Performance Management and Unintended Consequences

Last year, the state of Georgia published a report showing that cheating on a statewide exam was occurring at 80% of the schools in the Atlanta school district. It had become a regular practice to change answers on student exams in order to meet the performance standards set for the schools and district. Some educators even had ‘cheat parties’ where they would get together on the weekend to change the answers on the tests. A statistical analysis showed that the probability of the type of performance improvement shown year over year was one in quadrillion.

Former Superintendent Dr. Beverly Hall, who retired in June 2011 as head of the 48,000-student district, is accused of creating a culture of fear, pressuring faculty and administrators into accepting ever-increasing targets of achievement, and turning a blind eye to the way those goals were achieved (USA Today, July 12, 2011).

If you were to ask Dr. Hall if her goal was to create a culture of cheating, I’m sure she would tell you that her intent was to create a culture of high performance and student achievement. Cheating was an unintended consequence.

One of a leader’s core functions is to build high performance. We set goals, create accountability, give feedback, and provide praise or other consequences. However, we rarely stop to think about the unintended consequences. We don’t ask whether we’re driving behaviors that we don’t want by the way we approach performance.

Those familiar with the Atlanta situation say that Dr. Hall was ‘data-driven’. The numbers were the results that mattered. Sound familiar? Managing by the numbers alone opens the door for people to behave in ways that we may not want or expect (think Enron, Lehman Brothers) I recently saw a posting by a sales manager who found that one of his sales reps performed well one day a month — the day before the sales results needed to be turned in. That’s all he needed to do to reach his goal and get his commissions. The manager was concerned that he wasn’t doing much the other days. Rather than driving performance, the numbers-only approach was limiting it.

Rather than focusing purely on the numbers, we need to focus on both the results and the behaviors that lead to those results. What’s acceptable and unacceptable behavior on the way to the numbers? Do we turn a blind eye to bad behavior because, ‘she gets results’? Are we creating expectations that cause people to spend their time “gaming” the system or to focus on achieving real performance? What are the unintended consequences of how we are leading?

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