In a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, only 20% of the respondents indicated a positive impact of performance appraisals on their performance, whereas 21% felt no positive impact and 59% were neutral. Similarly, 60% of the organisations surveyed by WorldatWork gave a C or worse when grading the effectiveness of their own performance management systems.
The Intent of Performance Management
Human beings innately desire achievement. To successfully achieve our goals, we need to periodically evaluate if we are on the right track.
The intent of performance management is to both appraise and develop the staff. Performance review sessions are meant to provide feedback to employees on how well they are doing in terms of achieving organisational goals. When done well, performance management helps the individual employee experience dignity and meaning at work. For the organisation, performance reviews help to identify the breadth and depth of the talent pool. Sadly, the implementation of the appraisal process often leaves much to be desired.
What Is Really Happening with Performance Management?
Too often, managers do not appreciate the purpose of performance management and take shortcuts or simply go through the forms without meaningful conversations. Others may even try to manipulate the system and use it to punish, rather than motivate and develop, their staff.
Some well-intentioned managers avoid giving difficult feedback in order to be “nice” to everyone, and they end up creating confusion and resentment among the staff. In addition, employees are often torn between defending their own performance perception and being open to development suggestions from their managers.
At the heart of this problem, employees lose their motivation when they feel more judged than supported.
What if There Was an Alternative?
What if performance reviews have meaning, aspiration, and dignity? Wouldn’t it be great if performance conversations energize staff with a sense of hope and commitment instead of merely going through the paperwork?
The key in making performance reviews meaningful is to adopt a holistic approach. We need to shift how we approach our performance management:
- from judgment and problem solving to meaning and aspiration,
- from evaluative to appreciative ways of recognizing the individual’s performance, and
- from focusing on the past to looking ahead.
The 3 As of Performance Conversations
One of the current practices in performance management is to set SMART goals. While this is helpful, it often misses the point. What good will Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-bound goals do if they are not the right goals, or if no one commits to them?
Instead, managers need to be smarter about goals. Ask the employee either of the following questions:
- “What’s the crossroad you’re at right now in your work/life?”
- “What possibilities have the power to excite and inspire you in this coming year?”
These questions go to the heart of defining meaning and purpose for the staff. They open the door to the employees’ aspirations, so that we, as managers, can connect what is meaningful to them to their work goals.
A director from a global financial institution once shared with me that when the “crossroad” question was posed, it created intense dialogue and understanding between the Chief Executive Officer and one of his direct reports. The CEO was about to assign his direct report to take up a post in Asia without realizing the direct report was facing a major crossroad in his life. So we risk misaligning personal and organization goals we focus only on SMART goals. Instead, we need to bring in meaning, purpose, and aspirations.
In addition, before closing off the SMART goals, managers need to ask the following questions:
- “To what extent are you committed to doing this?”
- “Do you have any other concerns or questions?”
This is a test for commitment. Commitment unleashes discretionary efforts to go beyond the minimal requirements. Too often, we assume that our staff should be committed—after all, they are paid to do their work. Granted, it is hard to tell your manager that you are less than committed. But that is exactly why managers need to ask and stay silent as they watch their staff’s reaction. Either way, it calls for a good conversation about what matters to the employee and the organization.
We are often asked the question, “How do we hold our staff accountable?”
Performance appraisal combined with goal setting and achievement rating is a way to hold staff accountable. This assumes that accountability is externally imposed, rather than create space for internally chosen accountability.
What we really want people to do is to demonstrate through their actions a high standard of organizational and personal integrity. While the performance review form acts as an “accountability checklist,” the accountability process flows from clarifying what is meaningful to the individual choosing to be accountable.
So when people talk about what matters to them, ask them, “What will you be committed to?” and “On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the maximum, what is your level of commitment to this project?”
From these questions, we begin to understand what holds people back from making commitments. Commitment comes from having pride in what we do. If we feel proud of our organization and work, we will commit ourselves to our actions.
Commitment does waver throughout the year due to changing organizational and personal priorities and crossroads. Thus, it is important for managers to check in regularly on their staff’s level of commitment.
In addition, during the performance reviews, accountability comes into the picture when managers and staff discuss the actual results of past objectives or key performance indicators. To close this accountability loop, managers also need to have difficult conversations and make necessary decisions about falling commitments and underperformance.
Aligning aspirations and accountability is a good start. However, these without actions are just empty dreams and promises. Action is about the discipline of getting things done, and connects aspirations and accountability to results.
While actions create the impetus towards achieving the work goals, feedback is essential to guide our actions. Managers need to separate performance and development feedback. Both types of feedback are important.
Development feedback is future-oriented, focuses on what employees can do towards realising their aspirations and full potential. Spend some time on development feedback and discuss a clear plan to nurture the needed capabilities.
Performance feedback is past-oriented, focuses on what the employee has done and geared towards correcting mistakes. Give performance-based feedback on the spot when needed, rather than accumulate the feedback and give it all at the end of the year. Adopt a feedback model and be specific rather than use general terms such as “Do better”, “Work harder”, or “Think smarter”.
Both development and performance feedback inform your staff what they need to do to achieve their work goals.
Putting the 3As Together
Aspirations, Accountability and Actions put together means your employees see their work objectives as meaningful to them personally, they choose to be accountable and know what actions to take to achieve the objectives. Think about what you are currently in performance reviews and pick one idea you can use!