In my very first management job, I had an employee whose performance was streets ahead of everyone else in the team. She was amazing. Employed as a call handler, she had the shortest call times, and the highest call volumes of anyone in the call centre. 
 
My boss was intrigued - not intrigued enough to have done anything about it during the previous few years he had been in post - but intrigued enough to start an investigation now he had a new junior manager on board who he could delegate this most awkward of jobs to. 
 
Bosses eh? 
 
He just couldn’t understand, he said, how someone who seemed so…average… could handle so many more calls than anyone else. She hadn’t always been this good, but lately she was really pulling out all the stops.. 
He was a trusting chap, and I’m not sure if it had ever occurred to him that things might not be entirely as they seemed. 
 
So one night, after my late shift had finished, instead of going home I went downstairs into a room that was equipped with remote listening kit, and logged in to my superstar employee’s workstation. I was really interested to hear what techniques she was using to handle calls so quickly, so I could go on to share them with other call handlers. 
 
Oh the innocence of youth! 
 
What I heard was a call handler cutting off most callers, and ignoring the rest, while she knitted (yes, I could hear the needles) and chatted with her friends who were obviously also playing the same game. 
 
She wasn’t doing any part of her job at all – and yet she had the best performance stats of anyone in the centre! 
 
In the space of a few minutes, every illusion I and my manager held about the performance of our call centre was categorically shattered. My manager stepped down into a junior role (equivalent to mine) not long after, his trust in people broken. 
 
I had learnt the most important lesson of my career within the first 6 weeks of being an accidental manager, and one which I now watch highly experienced managers learn for themselves day in, day out. 
 
It’s a really difficult lesson to stomach too. 
 
Whatever measures you’re looking at to monitor your employees’ performance, however frequently you measure performance, and however much you trust the figures - you are not looking at the right things. 
 
I can guarantee that if you employ people, at least a few of them have found ways to make their performance or their behaviour look a lot better than it actually is. 
 
What you see isn’t what you get. 
 
I know, I know, you trust your employees. And you should – mutual trust and confidence is at the heart of the employment contract. But that’s mutual trust – not blind trust
 
When you drive your car, do you slow down for speed cameras? Most drivers do, because we know there’s a chance the cameras are switched on and some points, and fine, will be in the post very soon. We know we could be caught, so we’re more careful and we stick to the rules. 
 
Your employees know what you are looking at. They see the statistics you show them. So they know which parts of their performance need to look good. And if they want to make that performance look better than it is, they will find a way. They are always one step ahead of you. 
 
If they are in sales, they know you’re looking at the bottom line – how much money are they making for your business - but just how closely do you analyse their sales patterns, cancellation rates, gross margins, repeat business, or customer feedback? How often do you really dig into the figures to see how they are really achieving those sales? 
 
Admin roles? How long does it really take to do the things on their desk? Do you actually know? How long are they taking for breaks? How quickly do they start work in the morning or pack up in the evening? Do they really do the mundane checks and run the reports you have asked them to do regularly, or do other more urgent and interesting tasks take priority? 
 
Remember Nick Leeson who brought down Barings Bank and think it couldn’t possibly happen to you? Or more recently, Patisserie Valerie, where a director had been able to open overdraft facilities that no-one else in the business knew about, and where the black hole in their accounts was recently estimated to be £94million?  
 
Both cases where the people responsible for managing performance accepted what they were told or shown at face value, while their companies were being fatally weakened and eventually destroyed
 
My call handler knew that we were looking at call duration and number of calls, and she also knew that it was unheard of for managers to stay late and remotely monitor anyone’s calls. She knew the stats wouldn’t show the calls had been cut off. She knew the callers she had cut off wouldn’t know her name or be able to report her. There was only the tiniest outside chance anyone would ever find out. I’m pretty sure Nick Leeson and Patisserie Valerie would tell a very similar story. 
 
But you know, employee performance doesn’t miraculously improve overnight. It really, really doesn’t. We get a bit better at what we do every day, but people just don’t make step changes in performance in a short period of time. 
 
So if someone in your team has suddenly improved their performance, almost overnight, that’s a great, big, red flashing warning signal that you need to stop patting yourself on the back for being a great manager, and start looking at what exactly they have been doing to achieve this incredible gain in performance so quickly. 
 
Before it costs you too much. 
 
If you manage people, it’s time to think the unthinkable. 
How – exactly – is your star performer achieving their results? 
What corners are they cutting? What procedures are they ignoring? 
Are you REALLY sure you know – and if not, how are you going to find out? 
 
 
I offer unique, bespoke 1:1 coaching for accidental managers to help you feel in control of your team. See my Be a Better Manager programme for more information, or call me on 07902 903086 to see how it could work for you. 
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