Inside Out E-Column: Aligning Employee Engagement with Marketing Communications

Focusing on results can lead to poor performance.


Remember to recognize strong performance
Remember to recognize strong performance.

I want to share another insight from my late friend and mentor, David Berlo.  He always emphasized the distinction between results and performance.  Results are the outcomes you produce, and performance is how you get there, he said.  From there, he asserted that being singularly results-driven in what you measure and reward eventually leads to the deterioration of both performance AND results.  Here’s why.

Outcomes vs. Inputs

First, we all know that people tend to repeat behaviors that are reinforced in some meaningful way.  Likewise, people tend NOT to repeat behaviors for which they receive negative response.  Next, it’s important to realize that no one has direct control over outcomes (results) – unless the game is fixed or there’s an unfair advantage.  People can only control inputs (performance).

Now, if bad performance always led to bad results, and good performance always led to good results, it wouldn’t matter which one you rewarded – results or performance. But that’s not always how things work out.  Sometimes you don’t get good results even when you give your best effort – other variables can come into play.  Other times, just the opposite is true.  You can give a marginal effort and come out smelling like a rose.

That’s not how things usually happen, but look at what you get when they do.  If you fail to reward people for good performance because they had bad results, you discourage them from repeating the good behavior.  If you reward them for good results in spite of poor performance, you reinforce poor performance in the future.  The cumulative effect over time is inevitable.  Every time you focus on results in a way that either reinforces poor performance or discourages good performance, you also take a step backwards with long-term results.

Performance is the bottom line.

Of course, you have to add up the numbers on the bottom line eventually.  But even if winning in the world of business means producing results, lasting success still requires focusing on the drivers of those results, and rewarding effective execution – regardless of the outcomes in the short run.  Berlo summed it up this way: “Winning is the name of the game, but performance is the bottom line.”  Clearly, if effective execution isn’t producing the desired long-term results, you need to figure out where the disconnect is.  But it serves no purpose to penalize people for poor outcomes if they’re doing the right things in the right way. If that happens, you need to fix the systems, not the people.

So what does that mean for us in the people professions?  For HR people, it’s pretty obvious.  Some compensation and bonus programs are notorious for focusing solely on immediate, bottom line results without regard to how they’re produced – often leading to short-term “success” with negative long-term consequences. Those programs have to encourage performance that looks at the long haul. For communications people, we need to look at where the bulk of the ongoing organizational dialogue is focused.  Are we communicating effectively about the “steps to success” – or is everything employees read and hear about focused on the end game?  If it’s results we’re after, we’d better be talking a lot more about what it takes to produce them – because in the end, it’s how you get there that counts.

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