The Secrets To Performance Management: Lessons From A Swan

Why is it that so many bosses dread performance management discussions with their employees? Why are performance conversations often so tough? Why doesn’t everybody get inspired about performance?

The secret to turning those tough performance conversations into inspired action, into discussions that you genuinely look forward to, is one word: passion. If people aren’t passionate about their work, they will never achieve their performance potential. If you can’t get to people’s passion, you won’t get the results you need – you’ll always be trying to motivate them, and you will always fall short.

It’s pretty obvious that passion precedes performance. So how do you get to it? And how do you sustain it? Over a hundred years ago, the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a poem that sheds some clues. Here are some lessons from a swan.

This clumsy living that moves lumbering as if in ropes… reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.
And to die, which is the letting go of the ground we stand and cling to every day, is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down into the water, which receives him gaily and which flows joyfully under and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm, is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown, more like a king, further and further on.

The swan in this poem doesn’t cure his awkwardness on the land by moving faster, working harder, beating himself up, being evaluated in a performance review, or by developing a better performance plan. He frees himself from the stress of his environment simply by moving toward the element where he belongs: water. Simple contact with the water breathes life into his tired body.

Touching the essential waters in your own life — discovering your authentic self — will change everything. As simple as this is, letting yourself down into the water from the familiarity of the ground you stand on can be difficult, especially if you think you might drown.

Employee engagement is really nothing more than this — creating safe places where people can connect with where they belong. Here are five lessons from the swan to start building passion into performance management:

  1. Make passion a priority.
    Before you talk about “performance,” spend time with each of your employees defining their “essential element.” Make it clear that passion must precede performance and when you connect with your “essential element,” passion will arise. Before you talk about organizational goals and expectations, invite a discussion about personal goals, unique abilities, and passion. Identify strengths and talents. In one-on-one sessions, ask some of the following questions: “What do you do that comes easy to you?” “What do you do, that when you do it, you loose all track of time?” “What are you passionate about?” What are your unique strengths and talents?” “What do you do well that you don’t remember learning?”
  2. Get clear – before you get accountable.
    Clarity about the answers to the questions above takes time. Most people have never taken much time to answer these questions for themselves. Getting to your essential nature is not a muscle that is well developed. Like getting into the gym for the first time, you have to start small. You have to make it easy. And you must be persistent. Start with some clarity about when, in their work, they are in their “element,” and when they aren’t and the percentage of time in both. There’s no right or wrong answers. Bringing your own clarity into the discussions can help lead the process.
  3. Fit people; Don’t fix people.
    Having complete alignment between your “essential self” and your job is unrealistic. Unfulfilling chores and the necessary slogging through them is a part of all employment. What’s important, if you want an inspired performance management process, is to take the time to seek greater alignment between organizational goals and personal passion. Where can your employees bring more of their passion and strengths to their work? Are there projects they could let go of to allow space to bring their unique strengths to work? Look at your job description and ask if there is a way to increase the percentage of work time spent doing work that is aligned with your essential nature.
  4. Seek alignment through win-win solutions.
    You still have to achieve organizational goals and expectations. But if you help your employees win by getting to their passion, their essential nature, and their goals, then you are far more likely to get a commitment from them to work with you to achieve organizational goals. Loyalty breeds loyalty. Loyalty from your employees starts with loyalty to your employees.
  5. Make expectations clear.
    Like all effective performance management systems, you need a clear understanding of what you expect and how you can support each other to achieve these expectations. Don’t be afraid to set high standards; just be sure to include in those standards a high expectation of support. But when expectations are cushioned in passion, when employees are engaged in the process, when passion precedes performance, then high standards and achievement of results – through sustained commitment – are the standard. This kind of dialogue and commitment will turn tough conversations into inspired action.