Performance Management is broken (and we need to fix it)

I know it’s an outlier view, but I happen to think that there are few more important conversations at work than Performance Management.

It is after all, simply this:

  • What’s expected of me
  • How am I going?
  • How are we going?
  • Do I need any support?
  • Do I have any good ideas to make things better?

That sounds like a reasonable conversation. Actually, it sounds like a great conversation. And a pretty appropriate one. In fact, it’s a pretty foundational one to the whole thing we call ‘work’.

So what went wrong?

Well, I think what went wrong was that HR (or People & Culture or Employee Experience) made it weird, and boring and administrative, and then we added a super weird version of ‘tech’ and the whole thing went south from there.

I distinctly remember when I thought – “We’re not in Kansas anymore” when I was looking at Performance Management. Sitting down to prepare for a Performance Management conversation with my boss in 2014. Opened the ‘online form’, blinked hard a few times, then pushed my chair back in horror – 16 pages! 1-6-PAGES!

Inane little boxes, detailed links to even more detailed capability frameworks, two different types of ratings (both with ‘drop down boxes’ to explain how to use them) and a long detailed ‘compliance’ instruction on how to use the thing.

Ugly. Complicated. Boring.

And that was before I got to the workshop.

The workshop was like a live version of the form. Slightly more animated courtesy of the humans presenting, but even optimistic me couldn’t really sign up for the enthusiastically presented idea that ‘because it’s online, it saves admin’. I couldn’t work out how you could type in 16 pages of notes while talking, and actually retain any eye contact at all.

Complicated. Boring.

And that’s before I got to the conversation

I don’t mean to be mean, but the actual conversation, based on this 16-page guide, was a shocker. Two hours long, with most of it spent comparing incredibly long prose written from either side, basically saying exactly the same thing in ever-so-slightly different words. All to land – eventually – on two ‘words’ or ‘scores’ that would determine pay. A bad word was 2%, a good word was 2.4% and an awesome word was worth 2.8%.

So, what needs to change?

I think we start the change with four little things.

  1. Respect what it’s for.
  2. Know what it’s not.
  3. Get rid of the admin (online or not, is irrelevant)
  4. Breathe some life into the conversation.

Respect what it’s for.

Let’s remember what the purpose is.

  • What’s expected. Nice and clear.
  • How am I going? Quality feedback and appreciation for work done.
  • How are we going? How’s the team and organisation travelling. Am I helping? Am I making a difference?
  • Do I need support? That’s helpful. I might like a spot of growth and development. A mentor. Someone suggesting some ways to be better, do better or get more involved.
  • Do I have some ideas to make it better? Makes sense. Hear my ideas. Respect my time in the trenches. Let me help move the whole thing forward.

And, why should we respect all these things?

Because when I know what’s expected and how I’m going, I feel confident, relevant, and like my contribution matters. Someone is noticing my efforts, appreciating my work, and caring that I turn up and do my best.

That combo gives me confidence and connection to the mothership, to my boss, and know the work I do matters.

What’s not to love about that.

Know what it’s not.

Performance Management is not any of the following:

  • Weirdly detailed catch-up on projects and work detail that requires the world’s longest conversation. We’ve all got about a twenty-minute attention span. Plus most of us don’t like to go too deep just talking about ourselves so that twenty to thirty minutes feels about right. Add a coffee and make it 45 at most.
  • A chat about pay. My pay should be a combination of contribution, market fairness, and what I bring to the table. Pay me fairly, but don’t merge a good conversation about expectations and feedback purely into pay. Do that, and it will only be about pay.
  • The beginning of discipline. Don’t take this important conversation and try to catch people out. Keep it trusted and safe. A place just to be clear on expectations, good with feedback, and forward facing.

 Get rid of the admin (online or not, is irrelevant)

“Let’s refer back to the long version of my 2012 Performance Appraisal?” said no one ever.

HR sometimes has a strange relationship with tech.

That strange relationship is never more visible than when we talk about performance. We didn’t actually find interesting tech and rethink performance around it, or rethink performance and add some interesting tech.

We just took quite a boring paperwork process and put it online. And then expanded it eight-fold. “Now it’s online, we can keep much more data”.

We didn’t need more data. We didn’t have more data. We just created a big long version of the paperwork. And added ‘values’, but we didn’t do the work to make the values understandable and discussable, so the conversation was pretty random and verbose. We nominally tried to link the whole thing to Talent Management, but the prose was cumbersome, so we linked just the ‘scores’.

The bottom line is the sales pitch of “integrated HR” is often code for ‘a nice cupboard of HR admin that saves HR (P&C, EE) time. No one else used the cupboard and couldn’t care whether it’s neat and online or not. They really only cared about the conversation and that got lost in the paperwork.

 Breathe some life into the conversation.

I paraphrase a great colleague of mine when I quote some of the best advice I’ve ever received – “If you’re in a boring conversation, stop being boring”.

And that’s the really big change that needs to happen in Performance Management. We need to breathe some life into the conversation.

Here are some ideas, and I don’t mean them to be patronising at all. It’s just I genuinely like Performance discussions – connecting people to their work – and I’d love other people to love them too.

  • Do your prep. Know what people do. Care. Have examples. Be ready to genuinely appreciate.
  • Give feedback that’s worthwhile. Not a dump-truck worth you thought up in the moment, but three or four of the best gems you’ve got. Things that matter and would make a difference to the person in front of you. Sketch them down. Practice. Get them as interesting and valuable as you possibly can. Put some heart into it
  • Know how they fit in. Know how the person is working with the team and the organisation. Appreciate the good stuff. Make suggestions for greater connection. Give them an invitation to lean in.
  • Offer support. Just do that. They’re giving you a good swag of their life. Offer something good back.
  • Check if there are ideas. Always be open to getting better. Ask. Listen. And take the best advice to heart.
  • Turn away from the computer. No one cares where your forms are. They want – and need – eye contact and real life facetime.

Over to you. Enjoy!