That’s right, I’m calling it. Bullshit. The way we currently approach performance discussions is broken, and this is not an issue that is going to be solved by changing performance ‘rating scales’, or by ‘cloud based people software’ (yawn) or even by throwing performance management away completely.
Let’s start with ‘first principles’ of the performance management (aka performance appraisals, discussions, annual reviews or whichever three letter acronym your business uses) concept;
- Principle 1 – ‘Work’ needs to line up with the objectives of the business and needs of the customer.
- Principle 2 – Individuals need to know how they’re going, whether they’re doing a great job, and what needs to improve.
Based on these principles, the performance discussion idea appears completely logical. Like something that should make businesses and people better. But how do we stuff it up so much in practice?
Why is it whenever “performance discussions” are mentioned, the first thing you hear is a big sigh, followed by infinite horror stories about how much people dread these conversations. Words like ‘boring, awkward, tick the box, irrelevant’ make frequent appearances in these stories.
I actually don’t think I can ever recall anyone saying they are ‘looking forward’ to a performance discussion (even if they have had a killer year), with ambivalence often being the best response you can hope for.
This experience seems to be true for people no matter what type of performance management approach they have within their business.
The big complex corporate approach often means complicated frameworks, systems and long processes. They can leave people feeling like they are just a number, working through a machine, waiting for a ‘rating’ to pop out at the end of the line that will determine their fate (bonus, pay increase, development or even career future).
For leaders, it’s not much fun either. It starts with months of cascading objective and evolves into infinite discussions about the EXACT definition of what an ‘very good’ performance rating is compared to just a ‘good’ rating.
It is hours spent in calibration processes, so that your team’s performance can be plotted into a normal distribution curve (because that is the most important thing), all the while, keeping an wise eye out for peers that over-rate their whole team, and snaffle up more than their share of the salary budget, leaving you to explain a 1.527% (rounded down) increase to your best performers.
Then there are the “cool” tech ‘solutions’ to performance management which are becoming popular. Here, there is no need to worry about lengthy processes or awkward discussions.
In fact, you don’t even need to bother with a conversation with your leader or employee at all! Instead just send your performance feedback to the person via text, so that they can read and digest it ‘on the go’ or in the comfort of their home after having dinner with their family. How handy!
Finally, there is the no performance discussion at all approach. Performance management is boring, awkward and no fun.
The answer – let’s just not do it all and hope that leaders and employees are having ongoing discussions about performance and development. And don’t worry, your people won’t panic (too much) about having no understanding or certainty about if they are doing the right thing or performing well.
Uncertainty about your job security isn’t really that much of an issue, right?
Yes, I may be being slightly flippant here. And yes, you may have an approach like one I have described, or even something totally different that works for your people and your business (in which case this is great, and I would love to learn more it). But the problem remains that for the most part, the way we have performance discussions is pretty diabolic and energy sapping for everyone involved.
So what do we do now? We know performance discussions are important for businesses to achieve objectives and for people to do great work and confident, valued and secure. But how do we get it right?
How do we get it right? And cut away all the bullshit on performance
Discussions that, in the first instance, are clear on what is expected and what matters most to the business, customers and team. If you want to make a really awesome discussion, you could even mention the person’s work and career, perhaps even their legacy or longer term goals.
An ongoing conversation through the year about how things are tracking and what kind of development would help the person do even better (now and in the future), or even get them ready to do that more interesting or different work they’ve been keen on for a while.
A meaningful dialogue at the end of the performance period about what has been done brilliantly, what could be improved and importantly, the person’s impact on the team and community around them (the business overall, customers, suppliers etc.). Perhaps, adding some security that their work is important for the future too (and if its not, what development are you doing?)
By focussing on the relationship, caring, and by having a real and authentic conversation about performance that is aimed at adding value to the person on the other side of the table (whether they be the leader or employee), you are going to achieve a much a better outcome than you would have worrying about ‘cutting edge’ tech systems, the never ending debate around 4 vs. 5-point rating scales, or the minutiae of performance metrics.
In our world of ever increasing complexity, it’s time to get back to what really matters to performance and work. Let’s cut the bullshit on performance, have a decent conversation that’s useful to the person, and get back to putting our energy at work into the things that really matter.