By Ryan Quinn
My brother, Shawn, told me some stories recently, that shed some light on the power of feedback and what we pay attention to. One of these stories was about a woman who was assigned a project at work. When she went to assemble a team with people from the different units that needed to be involved, the managers from those units only allowed her to select “mediocre” employees to be on her team because they could not spare their best employees. This woman was concerned about how having a team full of mediocre employees would affect the quality of the work her team would be able to do. To her surprise and delight, her team members exceeded her expectations on every dimensions and delivered a fantastic project. When the project was done, this woman was left to wonder how her company’s performance management system was creating “mediocre” employees out of people who were not “mediocre” at all.
We Create What We Pay Attention To
Why did the bosses of these extraordinary performers think that they were poor performers? Jean-Francois Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux provide us with an answer in their research on “The Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome” . They find that bosses often create their own poor performers by
- making early and often unconscious judgments about their employees,
- looking for evidence that confirms rather than discontheir early judgments,
- lowering their expectations of the employees, and
- consciously or unconsciously taking opportunities away from the employee.
In return, employees respond negatively to these judgments and expectations, making it easy for bosses to find “evidence” that they were right in the first place.
The set-up-to-fail syndrome may be discouraging, but the very fact that it exists suggests that an alternative process is also possible. We can, by focusing on the positive, exceptional, and generative things that our employees do, create exceptional performance and exceptional employees. This idea–that we create what we look for–is a foundational idea in the work of scholars like Ken Gergen  and David Cooperrider .
What about the Real Poor Performers?
The idea that we create our employees’ performance is a difficult one to accept, and people can get quite defensive when confronted with this idea. It means that we are, at least in part, responsible, and this can be a bitter pill to swallow. Swallowing this pill, though, can transform organizations. Applying these principles, however, may also raise some concerns. Two of these concerns are: (1) What if a person really is a poor performer? and (2) What if the organization I work in does not allow me to focus on the positive?
With regards to the first question, we need to be very careful about the labels we use. One of the stories I love from Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great , is the story of how one executive responded when Collins presented his findings on “Getting the Right People on the Bus.” This executive told Collins that it was not just getting the right people on the bus, but it was also getting people in the right seat on the bus. A person who performs horribly in one role may perform exceptionally in another role.
This point, that exceptional performance is as much a function of the situation a person is in as it is a function of that person raises a deeper question about what it means to get the “right people.” Perhaps the reason why “getting the right people on the bus” had such an extraordinary effect on the companies Collins studied was not because they were the “right people,” but was instead because the companies were paying so much attention to their people and to the kinds of behaviors and attitudes they wanted to see from their people. This process set powerful performance expectations for people, and the people then rose to the expectations set for them. Collins’ stories are as much about setting expectations, crafting situations, and frank conversations as they are about finding the “right people.”
Are some people going to perform worse than others? Yes. But in addition to examining whether or not these people are the problem, we would do well to explore our own role in their performance, the systems that these people are working in, and the roles we’ve asked them to play.
What if My Organization Wants Me to Focus on the Negative?
The other story I heard from Shawn is about a woman who participated in training on positive organizational scholarship. Shawn was facilitating a session in which this woman and other managers were discussing what they had learned about the power of focusing on the positive things that their employees do. Her colleagues, however, kept focusing on how constrained they were by the company’s performance management system: How could they focus on the positive things their employees do when they had to rate these employees’ performance on a scale and their bosses would question them if they gave too many high scores?
To the surprise of her colleagues, this woman said that she gives high scores to most of her employees, and her boss never questions her about it. Her colleagues were stunned. How was she able to do this? She explained that she asks her employees to send her any positive feedback they receive from their clients. Then, in her conversations with her boss, she makes a point of mentioning the feedback and stories she hears. As a result, her boss is never surprised when she sends him performance management reviews with lots of high scores.
This method of upward influence is impressive, but what is equally impressive is the impact that this practice has on her employees’ motivation and performance. They know they are valued by their boss and their boss’ boss. They are motivated by the positive feedback. And, perhaps even more importantly, they know, from the positive feedback, what works. Using this knowledge they can continue to perform and to improve their performance again and again. In contrast with the mediocre employees who surprised everyone when they performed exceptionally, exceptional performance is normal to them. It is normal, in part, because of what they, and their boss, choose to pay attention to.
 Manzoni, J. F., & Barsoux, J. L. (1998, March–April). How bosses create their own poor performers: The set-up-to-fail syndrome. Harvard Business Review, pp. 101–113.
 Gergen, K. 1994. Realities and Relationships: Soundings in Social Construction. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.
 Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D., Stavros, J. M. (2008). Appreciative Inquiry Handbook (2nd ed.). Brunswick, OH: Crown Custom Publishing, Inc.
 Collins, J. 2001. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. New York: Harper Business.