Focusing on performance—getting the absolute most output, productivity, creativity, etc.—out of the workforce is generally seen as a positive managerial approach.
Tim Sackett’s favorite CEO, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, is (for the most part), winning plaudits for tightening up the work rules, increasing performance expectations, and demanding accountability for employees and managers. And that, whether it manifests itself in more stringent attendance and telework policies, or more formal and consistent performance-management practices, can often mean the difference between a successful organization and one that sort of meanders about, and perhaps eventually withers and dies.
More focus on performance, less management nepotism, higher standards for hiring and promotion, rewarding the best contributors and quickly moving out everyone and anyone that is not up to par, invested in the mission, or a good “culture fit,” (good luck with that one)—it would be hard to argue with any of these factors if you were truly interested in creating, sustaining, or resurrecting a high-performance organization.
But any of those seemingly rational and well-conceived management philosophies, when taken to their extremes, pass the point of comfort for most rational people. Then you have a problem.
Then you have what is going on in the world for professional American football and the Miami Dolphins.
I am sure by now you’ve heard at least the basics of the story. One player, Jonathan Martin, leaves the team due to, by his claim, excessive and potentially criminal bullying at the hands of another player, Richie Incognito. Incognito, more or less, claims innocence, chalks up any of the alleged bullying behavior to the “normal” methods by which new players are acculturated to the team and to the profession. And to further complicate matters, there may or may not have been a managerial direction from Dolphin coaching staff to Incognito to “toughen up” Martin, for the purpose of making Martin a better player. And, mix in a large assortment of current and former players mainly placing the blame for all of this mess on Martin, and espousing that he should “man up,” as it’s the culture of the profession that expects that attitude and response of its members.
But to put this back in an HR/Talent context, we can view American professional football as the pinnacle of the “performance-above-all” workplace culture.
The performance of players in games, practices, meetings, even in off-season weight room workouts is meticulously recorded, tracked, and analyzed. Tiny variations in performance level are captured. For example, if a player turns up for the new season five pounds heavier or a tenth of a second slower in a 40-yard sprint, then the team will know about it, and perhaps take corrective action against the player. In games, every play is recorded, and each individual player is then graded on their performance on each play. Did they follow their assigned actions? Did they execute the task they were asked to complete? Did they exert the expected amount of effort?
And with all this detailed performance data, it becomes pretty easy for coaches and team executives to note and take action on performance problems. Most commonly, a player will cede playing time to another, and sometimes a low-performing player will simply be terminated. The only thing that matters to the player is remaining on the team and playing. That is how they continue to cash their paychecks. The only thing that matters to the coaches and executives is that the team is successful; they too run a yearly risk of being shown the door if the team does not win consistently.
There is no other job I can think of where there is a combination of day-to-day and week-to-week performance management that then collides with an insulated (and pretty unsavory at times) culture that suggests only certain kinds of people, (hyper-competitive, aggressive, dominant, angry), can succeed.
The Incognito/Martin mess may seem like simply a football issue, that has no real impact or importance to the 99.9% of the rest of the workplaces in the world that don’t operate under the unique conditions of professional sports. But I think, (like I usually do), that sports, with the amazing transparency and visibility that exposes many of the talent-management decisions and practices, offers us a couple of lessons to think about and that are relevant in any organization.
Rather than simply looking at the Dolphins’ mess and dismissing it as not applicable to us normals, I’d encourage you to think about it through the HR/Talent/performance/culture prism.
Each additional step, data point, or program you begin tracking in order to better measure and take action, both positive and punitive based on performance, will take you closer to becoming a pure performance-is-the-only-thing-that-matters organization. You will, then, perform better. But you will start grinding up talent and there will be some hard feelings along the way. Just like the NFL.
Each time you say things like “we hire for cultural fit” or “we like to find people who see the world the way we do” and then make hiring and talent-management decisions on those criteria, you get closer to becoming an organization where only a certain, narrow type of person feels welcome and can succeed—just like the NFL.
And, on the surface, that might not be a bad thing. The NFL has been an incredible success story. It’s franchises are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The stadiums are filled on Sundays. Everyone plays Fantasy Football and watches the Super Bowl.
But achieving that kind of amazing and sustained performance as a business does not come without a cost. As the Incognito/Martin affair reminds us.
The comic Steve Marin once said “Comedy is not pretty.”
Neither, often, is high performance in organizations.