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Elite performers are so good precisely because they are always working systematically and consistently on trying to get better, almost always with the regular guidance and direction of a coach or teacher or mentor. Elite performers engage in regular, smart, purposeful practice with regular scrutiny and course-correcting feedback from someone they respect and trust. That’s why true elite performers always gravitate to strong, highly-engaged leaders.

Strangely, most managers invest most of their performance management time all the way on the low end of the spectrum, coaching low performers aggressively to get them to improve their performance. An employee who develops a track record of failure is the single most likely employee to receive significant scrutiny and coaching from his manager. Of course, it is critical to “performance-manage” the low performers up or out as quickly and mercifully as feasible. But way too many average performers, those who are much more likely to respond favorably to coaching, are neglected as a direct result of all the attention paid to low performers.

Those oft-neglected “average” employees make up the vast majority of the workforce. They are doing just well enough to escape scrutiny and aggressive coaching, but not so well that they are superstars whom you might be afraid to lose. This is the vast middle—- where most of the work gets done—- exactly where undermanagement is most likely to hide in plain sight. I see it every day in my work with companies of all shapes and sizes. The classic case is “average” employees doing “routine” recurring tasks. The employee/team/department seems to be running just fine without much oversight. Maybe the employees in question have been handling the same basic responsibilities for a long time. Maybe the work is low profile with a relatively small impact on the bottom line. Often it’s inadvertent, like so much undermanagement.

Performance management is for everyone — the elite performers, the low-performers, and the vast majority in the middle. Every employee needs to know every step of the way, exactly what is expected and required of them and exactly how they are doing in relation to those expectations and requirements. The key is always framing the performance management dialogue in terms of concrete actions the employee can control:

Expectations. Goals and requirements that were spelled out. Instructions given or to-do lists assigned. Standard operating procedures, rules, or guidelines reviewed. Timelines defined. Deadlines set.

Concrete actions. Track each employee’s actual performance: What data is tracked automatically? What have you observed the employee doing while watching? What does the employee say when asked about his actual performance? What do his self-monitoring tools reveal? What does your ongoing review of work product tell you? What do you learn about the employee’s actions when you ask around?

Measurements. How are the actions matching up against the expectations? Has the employee met requirements? Did he follow instructions, standard operating procedures, and rules? Did he meet his goals on time?



Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an on-line training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (2009), and It’s Okay to be the Boss (2007). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at Or you can follow him on twitter @brucetulgan .