Getting performance management right
Kevin Lawrence is MD of Odyssey management training – on a mission to eradicate mediocrity Odyssey specialises in leadership and management development, change, executive team development and organisational development strategy.
When companies get performance management right, they see it as an ongoing process: a series of everyday conversations between managers and the teams they supervise. In these companies there’s still a place for observations and expectations to be ratified in annual or quarterly reviews: but a review functions as the ‘formal face’ of the ongoing communication, rather than being a stand-alone occurrence.
Sadly, in many companies, the annual or quarterly review has become the main or only forum for talking about performance. In these companies reviews tend to be wholly one-sided: managers hand down judgements about an employee’s performance. The emphasis is usually on things that have gone wrong, rather than what can be learned, so the reviews are backwards-looking, rather than pro-active. The result? The reviews have little value and can lead to employees becoming de-motivated. It’s this approach to performance management that has led to a wealth of articles asserting that the practice is broken. It’s not. What has broken is the company’s understanding of how to carry it out.
So how do companies get it right?
The answer starts with the corporate mindset. Managers need to see an individual’s performance as being the joint responsibility of that individual and the manager. That’s not to say that an individual bears no responsibility for their own performance, but it is to say that it is a manager’s responsibility to get the best out of the individuals and to create conditions in which they feel empowered to succeed.
Having that mindset automatically shifts the emphasis from judgement of the person to assessment of the situation. It also makes it imperative that performance management becomes something that is ongoing. If a manager feels that performance is slipping: and that they have a responsibility to alter that, they can’t leave the situation until the annual review comes around. Similarly, the responsiveness that comes with acknowledging responsibility means managers are more likely to acknowledge and praise effective work when they see it.
There is another positive. By responding to situations as they arise, small issues are dealt with and don’t (as readily) grow into big issues. Expectations are clear. It’s also more likely (although not a given) that team members will feel able to explain what isn’t working for them. Managers who want to help their employees achieve their best will be more open to hearing how their (the manager’s) own behaviour may be stopping their team from achieving. When managers are willing to listen and make changes to their own behaviour, it helps them to build stronger, loyal, teams.
These are not behaviours that every manager will find easy. It takes strength and self-confidence on a manager’s part to recognise that at times they may be part of the problem. It takes empathy and self-reflection to understand what different people may want from a manager – and how to support employees whose strengths and weaknesses are different from their own. Many managers favour – consciously or not – people they understand and feel drawn to. But there is strong research evidence to show that the more diverse a team is, the greater its chances of success. So, to succeed, managers need to be comfortable working with a diverse range of people and getting the best out of them.
How is that done?
It’s a behaviour that needs to be modelled from the top down. When senior leaders create diverse teams and are seen to favour supportive communication and embrace different working styles (as long as those working styles are effective), a culture of strong performance management can grow.
It’s also imperative to openly acknowledge when things aren’t working: and to do so in the spirit of ascertaining why that should be and helping change the conditions that are causing the problem. When this happens it reassures the employees who are encountering the problem and other members of the team, who can see that their colleagues are being supported, rather than criticised.
Finally, it helps when managers actively ask for feedback about the ways in which their team could be better supported. It can be hard for employees to be honest with their line managers, unless they know that their managers are willing to listen. So do listen, make sure you’ve understood what you’re being told and give it due consideration. If you’ve been told something which you cannot implement or which you don’t agree with, you still need to show that you’ve thought about it and give a clear explanation of why you can’t do it. The employee may not have the result they want but you’ve shown respect. Mutual respect is the foundation on which strong teams are built – and it underpins good performance management.