When you move into a leadership role, you assume responsibility for the results achieved by other people. You likely got both the opportunity and the responsibility because you are a high achiever. You know how to get things done, and you are good at what you do. And you expect the same from your team.

These are all admirable and good traits. High, positive expectations for yourself and for your team are an important part of achieving high results.

The Hazards

Unfortunately, great personal achievement and high expectations of others has the potential to create a different challenge for you. Delegating tasks could result in unmet expectations.

As a high achiever who overcomes obstacles and gets great results, you expect the same from others. So it’s easy to conclude that anything less than excellence is the result of low motivation or competence. After all, you figured it out, so they should be able to figure it out as well. Thus begins a string of bad assumptions. First, you might assume that poor results are caused by personal failure. Next, you might assume a direct conversation about their failure will “motivate” them to do better in the future.

While probably well intentioned, this approach will likely be a disaster. You run the risk of alienating people and damaging the relationships you need to achieve sustainable, long-term results. To build a high-performing team with highly motivated team members, there is a better approach.

A Less-hazardous Approach

When results fall short of your expectations, first consider the work process before you confront the people. Or, as a mentor of mine told me one time, “Process first, people second.”

This approach begins assuming good intent. That most people want to perform well, get good results, and be satisfied by and with their work. It is the rare person who intentionally or willfully does things in a sub-par fashion. Even by doing what they thought they were supposed to do, people can still get poor results. Possibly misguided or misinformed, and still, they did what they thought they were supposed to do.

Start with this guiding assumption before you attempt to fix “performance problems.” Consider communication breakdowns, training gaps, and business process barriers to performance first. Rule out any potential organizational cause before considering worker motivation or competence as the root cause for a failure.

A leader who immediately looks to people failures as the source of performance problems asks questions like:

  • What’s wrong with them?
  • Why didn’t they do what I asked them to do?
  • Why don’t they care about their work?
  • Why don’t they listen?

A leader who thinks “Process first, people second” asks questions like:

  • Did I fully and clearly communicate my expectations?
  • Have we given this person the correct training to do this job?
  • Are the right tools in place to do this job?
  • Are there conflicting goals (between people, departments, or procedures) that hinder this person’s performance?
  • How can I make it easier for them to do their job?

Fewer Hazzards, More Benefits

Considering “Process first, people second” will also help you improve your processes. Then everyone on the team can leverage your efforts to get better results. Rather than pursue “whack-a-mole” approaches to performance improvement, find and fix systemic problems that hinder everyone on the team.

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High Impact Leadership: The #1 Fastest Way to Accelerate Your Organization’s Success

February 22, 2024  1:00pm ET

Guy is our team’s night owl and Kevin’s co-author. He’s thoughtful and deliberate. Guy is our stealth warrior, completing projects that move our team ahead. His speaking and consulting gigs keep him on the road regularly, and he is always happy to return to his family. Guy is a wise and insightful coach, warm and supportive. He’s definitely someone you want to know.

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