“We need to discuss your performance.”
There are few phrases that cast more fear in the hearts of employees.
I was talking with a client last week about managing change for their implementation of performance management technology. After a quick technical chat about scope, the vendor, the timetable, resources and current tools and process, I asked the obvious question, “What are the larger objectives you are hoping to achieve with this implementation?”
I expected her to say something about improving process efficiency or ease of data entry or access to data. I also wouldn’t have been surprised if she had said that her HR function wanted to increase the number of managers completing appraisals on time.
Instead, she said, “Our CEO wants to create a high performance culture and we think that a better performance appraisal process and the right tool to deliver it will get us there.” Their new and “improved” system included a 10-point scale (up from 5), a new universal competency model and the addition of an evaluation for how employees exhibited company values.
Pretty snazzy, but . . .
This is the moment where I take a deep breath and remind myself that being a change management consultant often requires detached responsibility*.
It’s amazing to me that 45 years after the Harvard Business Review published “Split Roles in Performance Appraisal” (Myer, Kay, & French), we still believe performance appraisal works. The study, conducted at GE, found that the company’s performance management system not only didn’t work, it produced results that were the opposite of what was intended. The researchers found:
- Criticism has a negative effect on achievement of goals
- Praise has little effect one way or the other
- Performance improves most when specific goals are established
- Defensiveness resulting from critical appraisal produces inferior performance
- Coaching should be a day-to-day, not a once-a-year, activity
- Mutual goal setting, not criticism, improves performance
- Participation by the employee in the goal-setting procedure helps produce favorable results
- Performance appraisal “interviews” should not be conducted with salary or promotion in the balance.
Countless other scientific studies conclude the same thing. And more powerfully, research conducted with brain scanning technologies such as SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) have shown us these result are directly connected to the way the brain works.
Yet, we still insist on conventional approaches to performance appraisal. The technology and evaluation frameworks may provide more sophisticated window dressing, but the underlying process remains flawed and the results are questionable.
So, what works? What generates higher performance?
First, intrinsic motivation. High performance comes when people love what they do. Some of the most dedicated employees on the planet work for free. They are called volunteers. And they work countless hours for organizations that give them a sense of purpose. They don’t care if they get raises, bonuses or even praise. They volunteer because their work has meaning to them and because they feel like they are making a contribution.
We all know people who approach their day jobs with the same passion. They are engaged, plugged in and having fun. There’s no need to manage their performance. They are too busy managing it themselves.
Second, goals. High performance also is achieved with goals. These aren’t the goals that are set once per year and forgotten about until it’s time for the annual review. These are goals that are set, reviewed and tweaked every day. Myer and company called this WP&R, or Work Planning and Review. WP&R discussions between an employee and manager are an ongoing process built on a foundation of collaborative problem solving. No judgment. No rating scale. Just the continuous process of improving.
That’s what passionate people living their purpose do. They strive to be better.
Amazing, isn’t it? Getting high performance from employees is not about some Frederick Tayloresque command and control system of alpha dominance. It is about engaging employees and tapping passions. It’s not about incenting behavior with rewards and punishments or demanding compliance to some generic norm. It is about collaboration.
High performance happens when you gather people who enjoy what they do and who have fun figuring out how they can do it better together.
My suggestion is that we set aside the folly of formal appraisal as well as any notion of a manager being able to improve performance. Instead, let’s focus on making sure our managers know how to listen to employees, understand and sometimes draw out their passions, and create collaborative cultures working toward a purpose greater than next quarter’s earnings.
- Detached responsibility—the ability to educate, resolve conflict, or manage change by taking responsibility for what is within our control and letting go of the need to resolve issues out of our range of immediate and direct influence. For more on detached responsibility and the other Principles of Interaction read, Listening to Conflict: Finding Constructive Solutions to Workplace Disputes.