I’m often asked a question in a session or a discussion that I keep returning to in the days that follow, staring out of a train window or while ferrying teenagers somewhere or other.   Trying to work out what the best response would have been and using someone else’s perspective to take my own understanding of the subject forward.  Last week’s question was, “When does difference become malperformance?”   I recognised that Christina’s (not her real name) was the most searching question I had been asked in months.

Before going any further, I want to adopt and start a campaign for the wider use of the word malperformancein this context.  I had never heard it before and only learnt through dictionary.com that it is a real English word and it means ‘poor or inadequate performance of a task [my emphasis added].’  The word is infinitely preferable to the well worn phrase ‘poor performance’ because it doesn’t imply a level of performance over a period.  ‘Poor performer’ is the badge given: “we’re talking about a poor performer here” and often at the first sign of potential poor performance.  A single task may have been mishandled but there is a rush to judgement whereas what has happened would actually be more properly described as malperformance (which would imply no judgement of the person’s overall level of performance).

This is very important because hastily made judgements affect how the person being labelled is treated, their confidence and therefore how they behave and perform.  In simple terms we create a self fulfilling prophecy.

Christina’s question also betrays how negatively many people I work with view ‘difference’. In spite of the growing tide of research about the positive impact of diversity on performance many still approach the concept warily: “reading the stuff you sent us, I kept asking myself ‘isn’t accommodating all these different people going to drive down overall standards?’”

The answer that I wish I had given to Christina’s question is: “all day, every day.  It’s what we all do.”  Because it is; difference is not often seen as a good thing.  Be honest with yourself; when someone gives you something set out not quite as you would have done or how you like it done, the likelihood is that you won’t value it.  You will approach it with a negative mindset, looking for fault.  I’ve worked with enough lawyers to know that they (we) excel here.  Speaking to a senior group of them  recently I picked up the evocative phrase ‘a car crash of red pen’ which, at the end of the discussion, we agreed often follows a junior person doing something not the way you would have.

I answered Christina by focussing on the role that our expectations play in determining our reaction to what’s produced for us.  We then explored how important it is to tailor those expectations to the different people who may be working with you.  Which is sort of the same thing?

A little later one of Christina’s colleagues, Ronan (also not his real name) shared a fantastic story concerning him losing the use of his car and having to commute five hours a day (as opposed to a 40 minutes each way).   Ronan was called in by his boss because he didn’t seem to be working as hard as he normally did; he was arriving later, leaving earlier and was spending most of the time he was actually in the office chatting to people.   Ronan checked whether there was a problem with his output?  There apparently wasn’t.  He explained about the car and that in the limited time he had in the office he was focusing on the critical part of his job; talking and listening to his team.  I have a sense that Ronan was probably also doing a lot of the drudge, the emails and reports on the train.  My resistance to HS2 has nothing to do with NIMBYism or environmental concerns, I just know how much work I can do on in the 78 minutes on the train between London and Birmingham!

The expectations Christina’s question raise relate to what the work product (the report, the invoice, the project plan or whatever) should look like.  Ronan’s boss had expectations about how work should be done, aboutwhat ‘work’ looks like.  The question is whether you can accept that your preferred way of packaging the work product may not be the only way and that people may produce very effective outputs by operating in a way that is completely different to the way you operate.

When you ask them managers and leaders know they should bring an ‘open mind’ to any discussion about performance (or malperformance) and workplace behaviour.  But I don’t think they grasp just how difficult that is, how ingrained the perceptions, the ‘pictures in their head’ – the unconscious biases – actually are.  The two biases that I fervently believe we should be addressing first are those identified by Christina’s question and Ronan’s story:  our clear perception of what the work product will look like and what working itself looks like, how and where it is done.

Only when Christina, Ronan and their colleagues (and me, in fact all of us) recognise the clarity of those mental images and the corrosive negative impact of judgements stemming from them will the answer to Christina’s question be, “no, difference drives high performance.”