Performance Management: it is and it isn’t rocket science

17th September 2019

If people are the greatest creators of value in an organisation, then good performance management is critical for all organisations to achieve the success they strive for. Employees must understand what’s expected of them and to achieve those goals they need to be managed so that they’re motivated, have the necessary skills, resources and support. Employees must also be accountable.

However, performance management is not a tool to be used to criticise or ‘manage’ employees out of the organisation. Even when not used as stick to beat employees with, it is regularly viewed as a collection of boring, time-wasting policies and documents that are brought out once a year. Annually, manager and employee go through the rigmarole and pretence of having a constructive ‘developmental’ discussion, where forms are robotically filled in, failures measured and evidence collected to link to pay rewards.

At its worst performance management is demoralising and potentially discriminatory. At its best however, and when done creatively, performance management can define a culture which inspires the continuous improvement of individuals’ skills, behaviours and contributions to the organisation, its goals and its bottom line. The most successful organisations not only manage and improve individual performance but also create and sustain ‘high performance’ working across the organisation, fostering on-going commitment. It is to this that all businesses should be aspiring.

So how can we make performance management work?

Firstly, effective performance management relies on both formal and informal processes. It’s about planning and putting into place mechanisms that define and review individual and team objectives, linking these to overall business goals, setting measures of success and then discussing these in meetings between the line manager and employees (the dreaded appraisal, or performance review meeting). As part of this formal process, employees will need to talk to their managers about the support and resources they need to do their jobs well. So the link between performance and learning and development needs to be clear and discussions need to be held regularly and diarised.

Alongside formal process we must establish a culture in which individuals and groups take responsibility for the continuous improvement of not only their own personal skills, behaviours and contributions, but to the improvement of business processes and challenging ‘the way things are done’. This is not a quick process, but with well thought out performance management staff become more than just satisfied, they become committed. Take for example the often cited Moon landing example. John F. Kennedy when leading NASA in the 1960s drew direct links between the seemingly mundane work carried out by employees and NASA’s ultimate aspirations. When this connection was strongest employees identified their work not as short-term tasks (“I’m building electrical circuits”) but as the pursuit of NASA’s long-term objective (“I’m putting a man on the moon”) and the aspiration of this objective (“I’m advancing science”)1.

Thirdly, your business is unique and your whole performance management process should be as unique as you are. Why even call it performance management; we brand products, we focus on the external ‘customer experiences’, so why don’t we shape internal processes with the same passion? Let’s call it something that describes your vision for employees, for the organisation, for where the business is going. After all, we are looking at changing culture and challenging mind-sets, a process which shouldn’t be led by a paperwork and spreadsheets but rather should be something inspiring.

Finally, when the process is up and running, we need to ensure everyone is included. And that means everyone, top to bottom; male, female. It happens far too often that organisations pay lip service to the developmental needs of employees working flexibly, whether this is those on different shift patterns, home workers or part-time staff, the majority of whom are female. Out of sight, out of mind is hardly a motivational clarion call to your employees to get behind the business. How do you communicate with everyone, how do you ensure everyone’s contribution is valued? Remember, performance management was just as important to the electrical circuit maker as to the astronaut. Every employee should be given the opportunity to be the best they can possibly be and structured and creative performance management can ensure this is achieved.

1Andrew M Carton. ’I’m not Mopping floors, I’m putting a man on the moon’ Journal of Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 63, 2017.

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