Want to Drive Performance? Look at What Drives Driving.

Business owners and business consultants like to talk about driving results. I personally love the metaphor. Whenever I use it, I imagine driving a BMW over a mountain highway, quickly and comfortably cutting around slower moving trucks and cars, eating up miles, blaring the radio – rockin’ in the free world!! I imagine myself going as fast as I want and doing so joyfully.

Today I spent a little time actually thinking through that metaphor and what I discovered is that, when I drive, that isn’t usually how it goes. Even if the road is clear and I could, theoretically, cruise at 90 or 100, I almost never do. What I do instead is force myself to go slower by setting the cruise control to a more modest speed – somewhere around 75 or, if there’s someone going faster, a little bit slower than them. Isn’t that interesting? I’ve been using a metaphor that, if we look at the reality of how most people actually drive, translates to, “I’m going to give you the tools and practices where your people will settle on performance that is far less than what they are actually capable, and they aren’t going to be that excited about it.” Want to hire me?

At that point, I probably should have tossed the “driving” metaphor overboard. But, I really like driving a nice car through the mountains, so I dug in further. I started with the question, “If I like driving fast, and I have the tools and the capability to do so, why would I limit myself?” It didn’t take long to find an answer. I limit my speed because sometimes when I don’t, I get pulled over, and that costs me time and money. Instead of going as fast as I want, I go about as fast as I think will keep me from getting in trouble with the law. My driving behavior strikes a balance between “get there as fast as I can and enjoy myself on the way,” and “stay out trouble and don’t lose precious time and money.” My behavior is pulled in two directions: On one hand there’s what I get (to my destination, fast), and on the other there’s what I avoid (the 5-O). My performance settles somewhere in the middle.

This is where the metaphor stands up, though it’s a bit reversed. If the speed limit is to strategic goals as my driving speed is to meeting or exceeding those goals, then to drive around the speed limit is to meet them and to drive under is to exceed them. As long as I drive 70 in a 65, I am reasonably sure that I’m not going to get in trouble. I won’t get written up. I won’t lose my job. The boss will almost never say, “We need to talk,” in that way bosses say it when there’s a performance problem. I’ll go home and tell my friends that my boss and my job are ok. And I also won’t drive under the speed limit. I won’t exceed my goals.

What’s a boss to do? As a business leader, you could lower the speed limit. And it would probably work. You would see people drive slower. Keep in mind, however, that you are changing the point at which people will get in some sort of trouble for not performing to expectations, and there are some things that go along with that. Your people are going to complain. They don’t want to drive slower. They’ll be more likely to steal from you. They’ll probably start looking for a road with a higher speed limit. In other words, they’ll start looking for other jobs.

But wait a minute!! You don’t want your people to drive slower. You want them to go faster! You may be saying, “this doesn’t make any sense.” I promise you, it does. Let’s take a look at it. And let’s start with the assumption that most jobs, when you only look at the activity of it, are pretty boring. They aren’t exactly what we were imagining when we dreamt of being artists, writers, and lawyers. Sure, the architect always loved drawing, but drawing hospital waiting rooms wasn’t exactly what she had in mind. Or the writer didn’t dream of writing copy for websites. The lawyer didn’t realize how much of law practice was carefully reading contracts. They didn’t show that part on LA Law. And sure, as a leader or manager, you might find these things infinitely compelling. However, that you find them interesting probably has something to do with why that you landed in your role in the first place. You’re like the person who loves cruising along at 35mph so you can enjoy the scenery as much as possible. Most people aren’t built like you. Sure, they like driving, but going 35 wasn’t exactly what they had in mind when they were writing an essay about their dream job in the 3rd grade.

Are you with me? Good. As a boss, you want your people to go beyond the minimum. And remember, your strategic goals are the speed limit. Without anything else to motivate performance, the only reason to meet those goals – in other words, drive the speed limit or below – is to stay out of trouble, to avoid a write up, to not lose a job.

If you want people to go beyond the minimum, then you’ve got to build something into your practices to make them want to push the envelope. Here are a few things you can you do:

  1. Let people know the difference their work makes.No one has a job that doesn’t matter or isn’t important.Would you hire someone to do a job that made no difference?That would be silly.Let people know the difference their work makes, and let them know what difference it makes at different levels.What difference does it make for the client?What difference does it make for the client’s client?What difference does it make to the business and the other people you employ?Connect their performance to all of those things.I recently coached an owner who kept losing office managers every six months.He asked me, “how do you recognize a job that doesn’t contribute to bottom line results?”I asked him, “when your office manager is doing a good job, what are the things you don’t have to worry about?What do your employees not have to worry about? How does that free you and them up to do the work that is critical to the business?”He put in weekly reminders to appreciate the work of his office manager, who is now going on 15 months and routinely contributing ideas to make the office run better.
  2. Reward people when they exceed goals.This could be in the form of bonuses, but it doesn’t have to be.It could be simple recognition.It could be awards.It could be time off.Managers and owners tend to get a little nervous about that last one, because they’ve fallen victim to the idea that time is money. Time is not money.Results are money.They’re easy to confuse because it takes time to produce results, but if you have an employee who is exceeding expectations and finding ways to do it more efficiently, as a business owner, you are getting exactly what you want.Reward it, and make regular occasions to do so.
  3. Always focus on the outcome.When determining what performance to reward, remember that performance = activity + results.The more you can focus on the results, the happier your people will be and the better they will get at finding new ways to achieve them.To go back to the driving metaphor, we have all found routes that get us there more quickly even though they theoretically shouldn’t.One street has a slower speed limit, but less traffic.One route is a bit longer but has fewer lights.By focusing on results as much as you can, you will free people up to explore different routes and find the fastest one.

The last thing to keep in mind is that driving the speed limit isn’t much fun. In fact, it’s mildly stressful. Despite that, it is mostly very effective at controlling the speed at which we drive. If you have people who are only meeting or barely exceeding expectations, then it’s likely that their performance is mostly under the control of the speed limit, and they aren’t enjoying it as much as you aren’t enjoying it. Your job, as a leader, is to give them a reason to go beyond it. It’s up to you to be the driver.