Performance Management – Expecting the Best

The term “performance management” is often mis-interpreted to mean performance regulation or enforcement. However a more effective approach is to see the setting of performance expectations in a more positive light.

When Lord Nelson raised his famous “England expects….” signal at the battle of Trafalgar he did not intend it to be a warning or demand but rather as a statement of confidence in his people. The fleet and its crews were well trained and committed to the objective. Nelson had no need to threaten them with consequences as he was well satisfied that they were loyal and indeed eager to do their individual duties to contribute to the defeat of the French.


Nelson’s signal,

 Nelson’s signal, “England expects that every man will do his duty”, flying from Victory on the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar

(Image:  courtesy

The Admiral’s approach to leadership and managing the performance of his team was based on the same positive framework we should be using in our own organisations today.

Enveloping our expectations in values – many organisations spend a lot of time formulating inspirational value statements but do little to embed those values in their performance expectations. Nelson was very economic in his value statement. It was all about “England” and the values of loyalty, patriotism and national honour that the single word immediately implied to those to whom the message was addressed. We should work hard to be equally as meaningful in communicating the values we expect our teams to embrace and reflect in their approach to their tasks.

Clarity of outcomes expected – There was no uncertainty in the minds of Nelson’s crews as to what outcome was expected. The coming encounter and their role in it was perfectly clear. I have seen numerous modern performance plans that include lofty statements but leave the real target quite uncertain for those who must pursue it. Typically this results in both the manager and their staff being unsatisfied with the outcome. Clarity of purpose is the centrepiece of setting performance expectations.

Supporting competency expectations with effective training –Nelson’s crews were put through rigorous training in gunnery and fleet tactics in preparation for the battle. It was not in his nature to put his officers and crews in situations for which they might be ill-prepared and likely to under-perform, especially when so much was at stake. We have no less responsibility to our teams to see that they are well trained and given development opportunities so as to not only prepare them to take on the challenges we offer to them, but also to give them every chance of success. No rational leader wants to set his people up for failure by setting expectations beyond their capability.

Leading by example – Nelson’s model of command in the thick of the action was the epitome of courage under fire. How are we at setting high standards for our own behaviour and performance for others to measure their efforts by. The expectations we set for ourselves should be no less, and indeed greater, then we set for our teams if we want them to follow our example.


HMS Victory

Me and the Victory

Standing on the dock at Portsmouth next to the wonderfully preserved HMS Victory is truly inspiring. Highly performing teams typically find their inspiration in their leaders– if we inspire people to perform to their best we do not need to “manage” their performance.


Join our newsletter

We won’t spam you, you will receive regular updates on relevant topics. 

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.