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What Should Leaders Do About Targets And Standards In A Crisis?

February 10, 2021 - By Wendy Lambourne, Director, MA Industrial and Organisation Psychology, Registered Psychologist with SA Medical & Dental Council

Leaders can choose to make targets or make standards what they focus on and prioritise in a crisis. They can also elect to change (raise or lower) the targets and/or standards, or leave them unchanged. The choices they make are important because they have a significant bearing on whether those they lead thrive or not in difficult times.

Leaders should focus on standards, not targets, in a crisis. They should raise standards, not targets, in difficult times.

CHOICE ONE: WHAT TO FOCUS ON AND PRIORITISE IN A CRISIS

Making achieving targets the priority in a crisis has its benefits. This is because clear targets provide focus and, when they are stretching but achievable, they inspire people to achieve them. But whether the target is achieved or not, is not within people’s control. All outcomes are in part at least, and sometimes almost entirely, affected by extraneous factors.

So when leaders focus their people on what they cannot control they disempower, not empower them. They engender in their people a fear of failure which reduces their effectiveness in the crisis, since part of their energy is trapped in the jaws of fear.

Standards, on the other hand, are absolutely within leaders’ control. This is because it is leaders who set and enforce standards. And the standards that leaders expect, demonstrate and walk past are the standards they get.

Standards moreover are enablers of human excellence in that they describe the best that people are capable of both in terms of behaviour and performance. When standards are upheld by leaders in a crisis they serve to bring out the best in their people. When standards are pitched high they propel people towards excellence. And when people are exceptional rather than mediocre, they are far more likely to achieve the desired results.

This is not to suggest that goals and targets should cease to exist in a crisis. But they should not be either the focus of attention or the priority. Rather leaders should focus each and every person in their charge on excellence in the task in front of them. They should then focus on enabling excellence in their people. Now everyone is focused on what they have control over.

CHOICE TWO: WHAT TO RAISE OR LOWER IN A CRISIS

In a debate on what to do in a motor retail environment when new-car sales were shrinking year-on-year by 6%, a CEO had an epiphany moment. “Because we are feeling sorry for our sales people in these trading conditions, we are being soft on the standards. In fact we should be doing the opposite.”

What he was proposing was the following.

Firstly, that the sales targets should be reviewed and adjusted down in the face of the new reality. The purse had shrunk and it was a lunacy to expect the outcome initially envisaged. The targets needed to be adjusted down to reflect the actuality of the situation. Leaving them unchanged would be seriously demoralizing.

Secondly, and at the same time, standards regarding excellence in the sales process needed to be raised.

Leaders should insist on higher standards, enable their people to meet them, and hold them accountable for doing so. Ironically, by raising the standards not the targets, leaders increase the likelihood of the targets being met.

In both good and bad times, ambition is needed. But there is good and bad ambition. Good ambition is about being the best that one can be, about striving to improve oneself. Bad ambition, on the other hand, is about seeking to get ahead, to win and be better than the competition. This is true in any context.

Right ambition for an athlete means focusing on playing a better game, not on winning the league.  For medical professionals it is about a commitment to producing exceptional medical care rather than being distracted by medical statistics. For soldiers it is about giving their all to the fight, whether they end up in victory or defeat. For employees it means excelling in the role, including a leadership role.

The higher the standards and the more people subordinate themselves to meeting those standards the more successful they are likely to be, irrespective of the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Wendy Lambourne
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