Are You Soaring With Eagles?

Is your workplace one that is soaring with eagles (high performers), or overrun with turkeys (low performers)? The author looks at what can make up each one of these scenarios in an agency’s work environment.

Often managers get the feeling that their job is the same as being a superintendent at a cemetery.  You have a lot of people under you, but no one is listening.  Or, you have heard the expression that it is hard to soar with eagles if you are surrounded by turkeys.

The solution to both of these expressions is simply performance management and the internal promotion and external hiring process.  If you do not put the time and effort into the process, you will often end up with a turkey, and there is little return on your investment when you try to train a turkey.  According to Mel Kleinman at Humetrics, Inc., trying to train a turkey works less than 13 percent of the time.

Years ago when I was a senior in college we had the CEO of Bell Labs come to campus to give a presentation to the business majors.  Someone asked him how does Bell Labs turn out a patent a day?  His answer was simple, “I hire the smartest and best people I can find, and my job is to get out of their way.  Management’s responsibility here is to eliminate the obstacles preventing superior performance.”

That answer has stayed with me a very long time, largely because I believe it is absolutely correct.  Too often when we hire or promote someone we look for people who are looking for a job, as opposed to someone who is looking for a challenge, a better job, and someone whose skills have the “wow” factor.  Another factor is do we truly have a performance management system that rewards excellent performance, and corrects negative performance?

One of the problems in the contemporary workplace is that the presence of four generations working together, from the “Traditional/Veterans” through “Baby Boomers”, “Generation X”, “Generation Y”, and “Millennials” is creating a conflict.  The older generation is still largely in the higher echelons of management and the Gen X and Gen Y are chomping at the bit to get ahead, while the Traditionals or Baby Boomers want things done their way and are not willing to relinquish control to those who have not yet paid their dues.

Dr. Aubrey C. Daniels who is renowned for his seminars on performance management and explained it this way:

“There are a number of ways to get people to do what you want, but unless they like doing it, the company has lost something, because no one works up to his/her potential unless he or she is positively motivated. For example, if you threaten an employee with being fired, chances are he’ll do just enough to keep his job, but no more. And, if jobs are plentiful, he might pull a Johnny Paycheck and tell you to “take this job and shove it.” Another problem with negative motivation is that one way or another an employee who’s been coerced into something will get even. That explains a lot of sloppy work and even the deliberate sabotage we hear about today.”  

The young adults of Generation X and Y grew up in a culture where everyone got a game ball in Little League.  Another behavioral psychologist, Dr. Judy Agnew, expressed:

How do you effectively manage a generation of workers who grew up with the immediate gratification of video games, got trophies for just showing up, and were raised by helicopter parents (over-indulgent parents who “hover” over their child’s every need)? This is a growing challenge faced by those who are tasked to manage Millennials. With differing work ethics and expectations, the divide between these generations puts stress on even strong organizations. Understanding these differences is part of the answer, but adopting different management strategies is really the only way to attract, retain, and bring out the best in this new generation of workers.”  

A characteristic of this generation is that they want to make a difference. To my generation, getting a “good job” meant one with stability, good pay, and benefits.   The current generation wants their work to matter. Thus, they are less willing than previous generations to work in a vacuum without knowing if what they are doing is making a difference. This generation wants frequent and specific feedback and they don’t mind negative feedback if it makes it clear how to improve. They want clear expectations and to know where they stand relative to those expectations. This is exactly what performance management is about, and to provide frequent and specific feedback on performance and accomplishment.

Generation X through the Millennials demand good management, and if that is not forthcoming, they are ten seconds late for the door. Performance management is a symbiotic relationship between a manager and his/her direct reports. The successful and supportive subordinate is a person who strives to make himself/herself, along with their boss, look good through their accomplishments. Who evaluates the subordinate – the manager.  Who produces the quality results that makes the manager look good with the higher echelon – the employee.  It is when this collaboration and teamwork occurs, that the results can be awesome, and lifting the entire team and organization, and making the job far more enjoyable.

Another phenomenon between the generations is what motivates people.  According to Pew Research (Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change Pew Re-search Social and Demographic Trends, February 24, 2010), they place family above career and financial success. They are willing to work hard but they want more time with their family.

In many organizations today, companies and government would rather pay the overtime as opposed to hire another worker.  The result is the 50 or 60-hour workweek, which is counter to what motivates the current generation.

This goes back to the CEO of Bell Labs’ comment that it was his job to eliminate the obstacles. Managers have to ensure that the hours that are worked are the most productive, and this takes a delicate balance to avoid micro-management and the stifling effect that it can have.  It also takes a motivated employee who recognizes that to avoid being micro-managed they need to produce. This is possible, but it requires more collaboration between workers and managers to identify and shape the most productive, impactful behaviors. This is good coaching and mentoring.

At a seminar I attended with Dr. Daniels, he began with a question: “1984 was a significant year in American industry and culture – what happened?”

The answer was simply Nintendo and Game Boy were invented.  Generation Y and the Millennials grew up playing video games, with instant feedback and instant gratification.  In a video game every move is either reinforced or punished. Kids learn quickly to adjust their behavior to get desired outcomes. They are very accustomed to negative feedback—their video alter ego dies over and over as a result of their behavior.  They simply learn to adjust to get better. This constant reinforcement teaches the player what they need to do to succeed.  A downside is they are playing these games alone, and not learning to interact with their peers and to solve problems and differences that my generation learned on the sandlot baseball diamond.

Behavior modification is a learned response to past experience, expectations and consequences.  These past experiences are shaped by environmental and external factors surrounding social (parents, teachers, and peers), political and economic situations, and technology.

There can be no doubt that technology has played a huge role in shaping the behavior patterns of Generation Y and the Millenials.  Get on a subway in any major city or stand on the street corner and look around you at the number of people plugged in to a cell phone, IPod, or text messaging.

The historian David McCullough recently commented that the current generation is growing up historically illiterate.  In a CBS 60 Minute interview he commented that after a talk at a well known university, a student came up and complimented him by saying that she did not realize that the original 13 colonies were on the east coast.

Millennials are preoccupied with the present, not the past.  Three years ago Good Morning America did a story on a cheating scandal at the University of Central Florida, which issued an ultimatum to the students involved.  One student interviewed opined that the university was on a witch hunt as if “they are trying to teach us some kind of moral lesson.”  He went on to say “This is college.  Everyone cheats, everyone cheats in life in general.”

Unfortunately, I believe he is correct, and who can the younger generation look to as role models, the clergy, professional athletes, corporate executives, politicians, teachers?

Congress has exempted itself from every major piece of social legislation, including the Ethics in Government Act.  It is a sad commentary that it has to pass special legislation to keep law makers from financially benefitting from trading on Congressional knowledge, stuff for which Martha Stewart spent time in jail.

While Generation Y and the Millennials do not read newspapers or news journals, they are plugged in and learn in real time that one of their NFL stars is arrested for murder.

Maine recently enacted legislation that if a student coming out of a Maine public school is admitted to a Maine public university, and is in need of remedial education in math and English to compete at the college level, the cost of this remedial education is charged back to their high school district.  The message is clear, stop passing a student along who is not ready to compete.

So how do we manage in this complex environment of stimulus? The current generation has grown up in an environment of constant, instantaneous feedback. As a consequence, managers today must be able to provide instant feedback, good or bad.

Dr. Daniels argues that performance management is “based on the laws of human behavior that have been tested time and again in experimental and applied research.  Times change, people change, but the laws that govern human behavior do not change.”

So, if we want to soar with eagles, and not turkeys, we must create the workplace environment where performance management works.  Can your managers today list 10 top reasons why highflying performers would want to work for you?  How do you develop this list, ask your top performers?  Often times the number one answer is that your performance management process has failed, and management has failed to deal with its turkeys.

About the Author

Since retiring in 2011 after nearly 40 years of federal service, Bob Dietrich has been active in training supervisors and HR staff on FLSA and FMLA. He has a three-day course that he can bring to your agency, and he may be reached through the website.