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Performance, Results or Behavior: Where Should Managers Focus?

The management profession suffers from a nomenclature problem: too few words with too many meanings. Consider executives who set organizational structures. They could just as easily call them structured organizations. Such broad terms provide a convenient safety net for professionals who like to cover their uncertainty with vagueness.

While confused management lingo is not going to kill anyone, it leads to some faulty assumptions. The subject of performance is a prime example. While performance is now a fashionable term—leading to phrases like performance management, top performers and performance evaluation— managers tend to confuse performance with other terms like results and behavior. This article examines the important distinctions among these often-misunderstood things.

Performance is what a person does while doing the work. Performance is usually tacit—not easy to explain—and unobservable. This is evident in social science research where investigators trying to find out why experts perform superior to non-experts must use methods that "unpack" the unobservable. One common way is through think-aloud protocols where investigators give subjects relevant tasks and asks them to "think out loud" to reveal clues to how they perform while doing the work.

Results, on the other hand, occur as a consequence of actions, circumstances, premises, etc. While managers cannot see or identify performance, they must deal with results—both by determining expected/required results (assigning outcomes), and by monitoring actual results. Performance and results occur in this sequence:

  1. Required results are determined and work is assigned
  2. Performance occurs by people doing the work
  3. Actual results are generated
  4. Actual results are compared with expected results
While managers should pay attention to results, both expected and actual, they should not try to fix or figure out performance. If efficiency, for example, needs to be improved, the manager should seek to improve efficiency by determining required results and assigning the work so that the result(s) is achieved.

Managers can't "fix" performance—it must be owned by those who are performing. Since only results (not performance) can be observed, only the people performing can know (and address) their performance. Managers who try to take responsibility for others' performance will be ineffective. Perhaps "results management" should replace the popular but inaccurate vernacular of "performance management."

Behavior refers to the actions or reactions of something or someone in relation to the environment. This term also enters into the terminology confusion. While the performance of chess masters cannot be observed—even think-aloud techniques are limited by subjects' ability to explicitly articulate their performance—the behavior of those masters can be. For example, one may be very steady in his or her approach to chess—observably calm and deliberate in how he or she considers or makes moves. However, this behavior does not reflect performance, nor does it predict results, since an equally high-performing master may tend to be more demonstrative or impulsive in making moves.

Performance at work occurs in a work context, which is immediate and situational (see diagram). In addition to managing results, managers can influence performance by paying attention to that context. That is, by observing behavior in this work context, managers should seek to remove barriers to performance. For example, the manager may observe things like frustration, excessive problem solving, or too much attention to non-work issues. Effective managers will add or remove things in that work context to improve the performance of those doing the work. Attempts, however, to "fix" performance—by trying to determine or change what they do while working—will be ineffective.

Although such definitional purity may seem academic, managers often get into trouble by responding or paying attention to the wrong things. They often focus on things they can't know or observe, instead of focusing on things that can bring clarity to the work or removing barriers in the work context. In February, we will examine how managers can actually use results to improve performance. Then, in March, we will explore if and how performance should be evaluated.

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