Test the limits to get best from staff

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 August, 2007, 12:00am

The big question in many organisations these days is what can they do to unleash employees' potential?

How do you integrate innovation into the day-to-day culture, so workers will churn out creative ideas that will become the next big product, or will allow them to do things faster and better?

The answer is simple: Set performance goals that are difficult to achieve. As I look back at my career milestones, I realise dealing with the critical moments brought me to where I am today. In response to crisis situations, I was able to learn more and prove myself.

All of the following has happened at some point of my career: Half the project team resigns and I have to take over, my senior colleague leaves for health reasons in the middle of a landmark project, a client tells me she has no confidence in my ability to deliver.

These were all situations where I had a choice to sink or swim. I could have let the situation overtake me, or I could overcome the obstacles. It is human nature that it is in times of difficulty and desperation when we really resort to thinking out of the box. When there is little to lose by trying something new, 'potential' kicks in and people start churning out new ideas and methodologies.

A performance management system designed to continually raise the bar higher will create a Darwinian environment where employees must strive to achieve their goals. By highly challenging goals, I mean those where there is doubt as to whether a person can achieve the goal. I am not saying that organisations should set impossible goals, because that would only encourage people to give up.

Of course, goals that are challenging for one particular person may not be so for somebody else. This brings me to my next point. The rules of the game are such that employees are unlikely to set difficult goals.

Contemporary corporate culture emphasises the need to exceed expectations. Meeting expectations, regardless of the amount of work it involves, is considered merely average. A smart employee who wants to maximise his or her incentives will simply under-promise and over-deliver.

In the Bible, the book of Joel says 'It will come about after this that I will pour out My spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophesy, Your old men will dream dreams, Your young men will see visions.'

I share this because these words were at the back of my mind while writing this column. When it comes to what we as people contribute to our organisations, our industries and society, I personally do not want to be dabbling in the safety of predictability and mediocrity. In an ideal world, senior leaders will dream dreams and make it happen. But to do this, we will first need to change the rules of the game on how we manage performance.

Ji-Ye Hwang is a senior consultant with Hewitt Associates, a global HR consulting and outsourcing company. She is Hewitt Hong Kong's lead consultant for employee engagement. Her views are not necessarily endorsed by Hewitt Associates.