How to Improve Performance Management by Providing Context

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Do your employees long to see the destination your organization has its sights set on?

Or more importantly, do they know what that destination is?

When running performance management efforts, it’s imperative that employers provide their people with the necessary context to thrive in their positions. Showing employees how the dots connect from their job to the overall success of the organization equips them to get the right work done in the right way. Their tasks become pieces of a larger puzzle, and because they know what the big picture looks (perhaps a large ship), they know precisely what their piece needs to look like.

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With context, employees also have the clarity that often leads to an added sense of purpose and meaning. Meaningfulness at work leads to increased engagement and job satisfaction. And since both meaningfulness at work and increased engagement lead to improved performance, it’s plain to see just how important context is.

Context → Clarity → Meaningfulness + Engagement → Improved Performance

Not only does providing context lead to improved performance (and job satisfaction), but it liberates employees and frees managers up to do their work without feeling compelled to monitor their employees at all times. For example, the ship’s architect and the captain aren’t caulking the hull with the carpenters. Their chain of command lets them communicate and know what needs to be done and why so that everyone can focus on their strengths.

Netflix calls this “context, not control,” and it’s a key aspect of their world-renowned culture. Rather than trying to control their employees like some taskmaster, their managers simply focus on making sure their people have the full context needed to meet necessary goals.

They do this by avoiding the following:

And embracing the following:

When Netflix experiences the occasional hiccup—as everybody does—they bring the focus back to the context, rather than resorting to the methods that contradict their culture. As they put it: “When one of your talented people does something dumb, don’t blame them. Instead, ask yourself what context you failed to set.” Rather than blaming a carpenter for not collecting enough wood, the architect could emphasize that the ship needs to be large if the crew is going to be out at sea for months at a time.

Depending on where you are in the process of defining and communicating your company’s vision, proving context will help in your performance management efforts. You may not want to make every employee a helmsman to the degree a company like Netflix can, but the more your entire team faces the same direction and aims for the same destination, the better off everybody will be—whether you’re building ships or streaming thousands of binge-worthy videos.