How to nurture performance

Pygmalion, in Roman mythology, was a sculptor and a king of Cyprus.

He hated women and resolved never to marry. He worked for many months on a statue of a beautiful woman and fell madly in love with it. Heartbroken, because the statue remained lifeless and could not respond to his caresses, Pygmalion prayed to Venus (Aphrodite), goddess of love, to send him a maiden like his statue. The goddess answered his prayer by endowing the statue with life. The maiden, whom Pygmalion called Galatea, returned his love and bore him a son, Paphos,

Pygmalion is also the title of the play by George Bernard Shaw. And Shaw’s play was the basis for the musical My Fair Lady. The central theme of his story was that one person, Professor Higgins, by his effort and will, attempted to transform another, the flower girl, Eliza Doolittle.

In the world of management, we often attempt to play at Pygmalion. We select individuals, whom we believe to have the talent and potential, and we try to make them into something which they are not (or at least, not yet)! In the name of management development, we (as senior managers and/or trainers) attempt to transform our charges into effective managers and leaders of the future. Success rates do seem to vary tremendously.

Maybe Shaw can help us, after all it is he who says: “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”

In Shaw’s Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle explains to Colonel Pickering: “You see, the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she is treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me like a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.”

Some senior managers in organisations always treat their team members in a way that will lead to superior performance. Unfortunately, many senior managers follow Professor Higgins’ example and treat their team members as subordinates, in a way that leads to poor performance.

If we want excellent performance from our managers then we must treat them as excellent performers. As they say: if you pay peanuts then you get monkeys.

The responsibility for excellent performance lies squarely on the shoulders of the senior managers to nurture, develop and believe in their people.

To quote Bob Townshend, from Up the Organisation, “There’s no such thing as bad workers, only bad managers”.

Managers are grown – they are neither born nor made. The role of their seniors is to provide the conditions for that growth. The environment in which the “trainee” works will be the most important variable to affect the development process. Unless it is conducive to growth then none of the things that we (as management developers) do, will have a long-term lasting impact. My definition of the work environment includes the surroundings, culture, reward system, support and so forth.

Predictable though it sounds, probably the two most effective activities of management development are: planned experience, and performance management.

Firstly, planned experience. It is by learning through experience (also known as experiential learning) that the best and most effective learning takes place. To quote the old Chinese proverb: I hear, I forget. I see, I remember. I do, I understand.

Experiential learning focuses on giving people understanding rather than simply knowledge. By learning from our experience we benefit from being involved in the learning process rather than being taught – the really powerful learning comes when we are an involved partner in the process.

As Sir Winston Churchill, who believed in the virtues of experiental learning said: “I love to learn, I hate to be taught.”

I think that we are all basically curious. Schooling and the education system seems to succeed in knocking that pure curiosity out of so many of us.

The second of the most effective activities of management development is performance management. It is a way of obtaining better results by understanding and managing performance. This is done within an agreed framework of planned goals, objectives and standards of achievement and competences. And finally, the glue that binds experiential learning and performance management, is coaching.

We can conclude with a quote from the master of knowledge, understanding and creative thinking Albert Einstein: “I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide conditions in which they can learn.”

Robert Craven MBA MIMC CMC is an associate of Warwick Business School.

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