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Rethinking Performance Management

April 25, 2017



Talking to employees and managers about performance management (PM) rarely elicits a great deal of enthusiasm. Many such programs, when they exist at all, are not synonymous with promoting engagement and higher performance nor are they seen as fueling future performance as they are often overly focused on the past.


However, there is somewhat of a revolution taking place where the very core assumptions of performance management’s purpose and approach have been challenged by research and the practices of some of the very best managed companies.

So on the strength of recent research and best practices, here are 5 hacks/tweaks/changes you may want to consider.  The best part, in most organizations it can be done on top of, or in spite of, what already exists and in large part without a major overhaul of current systems.

1. Focus on tomorrow not yesterday. PM typically places a disproportionate emphasis on the past and granted there may still need to be an evaluative component, it should be minimal. Instead, focusing hard on future priorities and learning is where PM is headed.   
2. Make it about strengths not weaknesses. Numerous studies have clearly established that enhanced employee performance is all about enabling people to put their strengths to greater use. Weaknesses are not to be ignored especially if they are core to the role, but real improvement and growth will not come from fixing weaknesses, it comes from building on strengths and a greater opportunity to put them to use.


3. Priorities and feedback in real time, not weeks and months later. Sound PM is about on the spot adjustments to priorities and just in time feedback on progress. Annual or semi annual goal setting for PM is largely passé and completely disconnected with how most jobs are designed and how most people work. Frequency of check-ins on performance needs to be measured in weeks and managers need to be held accountable for that frequency.


4. Super simple. The more wordsmithing and form-filling PM requires, the more onerous it becomes, the more difficult compliance becomes and probably less effective as well. Some summary end of year form may be required but otherwise, a one pager point form is best and you just know there are going to be apps for that. Global players like GE, according to HBR authors Leonardo Baldassare and Brian Finken in their 2015 article “GE’s Real-Time Performance Development”, are ditching annual documents with frequent informal “touchpoints” where “managers coach rather than critique”.


5. Rethink ratings. It is broadly acknowledged that raters of performance are biased by their own knowledge and expertise. In “Why More and More Companies Are Ditching Performance Ratings” a 2015 Harvard Business Review article by David Rock and Beth Jones, the authors refer to many global firms who pioneered rating systems decades ago and are now moving to a no-ratings system. Placing emphasis on what the rater (supervisor or manager) intends to do about the employee’s future learning needs rather than on a rating is the way forward.


The test for effective PM is really quite simple. Does it help managers and employees get clear on expectations and is it configured to meet individual’s and organisation’s needs for mid course correction while being firmly rooted in real time feedback delivered through constant coaching. The administrative requirement for determining pay, record keeping and other HR centric needs are still relevant but need to take a back seat to having PM effectively mobilize people.

And to those managers who don’t get that feedback on performance is the most effective (and cheapest) tool in the toolbox…now you know. To those who hide behind their “busyness” to not set priorities and offer frequent feedback for their folks…your performance rating as a manager should read “does not meet requirements” though the issue is likely also with the manager’s boss who is not coaching or holding managers accountable for the most crucial part of their leadership role.

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