Performance is for life and not just for January

We’re in January and as everyone returns to work it is the season to start setting goals and talking about performance.   It feels that the whole performance space is in a state of flux, with the approach being challenged from all sides from how goals are set to the use of ratings.    With this in mind here are some reflections on how to manage performance.

One size doesn’t necessarily fit all

The debate on performance across the industry I think is in danger of over generalisation. What you need to do is look at the context of what your organisation (and even different sections of the workforce) needs and then apply a pragmatic approach on how performance is managed.    Whilst convenient there is a danger in lifting and shifting an approach in one organisation and apply it somewhere else.   Context is king.    This is neatly outlined in this month’s HBR article “the stretch paradox.”  This highlights the importance of understanding the organisation’s capability and level of resources before you decide the nature of the goals you set.   For sure there are always principles around performance that stand the test of time (goal-setting, evaluation of performance etc.) but how you do this needs to be adapted to the needs of your workforce.  Adapt and develop your policy to suit different parts of your workforce.   Be flexible and pragmatic.

Be agile and adapt

Whilst there is a logic to cascading goals from top to bottom, organisations need to be far more agile and flexible in how this is done.   Within your goal-setting framework you need to allow for regular reviews and flexibility in how goals are set and monitored.   Given the products and services that generate your revenue don’t necessarily follow an annual cycle it doesn’t follow your goal-setting process should.   You need to allow for your organisation to adapt and create flexible goals.  Performance management needs to adopt the lessons learnt from how the agile software development methodology has challenged traditional waterfall development.   Your goal-setting framework needs to enable your people to break things down into simple goals and tasks with regular reviews with customers and stakeholders.   A feedback culture needs to be fostered that embraces what’s worked and what hasn’t (so often overlooked).     Keep the conversation current and the dialogue regular.   Additionally, regular communication and a review of goals will help ensure alignment to wider organisational priorities.

The obsession with ratings misses the point

When you mention performance management everyone seems to obsess about whether you should use or stop performance ratings.  We get obsessed over this question at the detriment to the entire process.   Again, what works for one organisation may not work for another.    As Josh Bersin neatly articulates in one of his predictions for 2017, the argument about ratings is a red herring.    We need to focus on how we keep the conversation on performance alive as a regular process, rather than an arduous process that resembles your annual tax return.

The experience needs to be simple

Whatever you choose to do make it really easy for your people to use it.   Well intentioned principles and ideas get lost when workflows are cumbersome and participants fight the process rather than are able to participate in it.  Applying some of the principles from design thinking can help you create something that your employees will use rather than abuse.    There is still some way to go with HR Tech solutions to make performance simpler to use but there are signs this is starting to happen.    Hopefully 2017 will see further development in this space.  In the interim keep things as simple as possible.

It’s all about your manager

Policies and processes are great but ultimately the impact performance has on an employee will reside enormously on the interaction they have with their manager.   The old adage that people leave organisations because of their manager and not because of the organisation is often reality.   Performance is one of the arenas that tests this principle to the max.  Managers who have the ability to coach, grow and inspire their people through regular objective dialogue on performance are key for your business.   The lesson is whatever you choose to do in performance make sure your managers are fully supported and trained to have the right conversations with their people.


So in my view there is no magical special sauce that will solve all the issues with performance management.  The key is to diagnose what is important to your organisation and then using best practice pragmatically change and fine tune the process.  The temptation of applying standard solutions from other organisations may seem attractive on the outside.    But like the declining levels of gym membership after the spike in January, they don’t always survive the test of time.    The key is to keep the debate and interest alive throughout the year.



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