Performer vs Performance: the surprising power of four little letters

How important is a word? Usually, not very. You’re certainly not going to get any flack from me for calling a soda a pop or a tissue a Kleenex. But when you’re choosing a word that will be central to your performance management system, you had better think about what message you’re sending. Remember, the minute a word becomes a label, it’s moved into the big leagues of word power.

This really hit home with me the other day. A client of ours was working on the implementation phase of rebooting their performance management, and as they were getting into the nitty gritty of their build-out, they were considering changing the word “performance” to “performer” in their forms and templates. Being the thoughtful and smart people that they are, they paused a moment to make sure that they weren’t inadvertently making a mistake – and they shot me an email to get my take, too.

At first glance, such a tiny change might not seem like that big a deal, but yes, I did have a concern with using performer instead of performance, and here’s why: although you don’t mean to, you’re suddenly making it personal. You’re saying, “This is who you are – an exceptional performer or an average performer,” versus, “This is what you did – delivered exceptional performance.” It’s like saying to your child, “You’re a lazy person,” versus saying, “Today you are not pulling your weight and doing the chores I asked.” The first says, “I’ve now defined you, this is who you are,” while the second speaks only to their behavior, something they can control and change.

We all know that none of us are what we do one hundred percent of the time. Fred is not always a high performer, nor is Wilma always a low performer. And while Fred might not mind being called out as a high performer, you can darn well expect Wilma to be upset if you label her as a low performer. You’re telling her that you don’t expect her to ever produce anything other than sub-par work. You’ve defined her as this thing: a poor performer. Talk about disengaging. Talk about sending someone into fight or flight.

So yes, I worry about using language that sounds like I’ve defined someone as this thing. It’s a small, subtle step into dangerous territory. Any discussion about performance can elicit a certain amount of defensiveness – that’s the nature of the beast. So when you’re engaged in a performance discussion, make sure your language focuses on the action rather than on the actor. It’s the only way you’ll have a great conversation that gets at those important questions: “Why is this?”, and “How can we keep it up/get more of it/ or change it and make it better?”

Happy rebooting,

For more on creating a modern and thoughtful approach to performance management, check out my book, How Performance Management is Killing Performance – and What To Do About It. You can order it from Barnes and or Amazon – MTC

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