.com.

Building individual and organizational capacity through executive coaching, organizational/team effectiveness consulting and leadership development.

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