There is an interesting mix of performance and politics present in any group of people who share resources and work together. Performance can be viewed as any activity needed to help the organization to achieve its goals. If it’s a basketball team, performance can be viewed as either scoring points or stopping the other team from doing so. I like sports analogies when discussing performance because it’s one of the most objective ways to measure results. In sports, it’s difficult to deny that Michael Jordan scored a ton of points, which greatly contributed to his team winning a lot of games.
In most other businesses, performance can be viewed as activity that contributes to productivity or sales, a safer work environment, better quality product or service, or any other of the organization’s performance goals. Since these things are rarely, if ever, achieved in a vacuum, it’s not so evident who deserves credit for what aspect of success or failure. This is especially true in the absence of high-fidelity data down to the blocking and tackling level, which is often not practical for most businesses – outside of professional sports of course. Usually, everyone involved played a role in either creating success or causing failure. Who’s to say that what one person did was so much more significant that what the next person did to improve performance? Sure, this guy is in here 16 hours per day but who can say that he is productive for even one minute per day? Likewise, this other lady comes late and leaves early every day but who’s to say that her contribution didn’t accounted for 99% of the outstanding results?
In the absence of granular data and a thorough / objective evaluation of people's actions and the impact thereof, their contributions are typically measured by one thing – other people’s perception of their performance. And perceptions are shaped by...you guessed it - politics.
Politics often have little to do with actual performance. It determines who gets access to resources, promotions, bonuses, fired, blamed, their way in a disagreement, and sometimes even life and death. Politics is about jockeying for power or control over resources; and exists as a result of scarcity. Scarcity can come in many forms such as financial, credit / credibility, titles, authority, privileges, promotions, etc. One of the rules of politics is – what gets repeated becomes reality; if not immediately, then eventually if it’s repeated enough and by enough people. This is why professional politicians develop “talking points” so that the same themes get repeated and ultimately accepted as truth. Unfortunately, politics can enable people with terrible performance to win and people with outstanding performance to lose. When this happens (as it does more often than you would think) the entire organization loses. The reality is that the poorest performers tend to get really good at politics for the sake of their own survival. Superstar performers are rarely good at politics since they believe the world is generally fair and their results will speak for themselves. However, whenever good results are produced, there are always a few over-ambitious and under-performing sharks waiting for the opportunity to take more than their share of the credit. Likewise, whenever teams do fail, these same people have toolbox full of techniques to deflect blame to someone else.
It can be annoying that we have to play the politics game; especially if you’re no good at it. However, it’s one of those things that will either propel your business to success or accelerate it’s failure. As business leaders, we tend to talk about performance as if politics doesn’t exist. But oh it does – and it has everything to do with how the business performs. But what is the right mix of politics and performance?
Internal politics is never value added but may be necessary. The ultimate goal of politics is to influence people’s decisions in one way or another and to shift / sustain power. There is a certain amount of value-added work that must be done in order for the business to achieve it’s objectives. Leadership should always look to minimize the amount of political behavior and maximize the amount of value-added activity. To do this, there must be a fair way to measure progress against equally challenging targets. Then grant power to those making the strongest strides toward achieving those targets. Thus, adverse political behavior should not be rewarded as it only begets more political behavior. However, when actual high-performance is adequately rewarded, it encourages stronger performances across the board.
The following leadership characteristics encourage adverse political behavior:
- Being aloof; unaware of people’s actual contributions
- Incompetence; not understanding the value of people’s work
- Granting unequal access to face-time, coaching, and mentorship
- Creating or failing to eliminate scarcity of resources or recognition
- Failing to acknowledge strong contributions or distribute recognition fairly
- Punishing productive or progressive behaviors (even if they fail)
- Accepting gossip as fact without sufficient investigation
- Promoting based on political prowess as opposed to verified performance
- Failing to recognize people’s (or your own) prejudice when considering a point of view
- Failing to hold people accountable adverse political behavior
On the other hand, the inverse of these behaviors promote strong performance and help keep adverse political behavior to a minimum.
Political behavior can also be beneficial. The truth is that we are all the same; breathe the same air and bleed the same blood. We can accomplish a lot as individuals but a lot more by working together. The process of determining who will lead the group is done through politics. The better job we do of gathering and assessing people’s quality and quantity of contributions, the better results we get when we assign power to someone. We also need to assess our leaders’ capacity for respect for others and ability to get results through people. Unfortunately, by not having adequate systems in place, it’s difficult to truly size up someone’s contributions; and often use other people’s perceptions to make these pivotal decisions instead. What’s the solution? Be systematic. Continuous Improvement assumes you have a system in place to improve. Without a system (or standard) for assigning power to people, you have nothing to perfect. Once you have something, you can effectively assess each success or failure on its own merit and use that information to engineer a more perfect system over time.
One example of a great system for assessing true performance is the Factory Operating System (fOS). It helps to evaluate the members within the manufacturing operations chain of command based on the same metric. The metric is based on the principle of OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness) but improved so that it can measure the performance of people, assets, and entire systems. OEE is regarded as the benchmark for measuring performance against perfection and assessing the gap to World-Class execution, or 85% OEE. The fOS calculates the performance of shop floor operators, managers, and executives alike. It considers the performance of the leader to be an aggregate of their direct reports’ performance, which ties everyone in the chain of command up to the CEO to the execution on the shop floor, which is where value is created for the customer.