Joe Espana, MD of Performance Equations presents his beliefs on why management inability to handle performance is the real performance issue.
The problem with the vast majority of performance management systems is the lack of real leadership capability; the ability and tendency of many managers to relinquish responsibility and hide behind the ‘system’ or company rules and procedures is the real cause of dissatisfaction among managers and staff with performance management.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that performance, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. What constitutes a ‘good job’ may look different depending on your point of view, so clarity is the key. One of the first questions that needs to be resolved (and by the way this is a recurring theme in employee engagement studies) is, ‘what is expected of me?’
The trouble is that the manager may have a view regarding what the job is really about while the job-holder may have a different one altogether. There’s also that piece of paper called the ‘job description’ to contend with. While the manager and the employee both may have a sincere wish to see the job done well, even if the role has been clarified in terms of skills, knowledge and accountabilities these may be translated into very different behaviours and results. And in far too many cases, competency frameworks don’t help either, because people are haggling about what a particular behaviour actually looks like on a Tuesday afternoon at 3:00pm.
The issue is really about the mindset of the manager ‘owning’ the performance. Around the world small fortunes have been spent on developing and implementing performance management systems and processes that have allowed managers off the ‘leadership’ hook.
These systems and procedures, that then make the HR department the ‘police force’ of non-compliance, unintentionally reinforce in the minds of many managers that the task is just another of the burdens they have to carry in leading others. Because business life is becoming ever more complex and time consuming, the whole notion of ‘managing performance’ somehow gets distilled down to the task that gets done once, maybe twice a year. So what happened to the other 364 days?
On top of all this grief, comes the rating scale that is supposed to help managers assess the actual standard of performance. I recently overheard a conversation between a line manager and an HR business partner in which the debate circled round the issue that it would be extremely demoralising to individuals to be now given a ‘three’ when they had always been given a ‘four’; the manager then going back to explain to their team member that the company (HR or anyone else, but them) was not allowing him to rate the individuals performance higher than a three.
Two points come to mind here. The first is the obviously missed concept that the dialogue between the manager and the individual is ultimately more important than the actual rating (although, one does have to sympathise with managers who then have to deal with the dreaded bonus debate); the second is the misconception that performance and performance standards are absolute values.
Skilful dialogue between the performance manager and individual is essential. It is essential in order to clarify expectations, manage the individual’s expectations, provide a clear line of sight about their contribution to the overall business unit’s goals, and enable them to appreciate why certain objectives are being discussed.
Skilful dialogue on an on-going basis, not just at the performance review discussion, enables the manager to coach, guide, re-focus effort if business goals shift, provide feedback and recognition well in advance of the review, so that the review itself has no surprises and is based on a mutual appreciation of performance supported by evidence.
Managing performance through skilful dialogue in the intervals between performance reviews (if done well) could reduce the review discussion to a mere formality. The sad truth is that because managers don’t spend enough time in the 364 days managing performance overall, they are thrown into stress-fuelled preparation to conduct the performance review.
Generally speaking most managers will be guided into managing the performance rating system by three overarching levels of performance: not yet full performance, full performance and exceptional performance. The trouble is that these are moving concepts and values rather than absolute terms. Performance management systems have the tendency of forcing managers to over-generalise about an individual’s performance in order to fulfil the requirements of the system.
Strictly speaking no individual would ever become an exceptional performer in every dimension and aspect of their role given the dynamic nature of their business context. It is the function of the manager to provide stretching assignments and responsibilities in a role that enables the individual to grow. As business demands change and certain dimensions in a role change, then the way a result is achieved becomes as important as the result itself.
And if someone is consistently out performing the requirements of their job over time, then it is reasonable to assume that they have outgrown that particular role, so the performance dialogue becomes a coaching and career discussion.
The leadership requirement:
Managers who are not managing performance are really letting down their individuals, their teams and ultimately themselves. When a manager is unable to provide a line of site for the individual about their contribution to their unit goals, clarity about performance expectations and when they rely purely on the review meeting to discuss these things and offer feedback, they are demonstrating a performance gap of their own.
Successful management of performance is a leadership issue. An on-going conversation of ideas exchange, guidance, coaching and feedback. This skilful dialogue increases the potential of the performance review to be an open, evidence-based discussion that engages individual participation. It diminishes the possibility of it being focused on the task of completing forms or protocols and the possibility of any surprises on either side.
If management development is required it’s usually not in ‘performance management’ but rather in leadership and people skills that could one day make performance management systems redundant.
Other articles by this author:
- Why doesn’t HR get any respect?
- Help – I’m the new HR Director, now what?
- Employee engagement – fad or JGMP?
- Culture – help or hindrance?
- Opinion: Turning a vision into reality
- How Did I Get Here? Joe Espana, MD of Performance Equations