With Martin G. Moore

Episode #178

Visibility in a Remote World: Appearances can be deceiving

Since the pandemic forced us into remote working, many people have turned their work day into performance art. They now pursue the goal of appearing to be busy, rather than actually delivering value-adding results. The activity becomes the end, rather than the means to an end.

Although this is nothing new (there have always been people who appear to be busy, while achieving little), it has definitely become harder for leaders to identify and deal with than it was in the past.

How can you tell when someone is replacing real work with demonstrations of their own busyness?

We’d all like to think that we’re able to spot this behavior a mile away, but it’s sometimes a little more complicated than we might imagine. This episode is all about identifying and managing the people on your team who are potential Oscar nominees for the award of “Best Performance in a Working Role”.


Get yours delivered straight to your inbox by filling out the form below 👇

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.


Episode #178 Visibility in a Remote World: Appearances can be deceiving

I recently came across an article in The Economist from my favourite columnist, Bartleby. It was titled: The Rise of Performative Work. As this column often does, it exposed some of the ridiculousness of corporate life. Since the pandemic forced us into remote working, so the thesis goes, work for many has become performance art. It seems that many people are now pursuing the goal of appearing to be busy rather than actually delivering real value-adding work. The activity becomes the end rather than the means to an end.

Now, this is nothing new. There’s always been a fair share of people in the office environment that did exactly this, appearing to be busy while achieving little. But for leaders, it’s become even trickier to identify and deal with it than it has been in the past. How can you tell when someone’s replacing real work with demonstrations of their own busyness? We all like to think that we’d be able to spot this a mile away as leaders, but sometimes it’s more complicated than we might imagine.

Today’s episode is all about recognising and managing those in your team who are potential Oscar nominees for the award of Best Performance in a Work Role. But also, as No Bullsh!t leaders, we’re really serious about eating our own dog food. So, this also provides an opportunity for us to reflect on the things that we do to busy ourselves, that might allow us to avoid the hard work of leadership. Today I will:

  • Take a look at how we should identify, perform and potential in our people.

  • Explore why this is harder in the world of hybrid work.

  • Finish with a few ideas for cutting through performative work to get to a real understanding of who’s doing what.

So let’s get into it.


How do we identify performance and potential? I’ve touched on this in past episodes, but I’ve never really dealt with it in detail. One really useful episode is one of my oldies: Episode 24: Building Organisational Capability Part Two. But we also have (obviously implied by the name) Building Organisational Capability Part One. Both episodes respectively are definitely worth a listen. Since one of the core functions of a leader is to build organisational capability, these two are pretty much required listing for any No Bullsh!t leader. If you haven’t listened to these before, or even if you just haven’t listened to them for a while, I’d strongly recommend that you do that before you forget. You can listen to these episodes here:

Identifying potential has long been a bit of a black art, but even evaluating performance can be quite difficult. With performative work, both performance and potential come into play. Now the organisations that are best at this have a structured process for evaluating potential and performance – this is often called talent and succession planning. In well run processes, when managers rate their people they have to provide evidence and justification of any rating bestowed upon them. There’s a clear distinction between performance and potential. Performance looks backwards:

  • What did this person achieve and how did they achieve it?

  • How did it compare to our standards?

  • Was it above the minimum acceptable standard?

  • Was it exceptional?

  • Was it below expectations?

Potential looks forward: What are they likely to do in the future based on their past performance and some other observable indicators? Now, just remember there’s no potential without performance, so you need to start there.

Evaluating performance has to be done in a structured way, so that it isn’t unduly influenced by our inbuilt biases and perceptions. For example, we will always have a tendency to rate someone we like and get on with above someone that we don’t click quite as well with. It’s unavoidable and the best weapon in our arsenal in order to combat this, is knowledge and acceptance that these biases are present in all of us.


There are three main ways to ensure objectivity in performance evaluation:

Use a structured performance evaluation framework

How many leadership books and studies suffer from the problem of not establishing clear criteria upfront? Dependent, and independent variables, for those of you who know your statistics. Thus, the conclusions suffer from attribution bias – looking at an outcome retrospectively, and then trying to explain the observed results. It’s exactly the same here. If you have clear criteria for performance categories and standard, you can evaluate your people against a predetermined framework – much less likely to be gamed.

Ensure that your performance criteria that you select are multidimensional

It’s really easy to fall in love with someone who produces great results in one performance dimension. For example, driving excellent commercial outcomes – but they may be terrible in other areas like working with others or leading people. Predetermined categories that cover the range of performance areas will keep you and your people honest. I’ve had so many arguments with leaders over the years about the way they’ve rated their people in this regard. When an executive once rated one of his direct reports as an exceptional performer, it was really easy for me to have this conversation. It went something like this:
Sure, mate. If you only look at his ability to come up with innovative ideas, he probably gets six out of five, but if you look at his leadership, it’s probably two out of five. His commercial acumen is probably three out of five. And his ability to work across boundaries is generous when we say it’s one out of five. To me, when you take into account all the dimensions of leadership performance, he looks like an underperformer not an exceptional performer.”

Seek a range of opinions

If you want to overcome your biases of affiliation, recency and identification, seeking other views from people who work with certain individuals can be extremely helpful. This is an area of course, in which 360 degree feedback can be invaluable.


Once you’ve got performance ordered out, then there’s potential. It’s different from performance in that just because someone can do a job really well at their current level, doesn’t mean they’re going to be able to do the job as well at the next level up. It’s hard enough to evaluate performance, which is pretty much there for everyone to see. To then make an assessment of whether someone will perform in the future is even harder. So how do you work this out? Well, I’ve made more mistakes than most in my career when assessing people’s potential. I’ve many times in the past promoted really good middle managers to more senior roles only to see them not cope with the demands of that level. So what should you look for? Well, once again, it should be methodical and look at both the capabilities and behaviours that are required at the next level up, whatever that next level is for the individual.

The number one capability test is to ensure the individual has sufficient abstract reasoning capability to handle the additional complexity of the next level up

The higher up you go, the more important this is. There’s a fairly standard aptitude test to measure abstract reasoning capability that’s well worn and reliable. I’ve learned over time, not to hire anyone into a more senior role without administering this test and knowing exactly what their appetite for complexity is. For me, that’s the most important marker to answer the question: Does this person have the capability to handle the demands of the job at the next level up?

After that, you can look at a person’s core values 

Now values are really hard if not impossible to change. So you better make sure they’re what you want.

  • Does this person have a solid work ethic?

  • Do they do what’s right, rather than what’s convenient at critical moments?

  • Do they exemplify the values you are trying to instill in your people?

Then there’s a range of other behavioural indicators 

In Episode 24, I went through a checklist of the types of things that you use to assess whether or not a leader is likely to grow. We actually produced a free downloadable from that episode, it’s definitely worth getting it – click here to go to the website. Just to give you an idea of this, it incorporates things like:

  • Is someone willing to take on tougher and tougher challenges?

  • Do they have the ability to learn from their mistakes and not repeat them?

  • Do they have the confidence to take calculated risks to improve the value of their outcomes?

The full checklist in the Episode 24 downloadable – and any others you may wish to add, of course – can bring a level of structured assessment to the conversation on someone’s potential, albeit at a qualitative level. This can guide the conversation when leaders below you are telling you how wonderful their favourite promotion prospect is, and they’ll enable you to cut through the biases by asking questions aligned to the criteria that you’ve set. Now, smaller companies, and those with less focus on talent and capability, won’t necessarily have these processes in place for you to evaluate performance and potential. If that’s the case, you can do something that’s fit for purpose for your environment, very quickly and simply, and use it whenever the question arises. It doesn’t have to be complicated and comprehensive. It just needs to work.


Now, the question is: is this harder now that we are working in a hybrid world? People have always gamed performance and potential assessments by relying on a few things:


People who build strong relationships with those above them can often create a favourable environment for promotion – and there’s nothing wrong with this at all. Without a strong relationship, you can’t give your boss the visibility she needs to make a sensible assessment of your capability. But as a leader, when you’re in a position of evaluating people, you need to look beyond the relationship in a more analytical and dispassionate way.

Sanitising information that’s passed upwards

The vast majority of people in organisational structures tend to downplay the negatives and accentuate the positives. It’s just human nature. But you have to be a little more clever when evaluating someone’s outcomes. Ask the hard questions about the failures and be diligent about assessing KPIs and performance.

Blame shifting

Make sure your people are taking accountability for what they do in all areas. Often you’ll see a trend of people owning success, regardless of how tenuous their role was in achieving it. They’ll also try to distance themselves from failures often at the expense of someone else. I’ve got to say, after all my years of leading large groups of people, every excuse that I hear now just sounds to me like “The dog ate my homework”. Now, this has always been an issue – and if you’ve been leading for any time at all, I’m sure that you’ve fallen prey to these obfuscations more than once, as I did during my corporate career.

How is it now harder in the world of hybrid work? I’m no expert in hybrid and remote working – although apparently there’s loads of people who now are, if you can believe their LinkedIn profiles. So I’m going to go back to the article and borrow Bartleby’s description of the performative work phenomenon, to give some guides from a leadership perspective about how to deal with people who are turning their jobs into a work of performance art.


In the hybrid or virtual world, we have more tools to help us look busy, which many leaders still seem to use as a proxy for performance. In the office, people pretending to work often looked worried, walked around the office briskly and carried a clipboard. Being busy has never been a good way to judge performance, nor has time spent at the desk. There was one particular occasion in my life as a CEO, when, as I was heading out of the office, one evening, I saw one of the middle managers working back late. After initially being impressed, when I went over to his workstation to tell him to go home, I noticed that he wasn’t actually working, but rather looking for a new car on carsales.com. He then volunteered of course, that he was just waiting for his mates to meet him for drinks.

These days, there are a bunch of other tools to help convey the illusion of productivity:

Calendar management has become an art form

Using a full calendar as a virtue signal of hard work, commitment and productivity is commonplace in the performance artist. But it still tells us little about someone’s performance.

Email has also been weaponized

Long CC lists draw many more people than necessary into almost every thread. As does wide broadcasting on Slack and other instant messaging channels to give the illusion of commitment and diligence. Some people actually schedule emails to go at weird times like early morning and weekends.

Zoom? That’s a double-edged sword 

Chat channels can be used for evil rather than good. People looking engaged and thoughtful on Zoom is one way of seeming on top of things and useful. But in many cases, it’s just theatrics.

Here’s the kicker: managers who aren’t comfortable leading through outcomes will feel even more insecure. Now that it’s harder to measure the inputs, like time in the office. Therefore, they’re going to be much more susceptible to the gaming of the performance artist at work. On top of this, the current environment makes it even easier for the leader who is uncomfortable with leading to shirk their obligations. It’s pretty easy to skip difficult conversations by saying “Oh, everyone’s meeting-ed out. So they’ll be really grateful to not have another one.”

Enter the most interesting concept of Bartleby’s article: optimal busyness. What an insightful concept! The theory goes that leaders will seek to achieve a level of busyness that neither overwhelms them nor leaves them with much time to think. This gives the illusion of progress by hitting many small milestones while achieving very little. And of course, managers who are worried about losing sight of the slackers will always resort to micromanagement as their go-to remedy.

Having said all of that, what’s my evaluation of the situation? Well, performative work has always been in our corporate work culture to some extent, but now the latest trends in technological and social change have made this much more streamlined. That is to say, it’s easier for someone to get by on the strength of their performative worker and harder for a leader to recognise it.


How do we cut through performative work in our hybrid world? It can be a little tricky for sure. Remember, trend is your friend. Always look for trends and patterns in your people’s behaviour and performance. Here are five ways to cut through the performative work facade:

1. Use some form of structured assessment

Earlier, I spoke about setting up the framework for evaluating performance and potential in a more methodical way. This can be applied to the world of hybrid or remote work as readily as it can to face-to-face work. The difficulty is you have to be even more deliberate in your data collection, even more dispassionate in your assessment of people’s performance and potential, and even more diligent in the way you challenge the leaders below you.

2. Look only at outcomes

I talk all the time about delivering value. Work has become more transactional in the hybrid world. A task is assigned and a task is completed – or not. We’ve lost that nuance of innovation, collaboration, and problem-solving. In the long term, I think that’s going to show in organisational performance. You’re going to have to look through the mere completion of tasks and instead work out who is seeking out and delivering real value. This will also help you to overcome the Optimum Busyness Syndrome that Bartleby talked about.

3. Implement strong single point accountabilities

Another thing I talk about all the time. Strong, single-point accountabilities is the key to execution excellence. But blame shifting has become so much easier because there are fewer opportunities to get all the key players in the same virtual room. You’re trying to create a culture of accountability that can be described as no blame, no excuses.

Now I’m not going to go into accountability here in any detail. It’s the punchline of the book, and we have a whole module dedicated to it in Leadership Beyond the Theory, but I will refer you back to another episode and that is Episode 19: Execution for Results. It is a great statement of how accountability drives execution excellence.

4. Reduce the number of meeting attendees to the absolute minimum

This is especially important in the world of Zoom fatigue. If you wanna put out a fire, remove the oxygen from the room. Busy work thrives on meetings. Remove the expectation of busyness and instead make a virtue of efficiently delivering value. If you can do this, you’ll change the paradigm. What gets measured gets managed and what gets rewarded gets done. Reward the right things.

5. Provide ample opportunity for communication with all of your direct reports

Quite often, the performance artist will spend a lot of time trying to schmooze with you, cosy up to you and influence your impression of them. If you don’t allow any individual to dominate your bandwidth, there’s less likelihood to fall under their spell of self-promotion and impression management. The key rule is still spend 80% of your time with your very best people. If you use the right criteria to determine what “best” is, you are much more likely to avoid being sucked in by performative work.

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this episode, so let’s just tie some of the ends together. It’s true that it’s harder when working remotely to identify, manage, and grow the talent and capability of your team. But there have always been those in the workplace, in organisations large and small, that spend more time avoiding work than actually doing it. They spend their energy shoring up their power and status through politics rather than performance. Ambitious people will always try to find the fastest way to the top. If you are a great leader, only the ones who are doing it the right way will get there.


  • Ep. 19: Execution for Results – Listen Here

  • Ep. 23: Building Organisational Capability Part 1 – Listen Here

  • Ep. 24: Building Organisational Capability Part – Listen Here

  • Join the Crush Your Career Challenge 2022 – Here


  • Explore other podcast episodes – Here

  • Take our FREE Level Up Leadership Masterclass – Start Now

  • Leadership Beyond the Theory – Learn More


Here’s how you can make a difference:

  • Subscribe to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast

  • Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts

  • Repost this episode to your social media

  • Share your favourite episodes with your leadership network

  • Tag us in your next post and use the hashtag #nobsleadership