Performance-related pain

One of the things I love about social media is the random conversations and debates you suddenly find yourself in. For me recently a lot of these have been around performance management. The debate around the world would suggest we are at something of a crossroads for the humble old performance review.

The case for the prosecution

There is a growing feeling that performance management as a traditional process is fundamentally broken. No one does it well and no one likes doing it. It neither increases performance nor motivates, and is a once a year “tick the box” type of management activity past its use by date that needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history along with personnel management.

The case for the defence

Performance reviews are a great way of directly linking performance to the values and strategy of the organization. When done properly they can increase motivation, career development, correct under performance and assist with ongoing development and coaching.

Most HR people would relate to both points of view I’m sure. I remember once talking to a fellow HR Manager at a conference who told me proudly that he had removed the performance appraisal system completely from his blue collar organisation. He argued quite rightly that if a process adds no value and people don’t buy into it then you shouldn’t do it, and clearly that was the case in his organization.

However, I do think that approach can be a cop out. We need to ask ourselves why are people not buying into it the process? Is it badly designed, are HR/managers not promoting it properly, are managers and staff not held accountable for its completion?

While I do agree reviews done in isolation can be a pain in the arse, I have to say that when I have worked with dysfunctional teams over the years they have all had a couple of common denominators – overbearing or incompetent managers who don’t take kindly to constructive feedback and a complete absence of goal setting and regular performance reviews. You know the types of managers. The ones that come to you to complain they have a serial under performer they’ve now decided needs to be exited and want you to wave your magic wand and make disappear! When you ask how they rated them at the last performance review, they shuffle in their seat uncomfortably and admit they either haven’t done it or rated the performance as satisfactory for a quiet life.

What is undeniable is that the world of work has changed and continues to change at a fast pace. Does that make performance reviews redundant? I don’t think so. The impact of technology and changing demographics can’t be denied. I’m old enough to remember when people were questioning why they needed a computer on their desk and what possible use could email ever be! They hated performance reviews back then too.

So what can we do to make sure reviews are still relevant? First of all, the process has to be top down. I have worked in organisations where senior executives think the process applies to everyone but them. And guess what, all the people who work for them think they are useless and are frustrated that no one is holding them accountable for their shortcomings. They need to walk the talk.

Secondly, one size does not fit all. There is no point assessing very technical staff against the same competency framework you use for your corporate staff if the competencies are based on soft skills and management capability. If you have lots of technical or specialist staff, assess them against something they can relate to.

Also, get it right at the start of the year. I have seen literally thousands of poorly written goals/objectives over the years where it is clear little or no effort has been made to think about what needs to be achieved and wouldn’t motivate anyone to do anything above and beyond. As they say, if you don’t know where you are going you will end up somewhere else. And it is also good to link development directly to the outcomes required in the role. Set stretch business goals and then determine what skills/knowledge people may need for them to achieve those goals.

Finally, we need a mind shift in HR and with our line managers. HR needs to be better at designing performance management systems that are fit for purpose. It may not be the traditional over-engineered form. It may not be irrelevant competencies. These days there are online tools that can provide a different kind of assessment depending on the make up and demographics of your workforce. But more importantly, line managers need to understand that ongoing evaluation and feedback IS THEIR JOB, what they are being paid good money to do and stop whining about it! It always makes me laugh when otherwise intelligent and clever mangers tell me they are too busy to do performance reviews. Really? Busy doing what? The work your team should be doing? Was 6 months insufficient notice for you to schedule the review meetings?

If that’s your reality in HR then perhaps you need to go back to basics and think about re-designing and re-launching your process. Or scrap it altogether if your organisation truly doesn’t need it. But you will need to find another way of assessing performance and ensuring feedback happens in a meaningful way. Educate and coach your managers in how to do it well. Create a performance culture where feedback is an every day thing. We have to take responsibility for getting this right not throw it away and kid ourselves today’s workers are too sophisticated to be reviewed.

I do think it’s a good debate to be having, but let’s not assume that the humble performance review is guilty as charged and ready for death row. The evidence suggests otherwise and it’s probably HR who are holding the smoking gun.

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