Improving Performance Management Systems Requires More Than Paving the Cow Path

This post includes extracts from an article I wrote in ‘Performance Xpress’ – the monthly news letter for the International Society for Performance Improvement.

Thirty years ago, a performance management system included written and oral individual feedback between a manager and each of his or her direct reports.  Sometimes HR managers had to hound managers to complete those performance reviews, but employees could count on a meeting with their managers to discuss strengths and weaknesses, achievements against goals, and developmental targets for the next year.

The performance review was also seen as a way to either justify a salary increase or, in cases where there were problems, to begin a documentation trail to move an employee out of the company without legal ramifications. Managers understood this annual process was ‘necessary’, but few of those involved, not even the HR folks, believed that the annual performance review actually led to improved employee or departmental performance.

The basic process has evolved little, with the exception of two changes:

  • There is a somewhat greater emphasis on setting goals, and
  • We have new tools for constructing review documents.

Enhancements in the form of new tools have been directed primarily at speeding up the process, not improving it.

Performance review writing circa 1984 involved a manager composing a one or two-page personal appraisal report using a word processor (the newer programs at the time had spell-checking). Today, managers can ‘write’ the review with a few clicks of a mouse. Modern performance management systems enable managers to select the characteristics (e.g., ‘exhibits teamwork‘) from a predefined list (sometimes called ‘coaching tips’) and to indicate how strongly or weakly worded they want to make the point. A few clicks and voilà, a politically correct, legally correct, and spell-checked paragraph has been ‘written.’ In less than 10 minutes the reviewing manager has created the (too often dreaded) annual review document for that employee.

In touting the system’s sophistication, one industry-leading performance management system vendor boasted, “With the click of a button…the document can be automatically personalized….” Does anyone else see the oxymoron here–‘automatically personalized’?

Disguised by enhanced electronic aids, the new written reviews amount to the same antiquated practice, only with new packaging.

The cow path has been paved and the speed limit has been increased, but we have not improved the journey or the destination.  As outlined below, this approach may even serve to reduce the value of the employee performance review process.

There are three initial concerns with this development:

  • 1.)  Speeding up the writing process may actually reduce the effectiveness of the intended communication to the employee.

Writing is a thinking process. Managers who take the time to compose their own original paragraphs are likely to be more specific and grounded in their feedback than those who click on generalized ‘coaching tips,’

The act of the writing also helps managers to prepare their script for the face-to-face meeting with the employee. [Note: Some performance management systems enable sending the document directly to the employee to obtain his or her electronic signature. This allows the manager to skip the meeting or personal communication altogether.]

  • 2.)  Automating the document sets the wrong mood for a performance discussion with the employee.

Clicking through canned responses to generate boilerplate text implicitly suggests that the review process is mechanistic, one-size-fits-all, and mostly trivial. The sooner the manager and employee get through this annual process the quicker they can get back to the ‘real work’ as if employee development were not part of the job.

  • 3.)  This performance management system is often confused with a system designed to improve performance.

Traditional performance management systems do include a key lever for improving performance: the one-to-one communication between manager and employee. This communication, however, is often inadequate for achieving any performance improvement because it is too infrequent and of poor quality.

Performance improvement conversations benefit from annual or semi-annual goal setting and review, but the real driver is at the granular level of making and keeping weekly and monthly commitments. Every request made by a manager is an opportunity to forge an effective agreement for a specific and defined result.  Performance improvement (not “management”) is achieved in these ongoing conversations.

Each request begins a dialog that should have an explicit delivery and assessment at the end. Each dialog is an opportunity to enhance performance and build trust.

Rather than support once a year, or even once a quarter, performance management reviews, software tools with a year-round/all-the-time focus on performance improvement can facilitate a new approach to manager-employee communication. A new generation of software tools is coming that can boost the quality and frequency of the dialogue between managers and staff around project and task completion.  Elevating and illuminating these one-on-one conversations between those requesting actions and those who carry out those requests can, I believe, actually move the dial around personal and organisation performance. Rather than add speed and facilitate the use of automated/canned responses, the next generation of systems will advance performance management practices in a way that qualitatively changes the approach we’ve used for the last 30 years.

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