Performance management in a brave new world

By Paula Lonergan, Business Coach and Registered Mediator

There is no doubt about it, but the workplace is a-changing and changing fundamentally. With our increasingly digitalised and self-aware world, we now work remotely, create matrixed, ‘conscious’ teams, require vegan options for our skinny lattes and aspire to ‘woke’ management, capable of flexing between coach, inspirational leader and all-knowing, global guru to lead the way, develop us and recognise our ‘specialness’ at every turn.

Out are the rating systems for performance management; the dreaded annual reviews and the pull-up-your-socks-tighten-your-belt style feedback; In, are the conversations, the-getting-to-know-you experiences and the conscious uncoupling of performance and monetary reward. We can cling on as tightly as we like to the traditional ways but we will only get left behind as the tide rushes on without us.

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So how does a manager manage in this brave new world and how do they know what’s actually being achieved by their employees?  What role does performance management play in the manager-individual-team love triangle and has it now become taboo to measure  a person’s performance against tangible targets and task completion?  Or is that just too old-school? 

With this workplace revolution there has in fact been a great deal of research into how this will all work and despite the changes, three elements of performance management remain at the core of its success;

  • role clarity;
  • feedback and
  • leadership.

These cornerstones have themselves undergone some changes and managers can only stand to benefit from knowing what these changes represent. The fact of these fundamentals of performance management is not actually the problem;  it’s all in how they are approached that matters  – Indeed, as the common lament goes; ‘ it’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it’.

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Clarity of role

Nothing happens until someone expects something of you in ways you can achieve – Don Clifton.

The global business analytics and advice group, Gallup, recently conducted a survey in which they posed the very simple question to employees: What do you need from your manager? There were a number of choice answers to this  but what came out way on top was equally simple; Job Clarity and Priorities. It seems obvious, common sense even, to provide an employee with a clear role and set of time-lined tasks however the same survey showed that it is not often common practice.  A paltry 30% of participants strongly agreed that their manager engaged with them in goal setting.  Having clear goals that align personal achievement with team targets and company strategy is not only key to performance measurement and improvement, it is major building block of intrinsic motivation. Goals that provide a sense of purpose; as Dan Pink puts it, being involved in the achievement of something bigger than ourselves,  is a fundamental human need. 

Managers who take goal-setting to this level of ownership for their staff see major performance improvement and experience performance management more as an easy conversation between two people, both engaged in achieving something individually, together.

The arrival of John Doerr’s OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) into performance management in the late nineties, has led to many tweaks and variations however their basic thrust still stands today – Measure what Matters. Doerr makes it clear however that OKRs are not a quick fix but need considered implementation that follow clear principles.

  • Goals must be clear and achievable;
  • Goals should inspire and challenge;
  • Individual goals are known by all team members; and
  • Progress must be measured along the way.
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The first Principle of Natural Justice and Fair Procedures is the Right to Know. For an employee to be made aware of how they are doing, especially in the case of any performance issues, is not just an important management task, it is the person’s Right. If done well, feedback, even the not-so-glowing kind, can put the ball entirely in the employee’s court so that they can be fully in charge of putting an issue right again and moving on.  Neuroscience has made great strides into examining feedback and why it is so hard to do.

David Rock asserts that in all feedback situations, our brains are hardwired to perceive it either as a threat or a reward. Having a favourable response to feedback then is hugely dependent on this binary perception. In his SCARF model Rock identifies 5 major factors of human wellbeing that are either threatened or rewarded by how feedback is delivered. The wisdom of excellent performance feedback lies in approaching these factors so that the brain perceives them as reward and thus responds positively and constructively.

Status – The human need for esteem and recognition.

How can I approach feedback so that it doesn’t threaten a person’s sense of their own status?

Certainty – Our need to make sense out of new situations and clarify ambiguity.

In times of adversity, what concrete facts, however small, can I ensure for my staff?

Autonomy – Having a say in what happens to us and how we do things.

What level of control or ownership can I allow with this feedback?

Relatedness – Our need to create meaningful connections with peers. In times of difficulty we quickly split into ‘friend or foe’ camps.

How can I be more consistent in my approach to feedback in order to avoid favourites and rumour mills?

Fairness – Our sense of justice – even if we don’t like what is happening, we can agree it’s fair.

Is this feedback is fair ? How would I want to hear this kind of feedback?

For managers who dread giving feedback, yearn for the ease of the old rating system or indeed, those who may be too quick to deliver the blow, this model can radically help them  integrate into the new world of performance management.  By aligning a person’s Right to know with some SCARF-proofing in advance of a performance meeting, managers can turn things around on how feedback is perceived and the behavioural responses generated by it.

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Leadership is influence. Nothing more. Nothing less – John C. Maxwell.

Director, Coach and Facilitator are deemed the three main styles of leadership that all managers should be able to call upon at will and use appropriately. Mastering the tricky balance between them is key to effective influencing however, it is also one of the biggest challenges for managers in this new-world style performance management. Indeed, the old rating system harks back to an all-authoritative, directive approach whereas now, a coaching-facilitative style is more popular.  Purcell’s People Performance Model can be a useful tool to managers in understanding the workings of leadership influence on performance management and the desired outcome of employee discretionary effort.

The chart is in many ways a treasure-island map guiding managers through the shifting landscape of the workplace towards the grand prize of optimum performance outcomes.  Influential leadership is present throughout and while a clear direction is vital to find the right path, it is evident that the coaching-facilitative style of leadership can be the most effective in uncovering the treasure.

About the author

Paula Lonergan has many years of experience in design, development and facilitation of professional development programmes in both large public bodies and private companies

A qualified Business Coach and registered Mediator, Paula brings intellectual rigour and creative thinking to programme development, helping businesses to push boundaries, improve performance and drive change.

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