We’re Focusing On the Wrong Thing When We Talk About Improving Performance Management

Performance management is the corporate world’s punching bag du jour.  Deloitte, Accenture, Adobe, even good ol’ GE, are proclaiming death to performance reviews.  But, hey… not so fast!  It’s like that seemingly nonsensical expression:  “The King is dead!  Long live the King!”  Because — make no mistake — performance reviews are continuing to live on, just perhaps not in the same incarnation as before.  

So we have to figure out how to make them be more impactful and lead to the outcomes we strive for: elevating the performance of our employees.

For those who aren’t clear on the value of reviews, here is my standard pitch:

What’s the point of doing performance appraisals?  In a nutshell, it’s to provide feedback and to offer guidance on how to develop further in your role.  Feedback + guidance are the building blocks of career growth, because it’s the way you learn what you need to do, and how you need to do it.

Here is a simple 2×2 matrix that lays out the 4 goals of performance reviews:

Provide feedback on the past Offer guidance on the future
What gets done
  • Review the quality of outcomes, deliverables, and achievements
  • Identify tangible projects and goals that provide an opportunity to increase one’s impact
How it gets done
  • Gauge intrinsic and learned capabilities against expectations for the role and level of experience
  • Clarify the capabilities that need to be strengthened or developed to expand one’s scope of responsibility in the role

Whether your company’s cadence is annual, semi-annual, or even monthly, performance reviews should be an opportunity to take stock of both the past and future, and provide tailored guidance to individuals on how they can grow.  Writing a lot or a little, on paper forms or in a mobile app, with or without ratings — those considerations are a lot less relevant than the quality and clarity of the conversations.

I find, unfortunately, that most new-fangled apps and performance management consultants focus on ways to make performance reviews easier, more light-weight.  And yes, that’s important.  But the actual solution to shitty performance reviews lies entirely somewhere else.  

It comes down to Courage and Caring.  Kim Scott nails it in her talk about Radical Candor, and in the simple diagram below.  The upshot of the illustration is that — as a good manager — your responsibility is to give radically candid feedback.  To fall into any of the other quadrants is to be an ass.

Screen Shot 2016-08-14 at 3.27.06 PM

Rather than “Challenge Directly”, I prefer to talk about Managerial Courage.  It’s not just about challenging people; it’s about having the courage to identify when there is a performance issue that needs addressing; to tackle the conversation with conviction; to admit when you’re mistaken; and to call it when it’s time to let someone move on.

Courage is inextricably linked to Caring, because the focus should be on the other person, not on you.  What’s right for the other person versus for yourself?  Set aside your ego, your near-term needs, your fear of discomfort, and focus on what it takes to advance the other person professionally.  Maybe s/he will have more of an opportunity to thrive if s/he transfers to another department, or maybe s/he isn’t cut out to work in this type of work environment and would do better at another company.

While it may be too much to ask managers to think about their team members as family, it helps to take a look at how we might deal with a difficult family member.  We don’t ignore the problem (at least, not for very long); we will be more straightforward and try to get them help.  We will offer whatever support we can provide.  We won’t give up on that person because of our familial obligation but also the implicit understanding that — if the roles were reversed — ‘s/he’d do it for me’.

This makes me reflect on my time at McKinsey, which is an incredibly special place.  Despite its size, geographic dispersion, purposeful turnover, and large percentage of new hires, it’s able to engender in each one of its employees the sense of obligation to develop and support one another, with an understanding that it goes both ways.  And therefore, the successful managers demonstrate the courage and caring that I’m writing about here.  It’s part of their job, it’s part of their advancement criteria, and it’s reinforced by their managers, and their managers’ managers.   

While training and creating awareness are good first steps, in order to improve performance review outcomes, we need our managers to feel the weight of their responsibility, and therefore to genuinely care and have the courage to do the right thing.  This can only happen if this is explicitly supported, reinforced, and reinforced again by your company’s leadership, culture, and history.  

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