Performance Management: Are You Guilty of Magical Thinking?

Performance Management: Are You Guilty of Magical Thinking?

There's a lot of magical thinking that hovers around Performance Management that even seasoned managers succumb to: that, somehow, problems with people's performance will fix themselves without anyone having to say anything to anybody.

I've heard line managers say things like:

"They must know what they're doing isn't right so at some point they'll do something about it.”


“It’s obvious there’s a problem; I’ll wait for them to bring it up.”


“it’s not so bad; I’m sure it will come good at some point.”

Magical Thinking

The answer is “No”.

No, they won’t do anything about it; no, they won’t bring it up and no, it won’t come good at any point.

Problems don’t magically fix themselves; problems don’t just go away.

Unaddressed Problems Just Get Bigger

Indeed, unaddressed problems get bigger and bigger till they often escalate to a state far worse than if they had been dealt with early on.

Magical thinking like this is prevalent because it’s hard for a lot of managers to deal with things in the moment (or near enough to the moment).

Often in these situations, the manager will have an emotional reaction to whatever is going on (“Did that just happen?”) and won’t quite know what to do.

And then they delay doing anything.

Emotional Outbursts

Many managers fear emotional outbursts (what if the other person cries or gets angry?); they don’t want to rock the boat (things are going so well, why spoil it by bringing up a problem); they’re afraid of disagreement which could turn into conflict.

Even though we all know that ignoring problems won’t make them go away, people still do just that.

I remember working with one manager on a Performance Management course who said he intended asking for a transfer to another department because he had knots in his stomach every time he came to the office (and which he took home with him as well). There was one member of his team in particular who caused him sleepless nights because he was sure this chap was now deliberately being difficult.

I asked him if he had had any conversations with his team member about the issues and he actually said he thought that because his colleague was clearly doing things on purpose there was no point in discussing it.

Irrational Thinking

By the way, irrational thinking like this definitely falls into the magical thinking category as well.

I pointed out that it was very possible that if he transferred to another department there might be someone equally difficult there and wouldn’t it be better to upskill himself rather than transfer from department to department because he was unable to manage people’s day to day performance if there were difficulties.

Upskilling seems rather obvious but when someone is in the middle of strong emotions, anxiety and even fear, running away actually seems the more viable option.

Equally obviously, running away doesn’t necessarily change anything if the same situations arise in the place you’ve run away to.

So let’s look at what some of those skills are that can dispel magical thinking and give managers the confidence to handle day to day performance and be better able to deal with difficulties as they arise.

If you are one of those that fall into the magical thinking category, these tips are for you:

1. Acknowledge and Praise

Look for opportunities to acknowledge and praise team members on a day to day basis; don’t just wait for the above and beyond.

By recognising the stuff that people do every day you are building trust so that if difficulties do arise, it will be easier to have the conversations.

2. Have Regular Feedback Sessions.

Again, this creates a climate of trust because you are keeping a dialogue going about day to day things that arise.

Here you can summarise all the positive things you’ve noticed and especially any improvements since the previous feedback session.

This is also the opportunity to review any difficulties that have arisen to see how they are being dealt with.

3. Make it Two-Way

Any conversation with a colleague needs to be just that – a conversation, not a lecture. Ask open questions and listen to your team member.

Also, be open to any issues he or she may have with you.

4. Nip it in the Bud

Don’t wait for your feedback sessions if something comes up that’s problematic. The longer you wait, the more the situation will fester.

Even if you agree to discuss it in more detail during your feedback sessions, letting the other person know that there is an issue means it’s out on the table and you don’t have to carry around that extra anxiety about dealing with it.

5. Specific Goals and Parameters

Set really specific goals and parameters in order to improve performance.

Don’t leave the onus completely up to them; measurable goals do make it clear for both parties to see whether there has or has not been any progress.

6. Offer Support.

Alongside goals, giving support to achieve them will help both of you as you will be doing what you can to improve the situation and the other person will see that they aren’t being left to fend for themselves.

7. Not Everything Can be Fixed

Accept that sometimes not all problems are ‘fixable’.

If you’ve done all the above and things haven’t improved, you may indeed have to escalate things to a formal disciplinary.

The main thing is that you will have done all you can to avoid that and to maintain healthy working relationships with all your team.

Let’s face it, most people (me included) really do wish that everyone would just get on with their jobs, get on with their colleagues, manage their emotions, deal with problems maturely and contribute to making work a lovely place to be.

That’s magical thinking in a nutshell.

Great Performance Management, however, can actually bring a little magic into the workplace.

By Jo Ellen Grzyb

Performance Management

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