Buckingham: Team Leaders Make the Difference

Performance management should be designed to support these key players

By Roy Maurer Jun 29, 2015
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Marcus Buckingham

​Marcus Buckingham, founder of The Marcus Buckingham Co., speaks to attendees June 29 at the SHRM 2015 Annual Conference & Exposition.

LAS VEGAS—Nationally renowned human capital expert Marcus Buckingham believes “radical” shifts are necessary to support team leaders—the most important drivers of business success—­in their efforts to manage performance and raise engagement in the workforce.

“There is a fundamental and radical shift happening in the workplace,” the founder of The Marcus Buckingham Co. told attendees June 29, 2015, at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2015 Annual Conference & Exposition.

This shift includes moving focus from the organizational level to team leaders, moving from a reliance on big data to the effective use of smart data, and changing the mission of team leaders from providing feedback to coaching.

When you study performance, it’s important to realize that a range exists among teams doing the same work in the same company, Buckingham said. There’s no such thing as a “Google way,” he said, but instead, “what it’s like to work at Google will vary massively according to the particular team that you’re on.” Whether it’s measured as productivity, employee engagement, customer satisfaction or lost workdays, you will find a significant range in performance metrics.

HR’s role is to find out what the high-performing teams are doing that the lower-performing teams are not. “If you want to build a great organization, you can’t build it from the center. You have to build it from lots and lots of teams, team leader by team leader. They make the difference,” Buckingham said.

The problem is that “we don’t build tools and systems for team leaders.” Instead, learning and performance management systems are built for the organization. “We’ve built an entire system to disempower the very people who can drive engagement.”

Anyone who runs a team needs to be able to answer three questions:

  • What are the strengths of my people?
  • What are they doing right now?
  • How are they feeling?

Every week, a team leader should conduct a performance snapshot—regular check-ins with each team member about near-term work, Buckingham said. “These brief conversations allow leaders to set expectations for the upcoming week, review priorities and provide coaching. The best team leaders know that the goals put into the performance management system at the beginning of the year are irrelevant by the third week of the year,” he said.

One thing to avoid in these “light touch” meetings is feedback, according to Buckingham. “No one wants feedback. We want attention, and particularly coaching attention. Don’t tell me where I stand; help me get better,” he said.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Team leaders need tools that will give them real-time, reliable data that can be presented to the CEO to move the business forward, Buckingham said. “We have to move away from tools that we have to coerce team leaders into using, and more into tools that team leaders will thank you for.” A lot of the people data being relied on right now is “garbage,” he said. The worst culprit: performance ratings data, which is premised on the logic that “we can train one human being to be a reliable rater of another human being.”

As objective as the rater may try to be in evaluating someone on strategic thinking for example, “it turns out that how much strategic thinking I do, or how valuable I think strategic thinking is, or how tough a rater I am, significantly affects my assessment of your strategic thinking,” he said.

He cited research which found that 61 percent of variance in ratings could be accounted for by individual raters’ perceptions. Actual performance accounted for only 21 percent of the variance. “Ratings reveal more about the rater than they do about the ratee,” he said. How then can employers capture a team leader’s view of individual employees’ performance without running into what the researchers termed “idiosyncratic rater effects”?

Buckingham said his company’s Performance Pulse tool strives to measure how each team leader plans to guide each team member. “It turns out we are all reliable raters of our own intentions and feelings,” he said. The tool is just a short survey that asks team leaders at least four times a year a few questions about what they intend to do with each of their team members: do they deserve a promotion, or need more training or corrective action? By aggregating the data from these questions, the organization will see, quarter by quarter, what it should do with each team member, based on the judgment of the team leader.

“We’re all in the human nature business, the business of helping people discover what they can become,” Buckingham concluded. “The power of human nature is that each person’s nature is unique. The challenge for HR is to take what is unique in people and help them turn it into something useful.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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