Author Profile Picture

Quentin Millington

Marble Brook

Consultant and Coach

Read more about Quentin Millington

Performance management, without the tick boxes

Cynicism and rancour surround performance management and the typical appraisal. How can we transition this tiring, bureaucratic process into a fortifying ritual? Quentin Millington shares eight guidelines for a more human way.
woman, travel, hike, depicting performance

Two words, six syllables – of sheer bureaucracy. The stolid and unwieldy phrase ‘performance management’ reveals the opportunity that many companies and non-profits have to help their people do better work.

Our complex world and evolving employee needs require HR teams and managers to move beyond tick boxes and abandon the obsession with task and process. 

Eight guidelines for a more human way

Meaningful changes to performance management are not about novel technology or processes, but a shift in culture. We require colleagues to adopt new thinking, behave in new ways, and secure fresh results. The focus must be people; all else is secondary.

How, then, can we advance from a bureaucratic process to a ritualised dialogue, where the emphasis shifts from assessment to enrichment? Here are eight suggestions to get you started.

  1. Clarify the value you seek

What is the point? If you are unclear what value you aim to create through performance management, then your colleagues will remain bewildered and/or disengaged. Today, no one wants to have his or her performance ‘managed’ so a novel tack is required.

There are three reasons for routinely looking at how people work:

  1. To secure stronger results for the business or beneficiaries
  2. To create a more effective workplace
  3. To enhance the employee experience

Each of these imperatives revolves around betterment, so performance management is a means to an end, not a worthwhile process in itself. This already represents a departure from established thinking and practice.

2. Find good words

It may seem like a small point, but given the reputation that performance management has, and the tired cynicism the usual charade elicits, a compelling way to describe the effort is in everyone’s interests.

Think through the value you aim to create; involve teams to distil this into language that captures what matters most. Perhaps your colleagues care about growth or innovation, well-being or creativity, customers or the planet. You must be able to say, ‘We champion this ritual because we want to [do one or two things other than manage your performance].’

3. Examine outcomes, values, and strengths

Relevant avenues to explore depend on the industry and role, and, crucially, on the nature of interactions a person has with others.

In general, however, it helps to explore three facets of the work experience. What is the quality of the outcomes the person achieves? How aligned are his or her behaviours with the agreed values? And how well does the individual demonstrate other strengths and competencies required in the role?

4. Choose numbers with care

People do not in their behaviour obey the laws of physics or chemistry. Humans act on whim in unpredictable ways and they do so for complex, often hidden reasons. As I explain in Spreadsheets, seductive fantasy about the real world, numbers paint only a reduced picture of social reality.

Quantitative 360-style or pulse surveys can illuminate strengths and concerns, but they yield questions rather than answers. Their value is to find a route into an holistic conversation: managers and team members should be discouraged from worrying whether a person is a 3.4 or a 3.8 on a given scale: it tells you next to nothing.

Shift from numbers to dialogue as soon as possible.

5. Factor in the environment

Individual performance is affected by environmental factors, a complexity that is neglected in the traditional approach. When reflecting on how a person works and the outcomes they achieve, examine the actions of the manager, resources to hand, the immediate team and workplace conditions, and so on.

Events in an individual’s personal life also have bearing on work, so culture and practice should encourage a fair conversation about these. It is not possible to understand what helps or hinders performance without this.

The aim is not to stop at assessment, but to take steps to improve matters. Good decisions emerge from understanding the wider landscape of performance.

6. Ensure managers take action

A major criticism of performance management processes is that once the assessment is done, very little happens – the exercise is forgotten for six months or a year. One role of HR is to ensure that managers are held accountable for acting on the performance dialogue, by ensuring they support and challenge their team members.

Processes, even good conversations, that fail to yield practical advances demotivate individuals and call into question the sincerity of senior management. Do not ask people to give or accept feedback, or talk in one-to-ones, if there is weak commitment to follow-up.

7. Make resources available

Any dialogue about improvement in business outcomes, workplace effectiveness, or employee experience will highlight the need for various investments. These may be money, time, learning, or other facilities.

If you invite people to evaluate their and others’ performance, have a meaningful conversation, and agree on a development path, only then to say ‘We have no budget’ or ‘No, you may not make time for that’, then the whole initiative will backfire.

8. Ritual trumps process

It is time to rethink what we mean by ‘performance’ and also what we mean by ‘management’. The trick to securing better outcomes for the business, the workplace, and team members is to advance from a tiring process to a fortifying ritual.

Interested in this topic? Read How to set clear performance expectations and unlock discretionary effort

Author Profile Picture
Quentin Millington

Consultant and Coach

Read more from Quentin Millington