Providing the fuel to power discretionary effort in your staff means you can unleash the energy to increase performance and boost your organisation’s bottom line.

by Kevin McAlpin

A manager’s ability to coach their staff is key to getting them to put in discretionary effort — or in other words, go the extra mile for you.

Unfortunately, new research shows that in more than eight out of ten cases, staff think their managers are unable or unwilling to perform this coaching role and so companies are missing out.

Coaching and the Extra Mile

A study of feedback from 5,000 staff members on 1,500 of their managers was carried out over a 12-month period by employee research experts at Shine, a company that specialises in 360 degree feedback, employee attitude surveys and focus groups.

It is the most comprehensive research of its type ever carried out in the UK, covering 40 different companies in 25 different sectors. These sectors were as varied as brewing, insurance, motor manufacturing and retail, but in every one, feedback showed managers are becoming increasingly remote from the people they are tasked with leading.

In 83% of the appraisals, staff complained that their managers were not coaching them to help improve their performance. They said they wanted more feedback and engagement from their bosses, so they could see “what ‘good’ looks like”.

Failure to set clear goals was the second biggest grievance, but this was easily eclipsed, only appearing in 19% of appraisals.

The top five concerns workers voiced about their managers were:

•    Failure to coach
•    Failure to set clear goals
•    Failure to delegate
•    Failure to celebrate success
•    Inability to show flexibility in leadership style
•    Staff praised managers for their technical excellence, saying they had the skills and technical knowledge to do the job and they kept up to date with professional and technical developments in their field.

They also credited their leaders’ commitment to delivering business goals, citing ‘persistence in the face of obstacles’ and ‘resilience to set-backs’.

Time to Reassess

But these attributes did not distract workers from the fact that managers were failing in their raison d’etre — to manage their staff.

Employees reported that poor people management was impacting on their career development and their prospects for the future. They also complained that the lack of interaction meant poor performance was not being tackled.

Andy Clare, co-owner of Shine, thinks there is a growing void between managers and their employees.

“The thing that came out time and time again was that the individuals with people management responsibility are spending less and less time doing it,” he says. “This means less time for one-to-one sessions, performance appraisal, discussing career goals or just shooting the breeze.”

Getting the Complete Picture

Clare says that when he went back to managers with the feedback they were not surprised and admitted they were becoming more removed from their staff.

“Their defence is that managing people is something they have to do in their spare time – they say they are so burdened with work that people management responsibility drops off the end of the pier,” he says. “On top of this they complain that work is not structured in a way that lets them do it in the first place.”

Clare says the results showed how effective 360 feedback could be in helping managers understand how others see their behaviour and how this behaviour impacts on themselves, their staff and the organisation.

“It is the latter aspect that is so important as it helps a manager assess if his or her behaviour is having the impact intended,” he says. “If it is, great – keep on doing it and maybe do more of it. If it isn’t, you need to think about changing it.”

But it is crucial to get an accurate picture of people and their behaviours. The process has to be designed and implemented effectively so that people know how to give focussed, specific and constructive feedback that the recipient can work with. If it is done badly it can have a serious impact on individuals and the organisation as a whole.

Making this process precise and incisive is where Shine adds real value to organisations.

“By taking the individual (quantitative) results from 360 assessments, then that provides client companies with accurate reports showing management strengths and limitations, either across the whole organisation or by department,” Clare says. “This will prove invaluable when planning training and development initiatives and will alert senior management to potential skills gaps and succession planning issues.”

This summary data on management behavioural trends can then also be used alongside traditional employee attitude surveys to understand organisational climate and alignment to company values.

Action Change

Kevin McAlpin, managing director of Performance Coaching International, says the next step is to act on the results. He warns that managers often use time as an excuse to avoid addressing the issue of people management.

“Either they want to get on with the technical side of the job or want to be some kind of visionary, strategic leader who doesn’t have time for staff,” he says. “The other reason is they are scared of having the tough conversations with their staff that this kind of coaching requires. Facing up to these issues is really important if things aren’t going right.”

McAlpin believes any manager who wants to coach his or her staff needs to first understand themselves and their personal style.

“This way you can find out where the gaps are in your approach to people management,” he says. “It’s like being on a plane; if there is a problem you have to put your own oxygen mask on first before you help anyone else otherwise you quickly become a burden.”

The next step is to tell staff what good performance looks like and how this is aligned to both individual growth and organisational goals. This requires day-to-day dialogue with staff – not hiding behind formal performance management systems and processes, McAlpin says.

As Craig Murray, BAE Systems, HR Director puts it: “It’s not what you do it is how you do it – this is not a systems issue, it’s a cultural issue”.

The way you conduct is this dialogue is very important.

“If you focus on performance weakness you drive down effort,” McAlpin says. “Performance and development reviews should mainly focus on being a positive, strengths-based conversation.

“Even if you balance 10 good things and 10 things they could do better, the employee will only focus on the 10 negative things, and you will not get discretionary effort afterwards.”

Gauging Performance Levels

It’s also key to pay attention to the needs of different levels of performers if you want to tap into this discretionary effort, according to McAlpin:

•    Top performers — are often unhappy because they feel they are lumped together with others who do not perform as well as them. Reward your high performers and make it clear to them you recognise the value they bring. These rewards should be bigger and better the higher up the performance scale you go. If you find managers are rating a lot of people as high performers look into it as they may be over-rating people to make life easy for themselves

•    Middle performers — are often unhappy as they feel they are lumped together with the poor performers. Set them clear goals and recognise the extent of their accomplishments, but make it clear that greater rewards await for high performance

•    Low performers —are usually happy just getting away with it so you need to make it clear to them that they are not up to scratch. Present them with goals so they have something to work towards that offers reward but also make clear the consequences if they continue to be low performers.

Coaching – the Way Forward

Discretionary effort has a huge impact throughout a business. Being proactive about identifying how to bring it to the fore with different types of employee is sometimes not the first thing organisations initiate until disparities and problems become large enough to be seen from very far away.

Coaching is the key to unlocking discretionary effort, so it’s a very precious commodity simply because of how tightly it’s tied to individual performance, and the impact it can have right down the line.