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Valerie Nichols

Hemsley Fraser

Executive Consultant

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Are line managers doing performance management or forms management?


How’s this for a performance management scenario: It’s mid-February and a manager in your organisation bursts into an employee’s office.

“HR’s getting really annoyed. I was supposed to submit everyone’s performance plan no later than the end of January. Here’s your plan from last year. The work hasn’t really changed and you’re doing a great job, so I’ve given you the same rating as last time. Quick, just sign here. Thanks so much.”

If this sounds familiar, you should worry. This is not performance management. It may be ‘forms management’, but it has nothing to do with a manager getting optimal performance from their team. There are sound reasons for having an effective performance management programme but sometimes these reasons aren’t properly communicated to managers. Here are five questions you can ask line managers, to showcase the value of performance management:

1. To what extent do your employees understand their priorities and that what they do matters?

Managers should be very clear about expectations. Employees are likely to have more work to do than time allows, so setting clear performance expectations and helping people to appreciate why that work is important will ensure that the focus stays on the manager’s priorities, rather than on what employees imagine those priorities might be or what they simply enjoy doing. Clarity of expectations should not be confused with performance measures – such as the number of errors made or the number of widgets produced. Those are important but managers should also be having a conversation at a different level. The key point is to agree on priorities and what ‘success’ will look like.

2. How will your employees know how well they are doing?

It can be worth reminding managers that they are likely to get what they measure. Employees generally want to do well and they will pay attention to whatever their manager pays attention to. If you tell an employee that you expect them to process ten widgets per day, they’ll focus on speed – and you may find that your costs soar as the need for rework increases. Tell your employee that they will be rated on the number of errors that they make and watch customer complaints rise as response or production times decline. Managers should think carefully about what really matters and then set standards that are likely to support that outcome.

3. How frequently do you change work assignments and expectations?

Change occurs rapidly and employees need the flexibility and resilience to shift gears in response. Studies have shown, however, that when frequent changes are made to projects or work assignments, employees can become demotivated and performance can suffer. Before any project or assignment, managers should have had appropriately interactive conversations so that they and their teams share a common understanding. If they do need to make mid-course corrections, they should try to ensure that those are made as soon as the need arises and that employees understand the reason for the change.

4. How frequently do you provide feedback to your employees? 

While formal feedback is provided through a performance management system, informal feedback should be provided on a far more frequent basis, possibly daily or weekly. This helps employees to know what they are doing well and what they can do even better. This more frequent feedback should meet three tests:

  • It should be balanced, not only in terms of balancing positive and negative, but in terms of point of view. Is the employee a member of a team? Is he or she matrixed to another manager or expected to collaborate with other individuals or teams across the organisation? Individual task accomplishment is becoming only one facet of an employee’s expected contributions to an organisation. Employees are increasingly expected to facilitate work across company lines, sharing information, taking responsibility for improving processes, and participating as enterprise team members. If managers only look at work from one perspective, they may be missing an opportunity to foster behaviours the organisation needs in order to be flexible, nimble and, ultimately, viable.
  • Managers should make sure that their feedback is detailed. Just telling an employee, “Good job!” doesn’t let the employee know what they want to see them do again. Instead, they should provide the detail that tells the employee what behaviour they value: “Good job running that meeting. You kept the team on topic, even when they tried to go off on tangents, and you answered key questions simply and concisely.”
  • Managers should also ensure that their feedback is current – it should be given as close to the event as possible, either to reinforce the desired behaviour or correct the undesired behaviour that has just been exhibited. Managers should also provide feedback to help with each employee’s personal development. Employees need the skills and the will to perform today and in the future. Managers should try to foresee the upcoming skills requirements so they can help their people to bridge any gaps that may be evident.  

5. Is your feedback focus positive or negative? 

Human beings appear to be hard wired to notice the negatives. Managers will tend to notice when an employee is demonstrating performance or behaviour that they don’t want. Unfortunately, that’s not the most effective feedback to provide. Studies have shown that focusing on what is working well is far more motivating for people than focusing on their mistakes and errors. A focus on the employee’s performance strengths reinforces the behaviours that lead to enhanced levels of performance, while focusing on weaknesses can actually reduce employee engagement, energy and performance. Managers should begin performance conversations by asking questions rather than making statements. Ask: “What do you think went really well in that meeting?” or “What do you think you might like to do differently on your next project?” This not only defuses defensiveness, it may lead to new perspectives and solutions if the manager listens to the responses.

Effective performance management can make a significant difference to every organisation. If managers understand the benefits it can bring, they’re more likely to support the process. 

3 Responses

  1. A better question might be…

    Are you doing performance management or people management?


    If you have direct reports, how well do you know them?  They are individuals, and will amost certainly benefit from being managed as such.  A desire to be able to measure intangibles and make meaningful comparisons can often lead to an unfortunate tendency to view your people as a small bunch of numbers.  The more complex and nuanced the job, the more difficult the measuring becomes.    How do you quantify attitude?  How do you measure helpfulness?  Is there a difference between someone who takes over a piece of work because they're exasperated with someone else's failure, and someone who takes over a piece of work out of a genuine desire to help someone who's overloaded?  Can you measure sharing of knowledge?  Can you put a value on it, or on the cost of not doing it? 


    On an interpersonal level, when Jane snapped at John, was she just having a bad day, or is there an issue there that needs to be addressed?  If John's been really quiet lately, is it just because he's very busy, or is there another factor affecting his focus?   If Jim's suddenly turned his bad performance from the first quarter around, is that because he's finally applying himself, or is it the hours of coaching he's getting from Joanne?  If Joanne's output has remained steady, does she deserve a reward because she's managed to deliver that and spend hours coaching Jim as well?


    Machines perform, and we can measure that performance, in efficiency, in energy expended, in profit earned.  You can take a decibel meter to an orchestra, and it will tell you precisely how much sound energy they're putting out.  What it won't tell you is whether or not they're any good.  A skilled conductor can pick out individual bad notes from the wall of sound.  A skilled engineer can listen to a machine and know that a bearing is defective, long before any warning system would detect failure.  A good manager can do that with their people, but it's not about knowing the performance, it's about understanding the people.

  2. Great points and comments

    I am in complete agreement with both this article and the Comments – it is about culture change in many cases and this should start from the top, unfortunately it is often undermined from the top with lip service being paid to this activity. Managers and Board's need to recognise that people interpret the value they place on appraisal/121 etc as being commensurate with the value they place on them as individuals. This is why it correlates with engagement and with business results.

    Time is an issue – and somehow people management tends to drop off the priority list, the problem is this is actually reducing productivity and effectiveness long term.

  3. Performance Appraisal/Management

    For all the truckloads of discussion around performance appraisal or whatever else people wish to call the process, I worry that the focus almost to the 'nth' degree, is aimed at the front line folk.

    Well Helloooooo……………no wonder we are still debating the effectiveness or otherwise of the process, because the focus must be on those who manage managers.  Just in case other comments indicate that this offering does not differentiate, I don't  agree because the words used,  to me indicate very clearly we are talking about the front line people.

    Therefore my hope is that we start to focus on the management Team, beginning at the top, and write/recommend/discuss how appraisals can be effectively processed at that level.  Then and only then will what happens at the front line be so well done that such articles as this focus on how we can fine-tune what is or should be a simple straightforward process  A process where we establish very clear and specific performance requirements/standards so that the appraisal follows the time proven steps of discussing how people have exceeded the standards and what next;  how they have met the standards and what next;  how they have not met the standards and what next.

    That way we can hopefully prevent every man and their consultant coming up with more ideas about how to make a straightforward process more complicated.  I live in hope, because it would be fascinating to find out how many very senior people have specific performance standards set for the tasks they are required to complete.  All I have seen talk about being 'professional';  meeting budget;  managing others;  providing advice/information/recommendations/etc; ………….however having observed this discussion for now more than 50 years I feel I may have to resort to prayer to see the change before I depart this earth.

    Good luck!!

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Valerie Nichols

Executive Consultant

Read more from Valerie Nichols