The 10 Million Dollan Question: The Slippery Slope Between Performance Coaching and Performance Management
For those of you who can’t or won’t read to the end of this article to find out about the 10-million-dollar question, here it is:
“If you won 10 million dollars tonight (15 million dollars if you live in Vancouver or Toronto), would you continue to work at your job? That means, as is, no changes or cherry-picking. And would you continue to work there until retirement age, as if you didn’t have the 10 million dollars?”
If you are curious as to why I ask it, please read on . . .
As both a team and executive coach, I have been noticing some trends over the last few years that have given me cause for pause.
Initially when individual clients or organizations approached me for performance coaching (either individual or team), the focus was to enhance the overall ability and development of the individual and/or team. There was no specific focus other than to support the natural growth and organic development within and among individuals and groups. The intent was to make even better, something that was already great. This mindset recognized that healthy humans and healthy systems need regular inputs to remain healthy and to grow to their fullest potential. Like a plant or tree that bears fruit, people and systems need to be supported in their intrinsic nature, oriented to the appropriate climate, soil, access to light, drainage, fertilizers, rest and occasional pruning. In addition, they all need to live in supportive and symbiotic relationship with other organisms.
This metaphor is a proactive approach to create and maintain sustainable human beings and systems who remain healthy in their professional milieu. It provides the right conditions for the human to flourish and as a natural consequence—in the workplace—optimal performance is a by-product, not the intent.
Lately, it seems that performance coaching is more frequently being used as performance management, a strategy to remediate or fix something that isn’t meeting expectations, such as “hitting” one’s numbers or missing KPI’s. Exceptions noted, there are usually deeper and more complex reasons why someone’s performance is not meeting expectations than what performance coaching can sustainably resolve. While not an exhaustive list, the following factors might also be impacting someone’s performance:
-Mental health issues
-Unhealthy workplace environment (physical and/or emotional lack of safety)
-Stress and/or unreasonable workload
-Too much or unnecessary change
-Lack of attuned purpose and/or meaning in their role
-Unresolved conflict in the workplace
- Non-attuned fit between the employee and his/her role
What might be more appropriate to support these issues would be counselling, mentoring, workplace interventions, training, team-building and change-management support.
I recall a recent coaching client who was offered executive coaching through me. The performance outcomes were specifically identified, in advance, by his leaders and not by the client. It was clear to the client that his advancement in the organization was at risk if he did not meet these expectations. By our third session, he indicated that most of his self-care and wellness practices had ceased, as he had to work long and unpredictable hours as the regular nature of his job. As a result, his long-term capacity to function optimally was impaired. We did our best to support him to work smarter and not harder and some enhancements were made, but ultimately—at least in this case—it was the nature of the role that was the main issue. In it, he found little to no real purpose and meaning in his role and hence his intrinsic motivation was very limited.
In some of my other writing, I have mentioned that a sufficient level of intrinsic motivation in one’s professional role directly influences one’s neurochemistry, specifically: serotonin (physical and emotional regulation), dopamine (pleasure and intrinsic reward system), norepinephrine (sustainable energy) and endogenous painkillers such as endorphins and enkephalins that help to cope with stress, discomfort and pain. Of course, these are all highly sought phenomena we would like to have in our people, and one way to encourage this is to have meaningfully intrinsic motivations embedded within workplace roles, attuned to the needs and desires of the individual; the right person in the right role!
As I have said many times in my in-person trainings: “If your true nature and passion is to be a spontaneous, unique and creative artist waiting for the muse to possess you for your next masterpiece, yet you are spending 7 ½ hours a day sitting in front of a computer screen looking at numbers, it is not if, but when you will become ill, either physically or emotionally.” You can be on your yoga mat and eat your broccoli but the best that will do is some harm reduction.
Now I live in the real world with the rest of you and recognize that most people do not want to work in their current jobs as they are defined. I base this observation by the response I get when I frequently ask the following question in many of my in-person trainings: “If you won 10 million dollars tonight (I suggest 15 million when I am in Vancouver or Toronto), would you continue to work at your job, as is, no changes or cherry-picking and continue to work there until retirement age as if you didn’t have the 10 million dollars? If so, please raise your hand?”
Invariably, there are always one or two people who put up their hand, but the overwhelming majority do not. Think about that. Also consider that the majority or people I work with are white collar, have post-secondary education, have well-paying jobs with benefits and most are in leadership positions. Typically these are the most-satisfied people in the general workplace who have higher levels of authority, autonomy, creativity and resources.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love my work, but if I had that kind of money I would not be doing it, or as much of it, or in the same manner as I am now. I’d volunteer to do this work for groups aligned with my values, maybe a couple times a month, but I would be spending my time living closer to nature, living in a yurt, playing music with friends, training kung fu with my students and having close friends and community within walking distance. Oh yeah, I’d grow my hair long again. Yes, I am a closet hippie!
What keeps me sustainably healthy in not being able to actualize my ideal . . . yet . . . it is the deep intrinsic motivation I have for helping other human beings which is related to some of my deepest values and most authentic self.
So before you quit your job and leave your family to run off to Fiji to become an artist, maybe start with taking an art class on Wednesday nights and see if that tips the balance for you. Sometimes that is all it takes. In the professional realm, if we can help identify and amplify some part of a person’s role that has intrinsic meaning for them and support them in their creativity, growth and success within that, then performance management may not be needed and we can return to using performance coaching as it was meant to be used: to support the authentic growth of the individual and trust that optimal performance will be a bonus!