I was watching some boxing fights over the last few weeks. In most cases, one of the boxers was clearly better than the opponent, and some ended in a knock out while some didn’t.
In an interview prior to one of the fights, the coach of the favorite was asked if and when he would expect the knock out. His answer was a sentence a million of boxing coaches have said before, a golden rule of the sport:
“Don’t focus on knocking out your opponent. Focus on boxing well. If you do, the knockout will come by itself.”
Translated to the business context this would be: If you try to force reaching a certain target, put all your power there and just go for this one figure, goal, deadline, whatever, it will be extremely tough to really get there. However, if you just continue concentrating on giving your best and doing a good job, you will reach your targets easily.
Sounds good, but is it true? There are so many “experts” out there that tell you all the time that people need clear targets to deliver a good result. Many companies have target agreement processes with their employees in place and try to measure as good as possible after the period the agreement was closed for how well an employee hit the targets. In most cases this even has an impact on the salary this employee receives. So rather go for the knock out?
I believe that companies are in a dilemma here. They want to reward their outstanding contributors and that is a good thing. However, especially in medium or big sized companies, there is the feeling that some rules are required for distributing these rewards to make sure it is done in a fair way. But: When these rules come in, so does bureaucracy.
The problem is that bureaucracy and outstanding performance is a complete mismatch. Bureaucracy needs structure and guidance, trying to make sure processes work in a way that can easily be repeated with the same result over and over again. Outstanding performance can not be repeated by everyone else with the same results, it is often off structure, counter-intuitive and empathic. As a result, outstanding performance is often not even recognized by corporate performance evaluation systems.
Let me put this straight: Companies often don’t even understand what outstanding performance is. It stands out, literally, not in. Thinking a bit further with this idea, it becomes obvious that this can only drive top performers mad: They probably know they perform great, they probably feel it is not understood by the company and their managers and they probably see that people performing worse are rewarded more than they are.
That brings us back to the knock out theme. I truly believe that the better someone performs, the fewer targets she needs. Top performers don’t need extremely clear directions. Instead, build an environment where they can give their best.
This environment consists of a purpose, which is the reason why they should fight hard and the freedom to do things their way. The issue is that both these factors can’t be measured and the performance can’t be classified by a simple comparison of target and achievement. That’s why for many in leadership positions it seems to be so hard to build this environment for the top performers among their reports: As it can’t be measured the only option they have is to have trust in their people. Trust that they will use their freedom in a good way. Trust that they will deliver even when their managers don’t know exactly what they are working on at this very moment. Trust them and you will be rewarded.
Another idea: As this is so tough to implement, companies might consider having their outstanding contributors report to other top contributors, as they might be able to understand the value of granting freedom and giving trust from their own experience.
Pretty much like the boxing coach who tells his boxer to just do his thing instead of giving the target to knock out the other guy. Once you do it this way, the results will come all by themselves. Be it a knock out or an outstanding performance in business.