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Annie Hayes



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The real issue: Management inability to handle performance


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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.

Skilful dialogue:
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.

Performance standards:
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:

2 Responses

  1. Lets get others views
    Neil, thanks for your observations and personal insights. I believe that, to varying degrees, most people reading my article would say they agree somewhat. The more interesting aspect of what you raise in your comments has to do with the reasons why the situation as we see it actually exists. Why have organisations had to work so hard with the ‘system’? Why don’t more managers see its an issue of their leadership skills? What are organisations NOT doing to build capability, motivation and desire among its management population to increase the quality of the way they manage performance generally? I’d be really interested to know other peoples views on this. Obviously I have my own.

    Answers on a postcard…. no, actually views please on this site. Thanks.


  2. Spot on.
    I spend most of my time designing HR systems for large organisations, and the points made in this article are absolutely correct – in virtually all large UK organisations I have worked with management (senior, middle and junior) have lost perspective on what the job of managing people is about. The primary focus is on management systems and processes, based on a deep sub-conscious belief that getting these right is what will make the organisation more successful. Huge investment is put into redesigning systems and processes when these are not the source of the problem. One client organisation has redesigned its performance management system three times in the past 6 years, and asked us for our advice on each occasion. Each time our advice has been the same – it is not the system that is the problem, it is your managers who do not have the skills, motivation or understanding of management – a good manager will perform an excellent performance management discussion using a blank piece of paper, not a five-page form.

    The points made by Joe Espana in this article articulate the issues very well, and highlight a change of emphasis that most managers would be well advised to think about.

    Neil Thomson
    People Aspects Ltd

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