Checking up on people – do it properly and employees will love you for it

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In the classic 1959 Boulting Brothers film I’m All Right Jack, a company employ a ‘time and motion’ researcher with the inevitable consequence of the militant shop steward Fred Kite (played by Peter Sellers) calling his members out on strike. Although the workers refuse to cooperate, the time and motion study man tricks a new employee into showing him how much more quickly he can do his job than other more experienced employees. The film depicts trade unions, workers and bosses as equally manipulative and incompetent, and frankly deserving of each other!

Time and motion studies have thankfully gone the way of other outmoded management practices, since they were based upon a profound lack of trust in people, and were used as a very blunt instrument by managers who simply wanted to exercise ever greater control over their ‘human resources’. Very Frederick Taylor. Very 1950s. 

And yet how are we to improve things if we don’t measure efficiency? How are we to know that everything is as it should be if we don’t check up on people? The mantra ‘I trusted my people to do the job right’ is not going to save any manager from the chop in the face of catastrophic failure. The problem of course is that we often shy away from checking up on people, for fear of them playing the ‘you don’t trust me’ card at us. And aren’t we supposed to be modern, inclusive, delegating leaders these days? Surely double checking and being a pain in the arse is ‘old school’ management? 
One of my very first bosses Michael Munn (a brilliant retailer, but quite a difficult guy to work for) had a mantra: ‘In management, you never get what you EXpect, you only get what you INspect’. While as a natural truster of people part of me railed against this as being a pretty negative view of people at work, I have to say I have had occasion to rue the day I didn’t heed Michael’s words. 

And so I set out to establish processes that both trust people and check up on them – to establish performance management processes that both motivate and control. The key for me lies in the word ‘performance’. 

Checking up on people in their job performance, through spot checks or audits or simply by making them show you the evidence of their process or results, can of course make people feel like they are not trusted, leading in turn to a workforce who refuse to take risks and do the right thing unless specifically authorised or instructed by a manager. People’s experience of being checked up on is negative – maybe they have been criticised in the past and maybe their bosses have used the process to beat them up. 

And yet the experience of giving a performance in front of an audience is craved by many – and why wouldn’t you want people to see just how brilliant you are if you are a great performer? What is there to fear? Lack of preparation and professionalism on your part, maybe and if that is the case then be afraid, but if you’ve put the work in, then bring on the audience. Of course it will be nerve racking. Of course we Brits in particular are not ones to show off. But performance builds confidence. A great performer loves a supportive audience; it’s only the caustic and crabby critics that they hate. How did we turn ourselves from outrageous show offs at the age of 7, shouting ‘look at me, Mum, look at me’ to the fearful and suspicious adults we are now? 

Creating the required ‘performance’ culture

So how do we create a ‘performance’ culture whereby employees actively want to be checked up on? We need to work on two things: 

  1. We have to be clear in our own motivation for doing the checking. Of course there is an element of ‘making sure’ – of giving ourselves reassurance as managers, particularly if our arse is on the line if things go wrong. But if as a manager your greater purpose in checking up on people is genuinely to raise their standards, assist their personal growth and be part of them striving for ever greater levels of performance within this meaningful, purposeful and inspiring common enterprise, then check on. And this means establishing a very clear contract with our people. They HAVE to understand how we will behave with them and that it will not always be comfortable, but that we are acting as we do in order to help them excel. We WILL be a pain in the arse, and we will NOT apologise or back off from this. 
  2. We need to build a culture of high self esteem and self confidence within our workforce, for people who feel good about themselves and their cause, LOVE being checked up on. This means actively investing in relationships of trust, removing fear from the workplace, being aware of our own controlling behaviours (and consciously reining them in) and rewarding others for the behaviours we desire, more than we punish the behaviours we do not. A coaching culture is a fundamental requirement. 

I adopt a very simple leadership technique called ACRC. It goes like this:

  • Awareness – be aware of the crucial moments and events in people’s performances at work, for example when they are about to give a key presentation, attend a training course, carry out a performance appraisal they are fretting about, stand in front of the Board for the first time, or generally do something that they’ve never done before or that takes them way out of their comfort zone. Who helps you with this, by the way? Your PA should, but so should all of your managers. 
  • Checking – being aware that one of these crucial performances is about to happen, go and check with them. Smile. Be excited for them. Ask them how they are feeling. Ask them what they need. The simple act of asking them will communicate so much – the very fact that you KNOW and cared enough to take 5 minutes out of your busy day, or take 30 seconds to drop them an e-mail, will touch their hearts. And since we are busy, it doesn’t always have to be in advance of the performance – it is also powerful to check after the event in a sort of ‘Didn’t you make that critical presentation last week? – how did it go’ type of way.
  • Recognition – having checked, we now have to recognise and reward the behaviours we desire - people being courageous, confronting fears, going into difficult situations, using their initiative, being proactive. And a smile, an encouragement, a genuine ‘well done’ or ‘good luck’ is all that’s needed. All people want is to be acknowledged for their courage.
  • Challenge – having recognised them and rewarded them, we can then challenge them to raise their performance even further. We can coach them to use their experience and what they’ve learned from tackling that courageous performance, to stretch them further. And they will respond, because they are finally learning that we are not trying to catch them out; we are simply desperate for them to achieve their potential. And in our desperation we will not compromise, and we will not shy away from being a pain in the arse! 

A case in point

As chairman of a public institution a few years back, I was informed that, horror of horrors and disaster of disasters, we were to be subject to audit by government Inspectors. When I expressed pleasure that we were to be audited, I was accused of naivety and offered a £50,000 budget from the group parent company to make sure we ‘got through’ the audit with an acceptable rating. I declined. I was proud of what we were doing and I also fundamentally believed that the inspectors were motivated to do their job by the desire to make things better. Naivety in the extreme clearly! 

The inspectors duly came and saw us as we were. They were impressed by the things we did that were impressive. Where we fell short, their recommendations were genuinely helpful. All in all it was a hugely positive process, and all the employees were galvanised and excited by the whole affair. They were proud of themselves for the things they were praised for, and they took the more critical feedback as a spur to improve in the future. How much more positive that wasting £50,000 on stressing the staff, fooling the auditors and obtaining a correspondingly useless report. 

I have often recommended ‘mystery shopping’ (the use of people pretending to be prospective customers in retail outlets to check the quality of the customer experience) and have seen the very worst and best examples. In the worst, retail staff are genuinely afraid of being ‘mystery shopped’ and spend their time trying to ‘suss out’ a mystery shopper in advance in order to score the highest rating, and thus survive. Very helpful - not.  In the best examples, retail staff can’t wait to be mystery shopped so that their bosses can actually see just how good they are. The difference – the motivation behind the schemes and the way they are organised. If people are fearful they will find ways round schemes. If they welcome it they will be proud to show you their performance.

Final thoughts

A performance culture is not always comfortable, but watch how much it means for people on the Saturday night reality shows whether singing, ballroom dancing or ice skating, and see the quite phenomenal growth they accomplish in their technical and artistic performances. They are under the closest scrutiny, and feel fear as a palpable and physically ever present companion from their ‘judges’. And yet they stand there and weep at the end of their performances – the experience has meant so much to them. 

What is the point in getting good at anything if there is no one to watch? What is the point in stretching ourselves to grow and learn, if no one is going to encourage us in our struggle? If you call it ‘checking up on people’ then it will surely fail. But if you are genuinely motivated to coach people and be a catalyst in their growth, then you are on a magically emotional journey and your people will follow you to the end of the Earth.

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