Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with David Burkus for his LDRLB Podcast Series. David is author of The Myths of Creativity and a contributor to Forbes & Harvard Business Review.
This is a full transcript of LDRLB Podcast Episode 0512, an interview with Aubrey Daniels.
DAVID: Who are you and what do you do?
AUBREY: Well, I’m Aubrey Daniels and I have a company that works with organizations to help them bring out the best in people.
DAVID: And author of now the fifth edition of the book “Performance Management” which is the source for performance management research, for insight on performance management. A lot of times here on LDRLB, we feature authors that take a lot of really in-depth research, really depth application and then make it into more of a narrative form and make it more applicable. Every once in a while we get to go back to one of the sources and you are one of those sources, one of the first people to really use and define performance management. I like to think of you as the one who coined the term. I think you’re a little more humble than that. I think you’re one of the originators of it, really cool to have the source of that information on the podcast.
AUBREY: The term “Performance Management” probably has a long history but the way it is typically used is it means performance appraisal. I think if you search on the web, you’ll see that, that comes up often when you try to look for performance appraisal. What I look at performance management as a more comprehensive, in other words, it’s a scientifically based way of looking at human behavior and trying to understand how best to use it in an organization to bring out the best in people. The performance appraisal fails miserably in that regard.
DAVID: I totally agree but why do you think it is … Where did this annual tradition of the god-awful performance appraisal come from and why do we even … You look online and all you hear are articles about, “Let’s ditch performance reviews” and yet they persist. Why do you think that is?
AUBREY: Well I think because they’ve been done for a long time and it’s convenient for HR department and for executive management to do that. When I began to think about this and look at what goes on, it seems to me that people have really gotten away from the original intent. I hope the original intent was to help people perform better. If that’s true then really, it does not contain any of the elements that we know changes behavior. You’ve got to have constant contact with people to change behavior; you’ve got to have some way to deliver consequences on an on-going basis. The attempt in performance appraisal to do it every six months or every quarter really makes matters worse. In other words, if it’s something’s bad, doing it more often doesn’t make it better. What we are talking about is a system where you are able to see behavior and you are able to respond to it. You can’t do that in an office, you can’t do that with a form.
DAVID: I totally agree. I feel like there’s a well meaning effort to provide feedback but the mechanism they use doesn’t make a difference whether it’s a year, six months, a quarter, like you said. The other thing is that even that is a little too late in my experience. I feel like feedback needs to be much more immediate than that. I had a conversation with a friend of mine that was a martial artists and a competitive fighter for a time and then switched into … is now a management consultant. He said, “You know, one of the amazing things is in the ring, feedback is immediate. If you mess up, you get hit. In the corporate world, it takes six months to a year to get feedback.”
AUBREY: Oh, yeah. See that’s the big problems, that consequences, the most effective consequences are immediate consequences. If you’ve got a coach as in athletics, the coach is there to see your behavior and say, “Wait, oh, wow, let’s do that again. Do it this way.” Three months later or six months later, a year later, the performance is gone, you can’t really impact in any significant way. It’s just total waste of time and energy on the part of an organization to do that. I recognize – and I made the mistake really of saying to one of our very large customers that had 30,000 employees – that this is a poor process and he challenged me on that, he said, “Well, if we would eliminate this today we’d have total chaos.”
My point is you need to know where you’re going with it. Your point is to try to help people do better and so when you make revision on it you move toward that end. You see right now, it serves the organization, it doesn’t serve the performer.
DAVID: I think that’s a great distinction and it’s exactly right. The form is there to serve largely the organization, serve the system, not that individual person. Let’s do that, let’s start at the beginning and look at what actually motivates people to perform and to improve their performance and then how do we build a system that actually leverages that and serves that person rather than the organization.
AUBREY: Yeah, good. The only way you can change behavior is through consequences – changing consequences. Most people today try to change it with what we call … the technical term is “Ahead of Sins”. They want to do something … they want to talk somebody into change, they want to communicate somebody into change, they want to do things upfront. Really the way you change behavior is you do something after the behavior not before it.
If you look at most initiatives – corporate initiatives – they’re all about changing the way people talk. In other words, a fellow told me years ago, he said, when safety was a rage, he said, “The only thing that’s changed here is the way we talk about safety. Nothing else is different.” They didn’t change the consequences for people who were safe and people who were not and that sort of thing; I mean in terms of quality, who produced quality, who didn’t.
If you’re going to change behavior, you’ve got to have some way to impact behavior immediately. That’s where your friend was right that the whole idea of feedback is if feedback is delayed, it’s ineffective, inefficient at least.
DAVID: Here’s my question then, if the system that a manager’s operating in is that delayed feedback system, what can we do … I think about consequences positive and negative and I think about the working inside a system that is semi-annually or annually with dishing out those positive or negative consequences. What steps can a manager take to have immediate feedback even if the system won’t allow them to overhaul it and provide those things on the spot?
AUBREY: The thing we try to get managers and supervisors to do early on is to look at your process, your equipment, all of that, and try to create an environment where people know how they’re doing at all times. In other words, one of the things about a computer is that when you make a mistake you can see it. That becomes self-correcting because you are getting the consequences of the wrong thing on the screen that you want so you modify your behavior to change that.
Another way to do that is to train everybody in this, in other words, let everybody know this so employees know when to provide a positive consequence and when not to provide a positive consequence, because they are with employees. It’s like one of my favorite cartoons is an executive, like a person standing in front of a desk where the man is seating and the executive says, “Why aren’t you working?” He said, “I didn’t see you coming.” The problem is many time, that managers – even down to the front-line supervisors – they have and inadequate sample of behavior. They sample behavior from time to time and if somebody sees you coming, they jump up and start working and you see the behavior and you think, “Well, that’s representative of what they do.”
The employees know that that’s not. They see you jump up and start working when you’ve been goofing off all day. They are in a better position to provide consequence to each other than management is. Management think they know what’s going on in reality, many times they don’t.
DAVID: I think that’s a huge distinction, I feel like a lot of people ran with that as the idea for why we need 360 degree feedback. Even that process is done on a six-month or a year basis where we issue surveys and half the customers never even respond etcetera. What you’re really talking about is a culture where people are positively reinforcing, innately reinforcing each other – co-workers, peers, etcetera. It scales up to a whole culture within the organization. How do we get started creating something like that?
AUBREY: Of course we have the training consulting business so I’m partial in terms of my answer but the idea is that you need to understand behavior, the laws of behavior, which I would say most people don’t. You don’t have to be taught how to punish, people know how to do that alright, but you do have to be taught in many cases how to positively reinforce. The culture today is we need a positive culture, you don’t have to talk people into why that’s important, but people don’t know how to do it.
If you look at how parents have ran with this and think they are doing the right thing, when every child gets a trophy and everything the child does is good and commendable but they think that it’s not good to be negative. There are times to be positive and there are times to be negative; you need to know the difference. Unfortunately most people don’t know that and so you need either to read a book or try some way to educate yourself about when to do what.
DAVID: Again, not to overemphasize the training and consulting that your group does or that that book should probably be Performance Management.
DAVID: You’re absolutely right. You said in your last response that everybody knows how to punish but they don’t necessarily know how to positively reinforce. One of the chapters in the book that really resonated with me was – The Three Ways to Decrease Unwanted Behavior.
DAVID: I feel like everybody knows the punishment way but there are other ways and sometimes they are more appropriate ways than just dishing out punishments to correct that unwanted behavior.
AUBREY: Absolutely. I think the thing about this is that if you are doing the right thing 100% of the time then you’re not doing the wrong thing right? One way that we talk about a lot of the time, if the behavior can effectively be ignored, and sometimes you can’t, but if you can then the best way is in fact to strengthen the positive behaviors. You don’t need to use negative consequences if in fact you are strengthening the behavior that adds value to the organization. If they are doing that 100% of the time then what’s the problem. That’s the one I recommend for people, to think about, “Okay, let’s look at what the person is doing right, let’s focus on that, let’s try to increase it.” I they’re not doing the right thing then let’s figure out, okay, how can we help them do that?
That’s really the job a front-line supervisor, is to help people do better. I think we need to do away with the term “Supervisor” or “Coach” because … “Supervisor” and replace it with “Coach” because a supervisor is there to overlook the work – to look over the work and to find what you’re doing wrong and let you know that you’re not doing the right thing. I’m reluctant to use the term coach because it has a lot of negative baggage in terms of many coaches that people know about – athletic coaches are more in the punishment line than they are in the positive reinforcement line.
In reality, if you think about every professional golfer has a coach and look at them to see things that the person can’t see about their own behavior and say, “Okay next time, try this, change your grip, move your studs, you know do these sorts of things.” They are focusing on behaviors. This is one of the problems that many training programs have is that they try to teach behaviors that are not behavior – talk about competencies and those kinds of things.
It doesn’t bother me if you start with a competency but I say, “Okay, what does it mean? What would people do? How could you see what they’re doing because in fact that’s the behavior that you want?” Many times even that dealing with knowledge works, you want to say, “Okay, here’s what I want, here’s what, the kind of things I want you to do to get that.” These kind of things can be specified and that helps for the people to know that rather than just say, “Well you need to be creative or you need to be innovative.” What does that mean? What would I do? I think I’m doing it already.
DAVID: What’s interesting is when I hear you saying that, it makes me wonder – In entry level HRM classes that I teach to undergraduate students, we talk about often that you are never evaluation a person, you are evaluating a person’s performance. I think in organizations it’s too easy to rank people and to say, “Yeah, we’re going to rate you, we’re going to rank you.” When you have those vague competencies like you said, that’s your only options, is you have to rank the person. When you give them the actual behaviors, you can actually say, “Now, we’re rating this on your behavior, it has nothing to do with who you are as a person – your value, etcetera. It’s just, here are the behaviors we want and you’re doing seven out of ten of them.
AUBREY: That’s exactly right and I think that organizations are going to have to change the way they do that. I think … I was just looking at a research on engagement. Most people don’t understand engagement. You have to have something that you can be engaged about. It’s really a system issue, not a performance issue. You don’t blame the performer, the fact that almost half the people by their own admission are unengaged; you don’t blame them for that. What you do is look at the environment – how we setup the policies, procedures and the physical environment to cause people to want to do the right thing.
I’m looking at blaming is an ancient concept. It’s just not appropriate to use in the workplace. You don’t blame somebody for having low intelligence. I mean why would that make any sense? You don’t blame somebody for not knowing how to do something. Your job is to help them be able to do that. That’s really what the book is all about – helping people to understand that we know science has told us how to help people do better, we know how to do that. The knowledge is there, many people don’t know how to do that but the goal of any supervisor or manager is to help that person do their best. Almost no organization I can think of does that as well as they should. In fact some of the ones that are doing the best realize they have a long way to go.
DAVID: I wonder if their realization that they have a long way to go is what keeps them at the best, right? It’s almost like they are looking for coaches on their own behavior evaluating behavior.
AUBREY: Right, that’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.
DAVID: The book is in its fifth edition and it makes me wonder, have you noticed, as the author doing these revisions every once in a while, have you noticed a big shift over when the book first came out to now? We have a large-scale shift into the information economy into knowledge work more so. Have you noticed any shifts like that? Granted I know the answer is it doesn’t change how we manager performance, but I’m just curious as to what changes you’ve had to make.
AUBREY: Well, we’ve learnt a lot, from my clinical days to coming in the workplace. I think an advantage that I had was that I didn’t have a lot of management training and when the plant manager told me the front-line supervisor was the key to improving performance I bought that. What we did earlier on was we spent a lot of time on factory floors and in the office where we were actually able to look at behavior and see how the supervisor responded and they could begin to understand what behavior was really about.
Some of the concepts have not changed but I think in the books over the time I have been able to explain them better. You mentioned earlier there’s a lot of scientific research that’s valid but you can read it and not understand it. I’m sure you’ve had these days where you read a page in a book and you say, “Wait a minute, now what did I just read?” You have to read it over a several times. The book has changed in terms of being more user-friendly in that regard. Hopefully, I recognize that my challenge as an author is to communicate things that people can understand and then do something with.
I think each version I’ve taking feedback that I’ve gotten from people that use the book and tried to inculpate that. I’ve used, in this edition, my co-author Jon Bailey who is a professor at Florida State. He’s taught this for 15 years or so. The book represents more how he taught. I’ve rearrange the chapters, we’ve updated the research but other than that, it’s pretty much the same. If you got a first edition, you could still learn a lot of things to do right but the fifth edition is better I’ll say.
DAVID: No totally, the content is the same, the relevancy and the examples used etcetera, are updated and stronger for the current challenges mangers face.
AUBREY: We have more examples of knowledge worker kinds of things. In earlier books we’re more manufacturing where we spent most of our time.
DAVID: If you manage in a manufacturing setting or a knowledge worker setting, there is something in this new book. Check it out; it’s the fifth edition of Performance Management: Changing Behavior that Drives Organizational Effectiveness.
AUBREY, I wonder if we could switch a bit from the book to you and ask you our two questions for all guests.
DAVID: The first being – What are you reading right now?
AUBREY: Well, I’m reading a couple of … I’ve read Abundance, Peter Diamandis wrote a book called Abundance. He’s talking about the future and talking about really how you shouldn’t worry too much about no clean air, no pure water and that kind of thing because the technology is here today to provide that. I went to Singularity University for an eight-day course recently and met Ray Kurzweil who is a futurist.
What I’m trying to get our customers to do is to prepare for the future and the future is changing so fast that many people are going to be caught off guard and by the time they realize that things have changed beyond what they’re doing, they’re going to be out of business. Those are the things I’m really looking at – related articles to that and those books.
DAVID: On that note, you have a thriving training and consulting business, the book is out in its fifth edition but I’m wondering, what’s next for you?
AUBREY: I’ve started an institute and the purpose of the institute is to do things that I don’t have to worry so much about the bottom line and that sort of thing but to do things that I think would help society as a whole and one of them is education. I’m really focusing on education and accelerating learning. The rates of learning in public schools, in most schools actually, are very low. Kent Johnson at Morningside Academy in Seattle guarantees parents two grade levels per subject per year or your money back. 30-something years, he’s given less than 1% of the money back because the average tendency at the school is to go three grades per year. Here we have the best schools in New York – the charter schools – are producing only eight-tenths of a grade per year. The public schools do only about three-tenths of a grade per year, it’s really pathetic.
I want to do that not only for education per se but for business because many time businesses looking at improvement, and all improvement is helpful, but it may not be fast enough to keep you in the game in terms of the way the world is changing. That’s where I am.
DAVID: That’s exciting; we’ll be looking out for that. In the meantime, thankfully the world has changed and so has Performance Management slightly to be updated, so check that out. It’s in its fifth edition; it’s a really solid read. It’s cool for me – this is one of the books that when I was in graduate school I ran into, I think the 4th edition of. It’s exciting to have the fifth edition out in my hand and talking to the author.
AUBREY: Oh great.
DAVID: Aubrey, thank you so much for joining us inside the LDRLB.
AUBREY: Thank you. It’s a pleasure and I’m glad to be asked.