Performance Management and 3 Richards!!

I am sitting at the canteen with a friend (who also happens to be a senior leader) sipping some filter coffee when a young colleague comes in looking dazed and badly in need of some super strong coffee.

We procure one for him and let him take a few sips of the strong, hot, relaxing brew and ask him what happened.

“Ran into a ghost or something?” we ask helpfully.

“Man, how do you senior guys pick goals for us?.” The lament has officially begun. “My boss started off talking about the need for upskilling, deep-learning and endless curiosity, almost requiring me to become like Richard Feynman!”

“See – we seniors help turn you into a genius!” the two of us say in unison.

“Guess that’s where I made my blooper” says he in a lower and more aggrieved tone.”At that point, I wise cracked that I understood why Feynman would come in handy to my boss – he had the knack of explaining complex stuff to even a 5 year-old child!”.

“And..”, we ask expecting the discussion to now be peppered with fireworks.

“Well, the guy just started reading out the next section of my goals – now requiring me to be a showman who could wow clients, take risks (but always succeed!), diversify the business..”

“Did he also mention about sporting a cool hairstyle?” asks my friend.

“Nope, but he did say something about standing apart from the crowd”, says our young friend looking perplexed.

“He was just asking you to channel your inner Richard Branson. Check the goal sheet – as a stretch goal he may require you to secure a Knighthood for yourself”.

“Give me a break – I need a tomato juice” says our young friend and moves to the counter.

Now it’s our turn to be surprised. Tomato juice following filter coffee is not something we see often.

Our friend returns from the juice bar, plonks down his beverage and breaks into a beatific smile.

“Just when I thought my boss was all done, he asks me to deal compassionately with my team, be inclusive and diverse, do mind-fullness meditation exercises and never show anger”.

“Eh?” we sputter. This is novel. “Did he have a role model for this – ahem – perfect citizen behaviour”.

“He did. He asked me to follow the writings of Matthieu Richard – who apparently is the happiest man in the world. He even suggested I try attending one of his retreats – he recommended choosing Sunday, since we occasionally worked Saturdays”.

We were impressed. This boss guy and his 3 Richard system was something else altogether. We wondered how the session ended.

Our young friend now smiled his first happy smile. “But I ended on a high and had the last laugh – I told him that I would give these Richard-behaviours a shot and return in a year – but if he then asked me to become yet another Richard – no matter who – I would turn into Richard the Terrible. The expression my boss sported on hearing this made up for all the grades in the world. Thank god, the guy at least reads Shakesphere!”

Falling off the pedastal

As a rule, we like to put our celebrities on pedestals. For a change, I thought about a different context – how about when we are placed on a pedestal and brought down (and before you call it narcissistic, let me assure you that each of us is held up to a pedestal by someone – a team member, a friend, a relative (moms’ of course don’t count!)). The pedestal can be one of many types – you can be on a “kindness” pedestal (meaning someone sees you as a very kind guy), a “fairness” pedestal (probably outcome of a few appraisal cycles sometime!), a “wisdom” pedestal (maybe you just refuse to get angry no matter what the provocation), a “generosity” pedestal and so on…Like I said, there are infinite pedestals and you can find yourself being put on one of them –  irrespective of whether want to be on one or not. Of course choosing to stay on top is your decision.

Let me elaborate with a story. Recently, a team member told me I had betrayed “his trust”. Or in other words I had fallen off his pedestal. A pedestal he assured me he had put me on for 5 years at least. Picking myself up and brushing off the dust, I asked him what made him put me down – and more importantly, how is it that I climbed that pedestal in the first place?

What he told me (first hesitantly and then fluently) opened my eyes to a whole new world. It appeared I had taken some very fair (in his view) decisions consistently over the years. Decisions he had thought I would buckle under (like putting a very able but first-class-jerk in his place and so on) I had aced. I had also stayed true to my words. And then this year, I had taken a decision to promote someone (and that too at his cost!) who he felt was surely unworthy. There was consequently a breach in the trust, but he advised me that I could do do my image a bit of good if I could promise him I’d do the right thing the next time around.

I thanked him for his candor but told him I couldn’t promise anything a year away (given the economic uncertainty, I would need an astrologer mindset to predict anything at all with some confidence!). I also walked him through the logic of my decisions (as far as was possible and as well as I could stitch it together – I suspect some unconscious embellishment to make me look rational would have figured too!) – and the constraints. I emphasized also that while I owned the decision, it was really a group call – so while the decisions could have been wrong, they were designed to reduce bias.

But the thought didn’t leave me – something big was at play here – and as I started seeking wiser counsel, I realized it was indeed. Many leaders I admired told me they had experienced “being placed on pedestals and then dropped” as well. And the following were the major inferences/ advice to avoid being crippled:

  1. Remember the pedestal is a mental construct of someone else’s. And therefore by definition it isn’t true. So just because someone puts your image on the king’s throne you are not a king – its just another doll on a make-believe seat. If on the other hand, you start believing the whole pedestal thing, you will begin to need conforming to a different morality standard. Since you are on someone else’s pedestal – to retain the position – you will need to confirm to his views and morality and that can be very limiting – as we discuss in the next point
  2. A pedestal is always finite (or in other words limited) – a few feet wide and a few feet long at most. Not enough room to move around – put yourself on someone’s pedestal and you’ll start feeling claustrophobic
  3. Pedestals require effort from the guy who’s building it. And the more effort, taller the pedestal – and greater his expectations of you. And taller the pedestal, the more impactful the fall. This is why public feels “devastated” when celebrities fail (but are ok to forgive a commoner when he does not fulfil their expectations – afterall he’s just a man!)
  4. This does not mean we should be ungrateful to the pedestal builders. We should thank them – but let them know that the pedestal is fiction. And once they understand that, they will appreciate you more for it
  5. Where possible, its best not to not build pedestals for ourselves for others – if the object of our admiration is a wise man – any pedestal failure will hurt us not the object
  6. Try new experiences, meet new friends, renew yourself afresh. Pedestals take time to solidify, so don’t give yourself the time (both ways!)
  7.  Finally, never make the mistake of building a pedestal for your self. This will mean schizophrenia – feeling betrayed and angry on yourself – can give rise to a very destructive vicious loop.

 

So that’s it for now. One leader said it best “ Once you know all the pedestals are just dolls, it takes a tremendous weight off your shoulders and the world becomes your playground – enjoy it”. Would you agree?