Helping Employees Improve Performance

Nik Kinley and Shlomo Ben-Hur wrote in an earlier MIT Sloan Management Review article that managers should play a more active role in employee development. Several readers wanted more details.

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In a recent article in MIT Sloan Management Review, London-based leadership consultant Nik Kinley and Shlomo Ben-Hur, a professor of leadership and organizational behavior at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, argued that managers need to find better ways to help employees develop. The problem, they wrote in the summer 2017 issue, isn’t identifying which behaviors need improvement. Rather, it lies in helping employees change their behaviors — and making the changes stick. They noted that only 28% of the managers they surveyed felt confident about their ability to get employees to change their behavior. What’s more, Kinley and Ben-Hur observed, companies often focus on rewards and penalties instead of tapping into intrinsic motivation, which can be more effective.

Although the article struck a chord with many readers, several readers wanted concrete suggestions for improving the performance management process. Soumen Sarkar, an educational technology entrepreneur in Bangalore, India, commented that changes in performance management are always accompanied by the “promise of improving objectivity, transparency, and efficiency…. However, every year both the managers and the employees dread when the time comes for” performance appraisals. Aaron Peterson, a strategic management analyst in Tempe, Arizona, sought specific guidance. “I understand intrinsic motivation, but as a manager, how do I help an employee tap into that resource if they aren’t already doing so?”

We invited authors Kinley and Ben-Hur to respond. “The dread many managers feel is understandable,” they wrote, “but it can be minimized when you have something concrete and useful to help direct reports improve their performance. Many managers either don’t talk about how employees can improve their performance or jump straight to what people need to change, without offering much in the way of suggestions for how. What we have found is that to genuinely help people improve their performance, managers need to do two things. First, they need to understand the inner and outer context for people’s performance — why they are performing the way they are. After that, they need to offer practical ideas for improvement.”

Kinley and Ben-Hur developed a model to help managers diagnose which elements of an individual’s context most influence performance.


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