The end of an era

Fiona McKay, MD of Lightbulb Leadership on how performance management has changed.

Irrespective of sector, performance management has been a major theme during the lockdown months.

As businesses have moved through the phases of mobilising remote teams, addressing and familiarising themselves with the new working ‘norm’, and then gradually moving back towards the office, performance and the ability to engage and motivate people to perform has been brought into sharp focus.

Lightbulb recently contributed to a piece in the Financial Times with an overriding message that, for those businesses who were already engaging and motivating their people effectively and had high levels of trust, performance management of their remote workforces will have been easier. Correspondingly, those with poorer relationships and an absence of effective performance systems in place, will have found the process much more difficult.

With a rapid response needed to enable large teams to relocate and work from home, often with technology, process and automation at the core, many businesses were pushed out of their comfort zones and forced simply to “trust” their workforce to adjust. The concept of trust and its critical role in high performing teams, was suddenly thrust under the spotlight.

Trust as a keystone of leadership

The COVID-19 pandemic has demanded that businesses radically alter their working arrangements and many of these alterations are likely to become permanent. If employees in the post-coronavirus world are to be spending days, even weeks away from the office, strong bonds of mutual trust are essential for keeping productivity and outcomes at the highest possible levels.

A common complaint amongst workers who were not put on furlough but rather instructed to work remotely, has been a perception that managers have over-compensated for their lack of physical presence by adopting overbearing management styles. Support, they feel, has been replaced with surveillance.

Video-conferencing calls, for example, came to be perceived more as a policing of work rather than an opportunity for strategic and empowering conversations. The boundaries between worktime and downtime became blurred and focus shifted from outcomes to processes. Often, relationships fractured where employees felt their managers demonstrated a lack of empathy towards their new working environments, where family and professional duties had no choice but to co-exist.

Adopting new attitudes with collaborative leadership and management styles along with remote working requires a fundamental change in thinking. Central to the progress of this change is a holistic review of an organisation’s performance practices.

Lightbulb has supported many businesses over the years with the design and development of contemporary cultures that are conducive to accelerating performance. These include deep dives into the concept of feedback and the different ways it can be provided, and explorations into the power dynamics at play when feedback is being given. Similarly, we have worked with businesses to review management approaches of the potentially disruptive process of change, how its impact can be minimised, and the critical role communication plays in maintaining momentum and motivation.


At the heart of developing trust, managing change, and improving performance, is feedback. With an overarching focus on discovering new ways to achieve gender equality, Lightbulb undertook a longitudinal research project, Why Feedback Holds Women Back, which became the catalyst for launching the global #FeedbackFirst campaign. The aim of #FeedbackFirst is to bring to the attention of the world the impact gender stereotypical feedback is having on women’s opportunities for leadership, equal pay, and poverty in retirement.

As well as the findings presenting startling discrepancies between the experiences of men and women when it comes to feedback and reviews, it shone a light on deep-rooted behaviours, biases and processes within performance discussions that diminish the potential of their positive impact.

The findings from the #FeedbackFirst campaign, together with the work Lightbulb have done with countless businesses around the world, has led them to a place now where they can talk with authority on the various ways organisations can radically improve their performance processes in the time of coronavirus, and begin to forge strong bonds of trust and lasting change.

Developing new philosophies

Lightbulb recently hosted a webinar for business leaders on the topic of performance and asked participants the following question: What are your biggest challenges in delivering performance across your organisation?

The results of the subsequent poll revealed three leading contributing factors inhibiting performance during lockdown:

  1. Fear of redundancy (33.33%)
  2. Leadership and Line Management Capability (33.33%)
  3. Lack of HR and L&D bandwidth to support (33.33%)

Following on from this, participants then identified the challenges they felt stood in the way of developing a sustainable and flexible performance culture:

  • Working from home/flexible remote working (45%)
  • C-suite development (20%)
  • Better leadership and business behaviours (20%)
  • New Org Design (10%)
  • Creating a coaching culture (5%)

It is clear from these results that leadership, line management and communication are key factors businesses are pinpointing as areas requiring immediate and significant improvement. This is not surprising. We are at a pivotal moment in time that is triggering a departure from traditional performance management of tasks to more inclusive leadership of people. The success of this transition requires every aspect of employee performance to be underscored with a knowledge of the end-goal, shared with them by leader and managers.

Going forward, every employee needs to know what is required of them in the near and medium term with supporting market intelligence and transparent management information provided by the business. This gives employees the optics and information needed to understand what their priorities should be and how they can adapt their own performance accordingly.

As part of this new philosophy, it is critical that thinking time is designated so that performance can be regularly reviewed. There is still a tendency to reward people for “getting stuff done” rather than thinking about and re-imagining processes to create agile solutions and improved results that can be delivered to clients, customers, and end users. It is a place that contemporary managers needs to get to, and fast.

As much as many businesses do regularly review management styles and techniques, there remains a practice of indoctrinating managers with a “manage by numbers” approach. There is an urgent need now for these leaders to adapt their practice to a more “human to human” coaching culture, designed to unearth and unleash potential along with performance, empowering employees and reinforcing that they have really do permission to self-solve.

Obviously, every business must maintain a rigorous focus on the financial position but if the that position is fragile, especially for those servicing heavily impacted sectors; motivation, engagement, collaboration and creativity will be the difference that refocuses and reignites depleted numbers and energies.

The shift from monitoring to motivating

The first place to start when reviewing performance practices is to consider who is delivering them. The crucial skills needed to manage effectively and with empathy are not always present amongst those in the top positions. High performers are usually rewarded with responsibility to manage based on their accomplishments rather than their skillsets.

However, these are skills that can be learned and learning how to refine them during a period of lockdown will make using them in physical settings easier still. It first requires the leader to purge themselves of the need to be constantly monitoring processes. Such micro-management is known to damage morale and rob individuals of their enthusiasm and creativity.

Learning to effectively motivate produces results that can be dramatic but it’s a skill that demands more than a weekly email saying, “You can do it! I believe in you!” Leaders must develop a thorough understanding of their employees – their circumstances, their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes, fears, and ambitions, and use this knowledge to communicate bespoke messages in emotionally intelligent and constructive ways. It takes time, but nothing worth achieving happens overnight.

Output over Process

This is an essential focal point for people leaders and managers wanting to improve the performance of their remote workers.

As touched upon above, there is a tendency for managers to over-compensate when teams are out of sight and insist on a level of visibility into their progress that exceeds what they would otherwise ask for. Rather than checking in with their teams, they are checking up, and there is a big difference between the two. Replacing these conventional office structures with increased surveillance and policing will only have one outcome: a negative impact on employee performance and wellbeing.

Ultimately, it is the quality of the end-product – the output – that really matters to the health of the organisation, less so the steps taken to get there. Yet, too many managers are interrogating these steps with such impatience that output begins to suffer. These are the leaders and managers who have been rewarded with crafting processes that, though intended to protect the business, instead stifle potential. It is imperative they adapt for the new world of work to function with fluidity by modifying their performance mindset from an effort focus, to an output focus.

Differentiated dialogue

Office environments are great levellers. For those allotted working hours, everyone, regardless of their personal circumstances, is having much the same experience of their physical surroundings. This is not the case when employees are working from home. Whereas some may live alone and have access to quiet, orderly spaces to operate from, others will have vastly different situations, many of which are not conducive to long periods of quality work.

Managing people who are working in such differing environments is a real measure of any leader and the only way to do it effectively is through differentiated dialogue, fashioned by an understanding of what factors affect individual performance and a knowledge of what  extra support may be needed.

Three months into lockdown should have provided a reasonably accurate insight into employee performance levels but it is important not to make assumptions about those who may have underperformed. With differentiated dialogue, tailored to those individuals who have struggled during this period, they could yet emerge more motivated and productive than before.

Developing a Mutual Feedback Culture

There has been a long-established power dynamic within many organisations when it comes to the delivery of feedback. Essentially, it involves a manager sitting across from their subordinate and acting as a judge of both their character and performance. It is an outdated and ineffective process which often leaves many important questions unanswered and issues unresolved.

The most progressive businesses have developed mutual feedback cultures where all parties involved in the process provide feedback for each other and then however painful, act on it quickly. Creating an environment where employees feel safe to critique how they are managed allows for powerful coaching opportunities for leaders themselves with insights into the impact of their own behaviours they may have been oblivious to.

An organisation can never really develop a true performance culture without a feedback culture being embedded first. Lightbulb’s #FeedbackFirst [link] project provides multiple suggestions of how such a feedback culture can be forged.

It’s time for a different kind of investment

Many organisations fail to recognise the importance of investing time and capital into examining their feedback cultures and making transformational changes. This is partly because outcomes are difficult to measure in the interim.

However, those organisations that do make the investment, begin cultivating teams with strong bonds of trust from which better performance derives. One might look to the social media giants Facebook and Twitter, both of whom have told their people they can work from home, forever if they so wish. By developing strong, continually evolving and flexible performance management processes designed to empower, motivate, and support, they are now able to transition towards modern working practices that are not only effective, but which are significantly more resilient to disruptive events such as viral outbreaks.

The world isn’t just changing, it has changed. The fragilities of traditional working practices have been exposed in the harshest of fashions and adaptation is crucial to survival and future prosperity.

Right now, Lightbulb are working with businesses, teaching them the fundamentals of intelligent and inclusive feedback, techniques to develop strong and lasting mutual trust, how to adapt their approaches and management styles that prioritises both quality of output and employee wellbeing.

They are fortifying their positions and building cultural solutions for organisations that will allow them to prosper in what will be a different future, whilst ensuring that the future world of work, works better.

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