Guest post by Simon North, Founder of Position Ignition and the Career Ignition Club.
What does good and bad performance management look like and how do we ensure that our organisations have good performance management at every stage and in every element of what is a significant process?
At one level it is easy to see good compared to bad performance management. If you walk into any organisation, you will very quickly pick up on the levels of commitment to performance management. Why? You just have to ask somebody when they were last appraised. People will tell you with certainty the date or the week when they were last appraised–if they are having regular sessions with their boss, that is. Alternatively you might ask them when they last had a team briefing. They would know what you meant and would be able to identify what is meant by a team briefing—they would then tell you that they had it last Friday or the last Friday of last month or whenever it was. People who don’t have regular team briefings or appraisals will look at you blankly and ask what you mean. It is a very simple litmus test.
Good performance management assumes that regular organisational feedback is normal – it is crucial that it is so. It is not a debatable subject. It is fundamental. Every human being needs to know how they are doing; in psychological terms they need to know whether or not they’re OK. If they know the boss and organisation think they’re OK, they feel OK. In that position, the individual knows what they’re supposed to be doing. They get regular feedback that their bit of organisational work is OK and is fitting into the wider culture of the company.
By definition, good performance has at least three levels—the relationships between the individual and the boss, the individual and their team and the individual and the wider organisation they work for. The feedback mechanisms and communications processes need to be structured at all of these levels and integrated in a seamless way.
There is another fundamental element to good performance. It is fabulous to praise and recognize good aspects of the individual’s work in public. You can say to a worker, ‘what a good job you have done’, letting other colleagues see, and letting the organisation see, the contribution made by that person and why it is significant. You can do that. But never criticise an individual in public. Anything the leader or manager needs to say to subordinate colleagues, that has any element of constructive criticism in it, should be done in private. Why? Because the impact of any manager using their positional power is inappropriate and unfair at best and bullying at worst. The impact of this behaviour will have significant ramifications.
So let’s look further into what the components of good performance management are. Performance management should start with clarification around goals that are agreed between the individual worker and their boss. This means mutually agreed goals–not goals written down by the boss and assumed to be agreed. The reason that this is critical is two-fold. Firstly, the individual needs to see the alignment of their work contribution to the boss’ agenda, the team’s and the wider organisation’s objective. Secondly, and just as critically, it allows the boss to be able to judge how the employee is doing.
As we’ve said, giving feedback is fundamental. How often in good employee setups should feedback be given? It is very situationally determined because it’s not easy to set standards where everyone should be given feedback on this basis. It may be that weekly sessions are appropriate or it might be that quarterly or yearly or six monthly discussions are. It could be feedback on what the employee does, but even if it’s not about giving feedback it can be about “checking in”. This is a relatively new term in our language that is used in coaching. For the individual to have a conversation that is simply about just checking in to see how they are can be very valuable. And it is such an important component of good performance management that the boss is willing to do that, even if it’s just by phone or going to see someone on the “front” line to see how they’re doing. This is because listening to somebody’s voice or looking them in the eye gives you a good sense of how they are doing. Where there are issues, they will be spotted early with that type of healthy relationship.
At some point the boss will decide that it’s time for a slightly more structured appraisal discussion. The more frequently these ‘checking-in’ conversations occur, the less time you need for the more structured feedback sessions. The more frequently you “connect” in this relationship the healthier will be the performance relationship. The feedback sessions might last for just fifteen minutes every quarter if you have weekly check-in points, for example. If you are not able to have that kind of time for check-ins, the feedback sessions will last longer because both parties will need more time.
In an organisation that is committed to good performance management, it is likely that there will be more employee data used in an appropriate way. Good performance management, in terms of assuring appropriate rewards, requires managers to justify what it that they are asking for their own team members relative to those team members’ contributions. The more rigorous and structured this can be the better. The boss must know how someone is performing on a regular basis.
Good performance management is dependent on whether you have the opportunity to feedback on a regular basis, whether that’s every three months or longer. The opportunity to discuss how to improve on last year’s performance, how to keep learning and growing or how to tackle issues of pay and prospects should be part of a committed process. There are a few things to commit to paper during these sessions, such as what objectives have been agreed for the period and what is going to be discussed next time. It’s important to write these things down because it is that evidence that is going to be used by the manager as part of their management, and projection to others in the organisation of the employee’s performance.
Bad performance management, on the other hand, doesn’t look like that at all. Organisations either aren’t bothered or they’ve created something that’s too complex and too systems-driven to be of use to anybody. Managing people in the workplace is an increasingly difficult job. It is a challenge everyday just to hold down a leader/manager role, simply because of the demands the employer will be making of somebody in a job like that. The demands for your attendance at key meetings–whether they are internal or customer, the data coming across your computer screen every day and meeting deadlines for projects. All of these demand time – the most precious commodity in the workplace for leaders. And if you have complex performance management processes that you don’t understand or that you aren’t trained for, the likelihood is you ignore them – deadlines etc.
If it is the prevailing culture that all leaders and managers ignore such processes, then nothing will be done. There are lots of organisations like this that don’t do the positive actions mentioned in this article. These companies say they don’t have the time or cite some other lame excuse. Performance management is a fundamental process that any leader or manager should commit to. And if they cannot commit, they shouldn’t be in that role—it is as basic that. Some things in work are discretionary and some fundamental. This is fundamental.
What steps do you take to improve performance management? The first thing is to look hard at your processes and see if they are fit for the purpose intended. Good performance management is predicated on good relationships, not on the quality of a particular piece of software. Regular checking in is pertinent to the business. It does not have to take long; five or ten minutes once a week or once a fortnight can be enough. It just needs to be regular and consistent and it needs to let people know what’s going on. Once you can do that, short and regular feedback sessions every quarter or every six months are worth their salt. Good performance management processes are essential to cultivating good organisational climates and cultures.
About the Author:
Simon North is the Founder of Position Ignition, one of the UK’s leading career consultancy and career management companies which created the Career Ignition Club, a leading-edge online careers support and learning platform. Simon has had a 30 year career in HR and works closely with individuals and organisations to help them manage their senior workers effectively.