Management

management through the cultivation mindset
Management Needs an Upgrade: The Cultivation Mindset
Management Needs an Upgrade: The Cultivation Mindset 1080 794 Jason Lauritsen

The past year forced a lot of changes in the way work happens. When, where, and how we work was disrupted in a way that we’ve never seen before. 

Organizations have adapted in some pretty compelling ways. 

Safety was made a top priority through changes to the physical workspace along with new protocols, practices, and equipment. This was in response to a needed wake-up call because unless it was core to your business pre-COVID, safety (both physical and psychological) was taken for granted in too many workplaces despite being one of our most fundamental needs as humans. 

Technology capabilities that were once thought impossible to deploy were rolled out in days to enable remote working. An era of unprecedented work flexibility was born overnight. And this genie is not going back in the bottle. 

New communication tools and processes were put in place to help employees navigate the immense waves of uncertainty they were facing. This has resulted in more frequent and meaningful communication than ever before. 

And, perhaps most encouragingly, an investment in well-being programs has been deployed to help the employee navigate and survive these challenging times. Employee well-being has too long been overlooked and ignored. It took a global pandemic to finally wake us up to the reality that work performance starts with well-being.  

From my seat, these all look like an acceleration towards a better future of work. And my hope is that we’ll have the wisdom to build upon this progress as we emerge from the pandemic. 

There is one area where I fear we’ve not made as much progress: 

Management

That’s not to suggest that managers haven’t learned to adapt to this disrupted world of work. I’m sure many managers feel like they’ve had to change a lot throughout this past year. 

But, management wasn’t working all that well before the pandemic. Employee engagement has been atrociously low on the average for the past several decades.

And it’s not the manager’s fault. We’ve been trapped in an outdated model of management for decades. 

Management Needs an Upgrade 

Our model of management hasn’t changed that dramatically over the past hundred years. At its core, management is still viewed as the function that ensures employees are doing their jobs.

In other words, management is responsible for enforcing compliance with the “contract” of employment, whether that contract is formal or implied. The manager’s job is to ensure the organization gets its money’s worth out of the employee. 

The manager is aided by management and HR processes designed to assist in this compliance work: policies, performance appraisals, job descriptions, performance improvement plans, and more. 

When you step back and look at these processes using the lens of history, it becomes clear that there are some significant underlying assumptions built into traditional management practice: 

  • Employees will only perform up to their expectations at work if they’re made to do so through oversight and regulation. 
  • Employees are a means of production. They are the machinery that creates work products. 
  • Management’s job is to maximize these human machines’ production output to give the company the best ROI on its labor investment. 

If this sounds harsh, I get it. We’ve learned not to talk about people this way. Instead of human machines, we call them human resources. It sounds nicer. 

But, look back at the discomfort leaders had with sending people to work from home. 

Employees had been clamoring for more flexibility and permission to at least occasionally work from home for years. They were told it wasn’t possible. 

Then, the pandemic forced it into reality, and leaders openly worried about people not doing their work when they were at home, removed from their “management.” It was assumed that people would watch Netflix all day. 

There was little faith in the beginning that it would work. The assumptions of traditional management were showing themselves. 

The Problem with Performance Management

Another place you can see these assumptions show their faces is when an employee is under-performing. Traditional management leads us to conclude there’s something wrong with the employee. 

Typically, we assume they aren’t adequately motivated or focused. To fix the performance issue, you need to fix the employee. That’s why performance improvement plans exist. 

And, it’s why they are terribly ineffective. A performance improvement plan is more likely to break an employee’s spirit than to improve their performance. 

This model of management is outdated and dangerous. 

Work today in no way resembles the work that gave birth to this model. In today’s (and especially tomorrow’s) world of work, the things that create the most value are not only natural to humans but are things that we are intrinsically motivated to do.

If management would just get out of the way. 

Employees Are Not Machines

Employees are complex, living creatures who are capable of extraordinary things. 

When vast numbers of employees were sent to work from home, often while also managing caregiving or homeschooling responsibilities, they rose to the challenge despite the expectations to the contrary. 

People have proven that they can do good work—sometimes better work—when released from the burden of constant management oversight. 

Management is the operating system of your organization. It defines how work gets done. 

What we’ve seen clearly over the past year is that the current operating system isn’t compatible with the needs of modern work. 

It’s time for a new operating system starting with an entirely new set of assumptions.

From Production to Cultivation

As a kid growing up on a farm, I got put to work at a pretty early age. By the time I was 11 years old, I was being sent out into the field to do tasks like picking up rocks and, my least favorite, walking beans. 

At the time, walking beans was the most effective way for farmers to deal with weeds. Weeds grow far faster than the soybean plants in the fields, so they will choke out the beans and ruin the farmer’s yield if left unchecked. 

So, a small crew of us would walk up and down the long row in the fields, using a sharpened garden hoe or corn knife (think machete) to cut the weeds out one by one. 

It was boring, mundane work. 

Battling weeds is one of the many things farmers do to care for their crops. They also have to fight disruptive insects, add fertilizers, irrigate when there was too little water or tile when there was too much. 

For farmers, this work is called cultivation. 

Farmers start with the assumption that when they put a seed in the ground, as long as it has what it needs to grow (water, nutrients, etc.) and there aren’t any obstacles that get in the way of its growth (weeds, insects, etc.) that seed will grow and flourish into the best version of itself.

Farmers trust the plant to do what it is programmed to do in its DNA: grow and perform. The work of cultivation facilitates and enables the plant’s growth by ensuring it has everything it needs to optimally grow AND quickly remove any obstacles or barriers that might get in the way. 

The plant does the rest. 

Approaching Management as Cultivation

Just like the success of management, the success of farming is tied to the performance of living things. Certainly, humans are more complex than plants, but it’s hard to argue that we are just as programmed from birth for growth and performance. 

If you’ve ever spent time around young children, it’s impossible not to marvel at how they learn and develop simply by observing the world around them. 

Small children learn to communicate, talk, crawl, walk, and so much more simply through observation and genetic programming. We are born to learn, grow, and perform. It is in our DNA.

When our needs are met and our path is clear of obstacles, we can do remarkable things. And we all have a longing to be better, to move along that path being remarkable. We all have an innate desire to succeed. 

I’d ask you to consider if you’ve ever met someone who you honestly think wakes up in the morning every day hoping to fail, longing for the opportunity to let others down. 

I’m confident I never have. I’ve met people who have ended up in a self-destructive place due to years of unmet needs and brutal obstacles. But, no one who deliberately chose to end up in that place. 

Given the opportunity and support, I’d argue that every human being would choose success over failure every time. 

When we realize this truth, something becomes very clear. The farmer has the model of management we need. 

It’s been right in front of us the whole time. 

The new operating system of management must be cultivation.  

The Cultivation Mindset

The first and most important step to replacing our production-oriented management model with a cultivation management model is to replace the faulty assumptions about people and management laid out earlier.

Cultivation starts with an entirely different set of assumptions. I call these the cultivation mindset.

When we adopt a cultivation mindset, everything about how we approach and think about management starts to change. 

The cultivation mindset is built upon the core assumption that humans are naturally programmed for growth and performance. Managers should operate with the same confidence in this programming as farmers do for their crops. 

That means management’s work is to deeply understand the needs and obstacles of their people to ensure they’re creating an optimal environment and opportunity to perform.  

Let me frame this up in another way.

The Assumptions of a Cultivation Mindset:

  • Growth and performance is the default setting for all humans. 
  • When people have what they need and are free of obstacles, they will choose to perform and do the right thing.  
  • The role of management is to cultivate performance by meeting needs and removing barriers.
  • Cultivation requires a deep understanding of the needs and challenges of your people.
  • When there is a performance issue, it’s a failure of management. 

From these assumptions, you are likely to make different decisions about how you approach management and your role with your team. 

When you look at the research about what employees are clamoring for at work (development, care, connection, trust, coaching, etc.), it’s crystal clear that this is the type of management they are longing for. 

Particularly now, when our workforce is more distributed and dynamic than ever before, the need for cultivation has never been more urgent. 

This is why we created my Managing Virtual Teams course and why it begins with an entire module on mindset. Managing successfully going forward isn’t simply about learning a few new techniques.

It’s about adopting an entirely different way of managing. And that’s a huge opportunity. 

How we got here doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is what we do next. 

Cultivation is the key. You can start the transformation today.  

 

Related Reading:

The #1 Management Imperative for 2021

3 Simple Tips for Managing Remote Employees

Why Performance Management Still Sucks

3 Questions to Increase Your Impact as a Manager

why performance management sucks - woman frustrated and looking at her computer with her hands in the air
Why Performance Management Still Sucks
Why Performance Management Still Sucks 1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

I’ve spent a large part of the last year writing a book about performance management and here’s what I’ll tell you performance management sucks.   

One of the big questions I wrestled with was “how did we get this so wrong?” That question isn’t all that hard to answer when you look at the history of management and discover that it was based on a contractual, compliance-based model.

This helps explain how we ended up with compliance-based processes like the annual performance appraisal and performance improvement plans. They make sense in the historical context in which they were created. 

But times have changed. And work has changed. A lot. 

Performance management hasn’t. 

A majority of organizations are still running these same compliance-based processes today. Taken in the context of our climate of work, they make little or no sense.

Employees hate it. Managers cringe at the mention of performance management. And HR keeps running the system despite knowing that it doesn’t really work.  

It’s glaringly obvious that it’s a broken system. It’s been obvious for decades. Why is it taking so long to fix?  

This might be the more important question. 

Performance is the lifeblood of any organization. Without it, the organization withers and dies.  What could be more important than the management of performance?

And yet.

No one owns it.  

Everyone participates. Everyone is impacted.

No one owns it. 

Managers are charged with the day-to-day responsibility of ensuring employee performance. Leaders are broadly responsible for organizational performance.  And HR is where the formal, compliance-based processes for the appraisal of performance.  

But who is responsible for designing and deploying and maintaining a system for managing performance across the organization? 

Certainly, HR is the assumed answer. 

But, I think I’ve only met a handful of HR professionals in my life whose primary job role and function was performance management. 

This fall, I facilitated a panel of HR leaders at the HR Tech Conference to discuss the evolution of performance management. I asked each of them how performance management fits into their overall HR structure. Each of the four companies was different. 

In one case it was part of total rewards (i.e. benefit and comp). In another, it was viewed as part of employee engagement. In another, it was under the banner of employee relations (i.e. compliance). 

In two of the four cases, the main reason HR undertook the process of changing performance management was that executive leadership demanded it.  

It’s crazy. 

A well-designed performance management system should be the operating system for your organization. It ensures a sustainable and consistent employee experience that unlocks individual and team performance. Most organizations today are still running a performance management operating system written in the 1920s.

It’s way past time for an upgrade. But, that upgrade will never happen unless you make it a priority.  

Every organization should have a role or team dedicated to performance management systems. If you don’t like the phrase “performance management,” then call it performance enablement or performance processes.  

It can be in HR or it can be elsewhere. It will depend on your organization. 

We would never let something like sales or financials or technology go without an owner who has the responsibility to ensuring process effectiveness.

Why do we allow it with something as vital as the management of performance?

Performance management sucks. Let’s change that. 

Related Reading:

Why Employee Well-being is Vital to Work Performance

4×4 Performance Management

Want To Improve Performance Or Engagement At Work? Check Your Assumptions.

three questions managers should ask
3 Questions to Increase Your Impact as a Manager
3 Questions to Increase Your Impact as a Manager 1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

One of the advantages of moving jobs frequently early in your career (like I did) is that you get to experience a lot of different workplaces and management styles.

A few of my first couple of jobs out of college were case studies in bad management.

I had the “I want you to be successful, just not more successful than me” manager.  And, the passive-aggressive manager who tells you one thing and but does another.  I also had the shrinking violet manager who could talk about managing but never actually do any of the real work with the people.

And, the thing I remember about all of them is how it felt to work for them.

Frustrated.

Confused.

Belittled.

Disappointed.

Angry.

Defeated.

Not the type of emotions that create a work experience where you can be your best.

This reminded me of the great Maya Angelou quote.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Managing people is not an easy job.  And, if you think it’s easy, you probably aren’t doing right. Humans are complex creatures with an often confusing mix of needs and emotions. Managing that complexity to create an environment where the best work can happen is challenging.

There’s no shortage of management training programs out there that promise to help you succeed by giving you the right tools and approaches. But, I think most of them are missing a really vital step.

Declaring your intentions as a manager.  Can you answer this question?

  • How do I want the people I manage to feel at and about work?

Too often, the wake we create as managers is unintended.  We say something flippantly in a few seconds that our people will stew about for days. As a manager, we must be aware of the impact of our words and actions on others, particularly those who depend on us for leadership.

So, how do you want people to feel?  Safe? Motivated? Happy?  Put a stake in the ground. Make a commitment.

This leads to the next question.

  • What can I do to ensure my people feel this way?

Once you are clear on your intentions, you can start aligning your behavior to that intention. If you want your people to feel safe to make mistakes and to speak up when they disagree with you, it’s on you to take the actions to make it so.  What does that mean for you? How do you have to change your own behavior and decisions? It starts with you.

Pretty straightforward so far, right? Now we get to the complicated part.

Since we are trying to impact how people feel, it can be hard to know if we are succeeding. After all, humans don’t always project their emotions and particularly not at work. So this leads to a third question.

  • How will you know how your people are feeling about work?

The answer is obvious. You ask them. And yet, so few managers do this well and consistently. Creating meaningful conversations with your employees about their experiences at work is the most powerful tool you have as a manager. It is the most direct path you have towards creating an engaging work experience that unlocks great performance.

But, this is the hard work.  You have to ask scary questions of your people like:

  • How are you feeling about work?
  • How would you like to feel about work and what can we do to get you there?
  • What’s not working for you these days?
  • How can I be a better manager for you?

This is the work of management. It is not easy. It will be messy. It will be uncomfortable at times.

But, if you get clear on your intentions, align your actions to that intention, and then be in ongoing conversation with your people to get feedback, you might just create some magic with your team.

Jason Lauritsen