Perfect work does not require perfect employees

By Anderea Morara

Nothing discourages people more than to do their best at a job, then have their boss thrash it to smithereens, especially in front of everybody.

Harping on people’s mistakes, no matter how trivial, may seem like a good way to keep them on their toes, but it could undermine performance.

Both conventional wisdom and recent research seem to suggest that criticism is actually not as effective as noticing and appreciating what they have done right.

Few things in this world, it seems are perfect: certainly not the people who work for us, or with us.

Good leaders will of course always strive for the best possible results, including perfection. However, at the same time, they cannot afford to be such perfectionists, that people find it impossible to meet their expectations.

Such managers are bound to fail, for none of their subordinates is likely to make the grade. In the arena of mentorship, this would be akin to a scenario where no apprentice ever qualifies because none of them would ever be error-free.


Correct subordinates

As the old adage says "To err is human". Thus, a good manager is expected to correct and capacity build his subordinates, not condemn them for not being perfect.

However, even supposedly good managers occasionally overdo the corrective interventions by tending to notice and rant over even the slightest of slip-ups.

Most bosses are pretty reasonable and inspiring to work for. Unfortunately, there are also some managers who consider the day a total loss unless they can discover something that someone did wrong.

It is as if their mission is to find fault with workers. In other words, if the workers turn in a perfect job, they imagine they have "failed to catch the culprit".

Managers who are super-critical set impossible standards, question every detail, or are otherwise too difficult to please, leave people discouraged – even fearful.

The workers’ confidence can be badly shaken if they get the feeling that no matter how hard they try, or how good a job they do, it is never going to be good enough.


Poor performance

However, a manager must from time to time bite the bullet — by criticising poor performance where it is evident.

Nevertheless, in criticising employee performance, it is worth considering the attitude of the worker towards his responsibilities as well as the time and effort taken to deliver the results, though below expectation.

Even if he may have messed up completely, he may still have given it his best try.

Boniface Monda, who is a rapidly upcoming entrepreneur, runs a very complicated business, where most of his assistants work for about 70-80 per cent of their time negotiating with clients.

The profitability of the deals is greatly dependent on the astuteness of the employee negotiations.

Though it is important that profit levels are maximised, it is also critical that deals be sealed, especially with new clients — since customer surveys show that first time prospects whose deals do not go through rarely come back. It therefore means that, at times, a sales representative would give in to an unattractive deal in order not to lose a new client. In some desperate situations, the representative settles for an outright loss.

Boniface told me: "There are occasions where some of the representatives completely goof without justification.

In other cases, the clients turn out to be too good for the company representatives that despite their best efforts, the results are still disastrous. I normally prefer to sleep over such disasters than blow my top there and then.

"Sometimes I do not discuss the results for several days. I re-examine the task and the tasked (staff) as well as the circumstances prevailing during the negotiation period.

I then try to figure out what the representative might have done right or why he might have hit the wrong button.

"When my rage has subsided, I call him in and invite him — in a very cordial manner, sometimes with a cup of tea — to tell me whether there are any lessons to be drawn from the bungled event.


Praise worker

Sometimes I begin the discussion by citing past good performances and by assuring the worker that I was sure he did the best in the circumstances. However, consistent bungling can not be tolerated, for it points to incompetence or negligence."

Boniface recognises that in his kind of business, one cannot win all the time. He therefore begins corrective action by recognising that fact before proceeding to get the workers to undertake some form of self-criticism through extracting "lessons" from their mistakes.

Employees need not be considered incompetent because they do not always turn in perfect work.

Doing a good job does not mean being fault-free at all times. It is the total job that counts — say the average results over a given period.

The writer is the Executive Director of Capacity Development Africa Ltd. [email protected]