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The Performance Gambit: A High-Stakes Journey into the Minefield of Employee Management

I arrived at the office on a Monday morning, running a little late thanks to my overly affectionate 3-year old refusing to let me go at day care drop off. As I walked to my office, my PA let me know there was a new client waiting for me in the boardroom. I’ll call him “Mr Bossman,” because he was dressed to the nines in a tailored suit and an intimidating scowl. The offer of coffee did little to quench the serious businessman, but for me it was the sweet nectar of the gods.

Now, I’ve been around the block a few times and I know a thing or two about managing performance. It’s a tricky game, like navigating a minefield. One wrong step and BOOM!, you can blow up the whole company. But I’m always up for a challenge, so I decided to take on this client and see where it would lead me. After all, I’d just successfully negotiated terms from the most difficult of all clients, my 3-year old son.

As I sat down, he launched into his spiel about how he needed my help to improve his company’s performance. He talked about how he had tried everything from financial incentives to micromanagement, but nothing seemed to work. As I sat across from him, I could see the desperation in his eyes. He was like a gambler who had put all his chips on the table and was now waiting for the roulette wheel to stop spinning. He had taken a big risk, and he was about to find out whether he had won big or lost it all.

I started by asking Bossman a simple question, “What motivates your employees?” He scoffed, “Money, of course. What else is there?”

Typical Type X thinking. On the outside, I smiled and nodded. In my mind, my eyes rolled back. According to McGregor, Type X workers are those who are primarily motivated by extrinsic rewards such as money or fear of punishment. On the other hand, Type Y workers are motivated by intrinsic factors such as autonomy, mastery, and purpose. We all want Type Y, but we tend to get Type X. Not only that, but we tend to keep Type X, because we don’t do anything to convert them to a Y.

I explained to Bossman that performance management should be individualised, based on the needs and motivations of each employee. This meant understanding the cognitive, emotional, and motivational factors that influence their performance. He looked sceptical, but I pressed on. I showed him the latest research, which shows that cognitive and emotional factors play a significant role in performance. For example, stress can impair cognitive function and decision-making, while positive emotions can enhance creativity and problem-solving. Bossman still looked unconvinced.

So, I pulled out some quantitative data from a peer-reviewed study that showed how personalised performance management led to higher levels of employee engagement and productivity. The data was good, but it still wasn’t shifting him. It was time to stop playing the logic game and hit him with something that matters, a good story. I gave him a metaphor that seemed to click with him.

Think of your employees as different types of plants. Some need more sunlight, others more water. You wouldn’t water a cactus the same way you would water a fern, would you? It’s the same with employees. You need to give them what they need to thrive.” Now the ol’ metaphor of plants needing different types of care to thrive is more than just a clever way to make a point – it’s backed by some serious brain science that shows that our brains are wired to respond differently to different types of rewards and punishments.

You see, when we get a reward, like praise or recognition, dopamine gets released in our brains, making us feel good and reinforcing the behaviour that led to the reward. But not everyone’s brain is wired the same – some people are “high responders” to dopamine, meaning they get more of a kick out of rewards than others. On the flip side, the amygdala – the part of the brain that deals with fear and anxiety – responds more strongly to punishments. So, when we get criticised or receive negative feedback, the amygdala goes into overdrive, triggering a stress response that can really mess with our cognitive abilities and decision-making skills.

So, just like plants need different types of care to thrive, different employees may respond better to different types of rewards and punishments. Some folks may be all about the money, while others just want a pat on the back. And, let’s not forget about the delicate flowers who can’t handle any criticism – they need some gentle feedback to grow.

You can cultivate more of a Y type of working over time, but the first step is to accept your team for what they are and engage them on their terms.

So fear not, my friends, because by understanding how our brains respond to different types of rewards and punishments, leaders can tailor their performance management strategies to each employee’s individual needs and motivations. We all know what happens when plants are happy and healthy, right? They bloom, they grow, and they make the whole damn place look good. And not just that, but they make our environment healthier!

Same goes for employees – personalised performance management leads to higher levels of engagement and productivity, which is a win-win for everyone involved.

He nodded slowly, “I see what you mean.” I breathed a sigh of relief. It seemed like I was getting through to him.

We spent the rest of the morning discussing different strategies for individualising performance management, such as goal-setting, feedback, and recognition. Things that triggered that X worker, but gently pushed them towards becoming a Y type worker. As we wrapped up, Bossman thanked me for my help and we agreed on how to best move forward.

I knew that I had made a difference, not just for Bossman’s bottom line but for the well-being of his employees. The Performance Gambit is a tricky game, but with the right strategies, it can lead to big wins. By understanding the cognitive, emotional, and motivational factors that influence employee performance, leaders can create a workplace that fosters engagement, productivity, and happiness. And that’s a gamble worth taking.

Until next time keep questioning, keep exploring, and above all, keep that prefrontal cortex firing.

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