February 3, 2020 - Blog, News

Why Performance Management is Like Apple Cider Vinegar

Jarlath Dooley, People Success Director, Version 1

The shift from traditional Performance Management to employee-led, ratings free Performance Coaching using continuous conversations, has received much publicity in recent times. However, I’m concerned about the level of critical analysis being applied to this ‘transformative’ thinking. Somehow, it smacks of creating the next people fad to me.

I would view some of the rhetoric on ‘transforming’ Performance Management being akin to adding fizz to Apple Cider Vinegar to make it more palatable. Sure, removing the vinegar,  putting it in a brightly coloured bottled and renaming it Apple Cider will give you a much sweeter flavour, but in the end, you will be left with Apple Cider. It’s no longer the Apple Cider Vinegar that you bought for its intended benefits! You may even gain negatives in the process!

Now, I look forward to a Performance Review just about as much as the next person. I can see why people would welcome a transformation to employee-led conversations, ditching the forced rankings, abandoning arduous review forms and manager assessments altogether. But, before we go about solutioning any transformation, we should ask ourselves the question…why? Why is it that so many of us feel the need to tone down or dilute Performance Management?

Having reflected on the many possible reasons why, the root cause is that in reality, critically assessing performance and inspiring performance improvements are very complex human processes.

As managers, most of us don’t know how to skilfully critique the employees we review. As employees, we don’t know how to receive and process feedback constructively. Both are complex psychological processes that engage a cauldron of biases, motivations, and fears. There is a significant amount of scientific research available to explain this complexity. Rather than go into it here, let’s accept it is a complexity of human nature, which requires significant and mature skills.

Add to this human complexity, a failure to properly establish measurement and assessment methods (poor objective setting, poor alignment to business planning and lack of objective measurement data) and it is easy to see why Performance Management is so beleaguered and the willingness to change, whether the change has been tested for effectiveness or not, is so prevalent.

It’s unwise to start treating the symptoms of a medical condition if one doesn’t understand the root cause of the negative symptoms, and it’s the same for ‘transforming’ Performance Management without understanding the underlying issues, but it seems that this is what is happening in the world of Performance Management. Here are some examples of the ‘symptom-based solutioning’ one reads about frequently with this topic.

If you read the Attraction statement in ‘symptom’ 1-6 above, the word ‘avoid’ appears in each statement, so it is clear that the underlying cause for Performance Management not delivering is ‘avoidance’. If we continue down the road of ignoring the core of Performance Management (conducting open, direct, objective-driven, data-based and process-assisted conversations regarding performance) and tinkering around the periphery (ratings, forms, and process), all that we’ll achieve is to remove a level of discomfort from managers and employees rather than improve effectiveness and address the root cause of our problems with it.

So having answered the list of ‘whys’ above, we have further distilled the issue, honing in on one specific question. “Why do people avoid hard conversations regarding performance levels, regarding rewards and potential?”.

The answer to this question provides you with the platform upon which you can rebuild your performance model into an effective core business process.

For Version 1, our analysis gave us the following areas to explore:

  • Insufficient training of reviewers and reviewees in this complex area.
  • No ‘conversation’ model or tools which could be used consistently across the organisation by all people in the area of performance.
  • A lack of ‘commonality’ in assessing and coaching the behaviours and language which align with organisational values and lead to high performance.
  • A ‘Great Place to Work’ ethos that promoted an avoidance culture that steered people down a middle path and away from necessary conversations and straight-talking.

Using this as our platform, we then designed a solution which is heavily-focused on awareness, skills, and training. It is conversation-based and supported by a common model, one that reinforces practical elements such as setting clear expectations and measuring objectives. We believe this approach will create a culture of openness, honesty, and support regarding Performance Management.

Critical success factors of this solution include:

  • Providing psychometric tools to all employees to develop self-awareness and understanding of preference.
  • Rolling out a straight-talking conversation model across the organisation and promotion of a ‘healthy challenge culture’.
  • Training for managers and staff in the common language and vocabulary for successful behaviours and core values.
  • A refocus on our ethos that being a great place to work isn’t necessarily an easy place to work.
  • Provision of a suite of digitised, bite-sized training material that participants can tap into to support them in their personal performance experience.

You will notice that ratings, forms, systems, processes, etc do not appear in the problem definition; instead, we are addressing the fundamental issues outlined above and as we do so, we are setting ourselves up to move to a Performance Coaching model. While we will approach Performance Management in a new way, we are not denying the core difficulties and complexity of Performance Management, and addressing these four core areas is a key element of our solution. Once we have addressed these, we will examine if ratings, forms, etc form a part of the solution, and unless they positively impact the solution to one of the four areas above, they won’t feature.

So in conclusion, don’t hastily:

  • Throw out your ratings and methods of record-keeping
  • Remove Management responsibilities
  • Change your system
  • Take ownership from HR
  • Decouple rewards from employee performance

First, examine the core of the problem in your organisation and understand what problem you are trying to solve. In solutioning, figure out how you create a culture whereby people not only feel comfortable giving and receiving performance-related feedback (recognising that it can be uncomfortable) but also that they do not avoid the associated open, direct conversations.

To go back to my starting analogy, if you want the possible health benefits of Apple Cider Vinegar, then you should develop a taste for it, rather than trying to remove the very essence of its intended benefits, defeating the purpose of taking it, and fooling yourself that you have improved it in the process.

About Version 1

At Version 1, we are a people business. The game-changing IT services and solutions that we offer our clients wouldn’t be possible without great people leading the charge. When it comes to attracting and retaining talent, we understand that a continued commitment to employee development and happiness is paramount. We provide our people with the necessary tools and experience they need to be successful both professionally and personally – wherever their time at Version 1 might take them.

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