Standards and Expectations Warning Flag 2 – Ghost Standards

StrategyDriven Standards and Expectations Warning Flag articleSome things can go without saying… performance standards are not one of them.

By defining expected behaviors, performance standards serve as both a translation of the organization’s values and a foundational cornerstone of individual accountability. Yet some executives and managers don’t specify their expectations; leaving employees to decide for themselves what behaviors to exhibit. And because of differing individual gifts, experiences, and beliefs, each employee will divine a slightly different set of expectations; resulting in inconsistent performance at best.

Executives and managers not defining and communicating their performance expectations abdicate their authority as arbiters of accountability to the workforce. Without informing employees of what is expected of them, leaders cannot hold workers accountable when something goes right or wrong – there is no yardstick against which to make such judgments. Accountability disappears in the face of employee challenges to management’s criticisms of them and praise of others.

Ghost standards are those vague and undefined performance expectations managers believe workers will intuitively know. While this may be true of even a majority of the existing workforce, turnover and time-in-life dependent values will likely change this situation; leaving employees guessing as to what management really wants and managers wondering what went wrong.

Absent the mechanisms that define expected worker performance, executives and managers cannot expect either consistency in employee actions or results. Ghost standards erode management’s authority and can ultimately lead to a diminished bottom line. While not all inclusive, the four lists below, Process-Based Warning Flags, Process Execution Warning Flags – Behaviors, Potential, Observable Results, and Potential Causes, are designed to help organization leaders to recognize whether they have abdicated their responsibility to actively manage worker performance by relying on undefined, unspoken behavioral standards. Only after a problem is recognized and its causes identified can the needed action be taken to move the organization toward improved performance.

Process-Based Warning Flags

  • standards are not well documented or easily located and retrieved
  • communications programs, such as a required reading program, does not exist or do not adequately ensure employee awareness and understanding of performance standards and expectations
  • compliance with performance and quality standards are not tracked with mechanisms such as performance metrics
  • training programs do not routinely reinforce all of the organization’s performance standards and expectations
  • reinforcement programs, such as a management observation program, either does not exist or does not adequately cover the broad spectrum of organizational standards
  • adherence to performance standards and expectations is not incorporated into the organization’s performance appraisal system

Process Execution Warning Flags – Behaviors

  • executives and managers do not routinely include the discussion of organizational performance standards in their communications
  • executives and managers do not make the time to observe in-the-field work and reinforce performance expectations; they seldom practice management by walking around
  • executives and managers seldom provide feedback outside of routine performance review periods
  • executives and managers do not demand or focus on performance measures reflective of the organization’s adherence to performance standards

Potential, Observable Results

  • Inconsistent employee performance and results
  • Frustration and attrition of top performing employees
  • Overall financial performance is less than what it could be if all employees met the high standards expected by leadership and reflected in the work of top performers

Potential Causes

  • executives and managers don’t feel the routine reinforcement of standards is important
  • executives and managers assume employees understand what is expected of them and so don’t believe it is necessary to document and make easily accessible specific performance guidelines
  • executives and managers feel overwhelmed by administrative work and prioritize in-the-field observation of work and reinforcement of standards as being of secondary importance
  • executives and managers are uncomfortable with confrontation and so do not aggressively reinforce organizational standards

Additional Information

The following StrategyDriven resources can be used to further explore the relationship between defined expectations and accountability and help reduce the likelihood ghost standards will be relied upon to manage an organization.

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