How to Stop Measuring People

by Stacey Barr

Measuring people to improve performance doesn’t work. So how can we stop measuring people but still improve performance?

Male employee running on a hamster wheel.

We measure people to manage them and improve performance. But does it really work? Rarely, and more likely never. Performance measures are too often seen and felt like a big stick. People feel judged and managed by measures, and that doesn’t create a constructive atmosphere for improving performance.

But the measurement of people’s individual performance doesn’t seem to be going away.

Measuring people’s people will disengage them.

We all know the symptoms of measuring people who don’t want to be measured:

  • They focus on trivial measures of performance, things that are easy to count and within their control.
  • If they can’t have trivial measures, then next they will take the easiest path to game the results of the measures.
  • Or they will shift the goalposts so targeted performance is easier to reach.

Paul Frith, our PuMP Partner in the UK, told me a story about pharmaceutical account managers who have a Call Rate measure. It tracks how many meetings or calls they have with their customers or potential customers. It’s a trivial measure because it only tracks the number of calls, not the intended result of those calls.

When the account managers are judged by that KPI, they are almost forced to call only the people they know would be willing to speak with them, rather than the right people to make a difference. Being measured by this trivial KPI actively discourages the account managers from being brave to do the right thing – which might mean taking a penalty for not hitting their Call Rate targets, in their attempts to reach the right customers.

These symptoms of measuring people don’t lead to improved performance. They often lead to worse performance. And don’t think that there is a solution to stop the gaming and cheating, either. When we persist with measuring people, and trying to find foolproof ways to do it, we just keep reinforcing the defensiveness, helplessness, and cynicism that people feel – which keeps resulting in the resistance and gaming and cheating, as it always has done.

“If you try to remove cheating by creating a cheat-proof measurement system, you waste a lot of time… If you remove the need to cheat, then cheating will be much less likely to happen, and it won’t cost you anything.” – Dean Spitzer

We need a new way to get people to accept and own, and ultimately excel at improving organisational performance.

Letting people measure performance removes the need to cheat.

Humans naturally want to be engaged, so when they’re not engaged, it’s because something is preventing it. Dan Pink, in his book “Drive”, talks a lot about engagement and how it comes when rewards are intrinsic. And for intrinsic reward to be possible, he says we need 3 elements:

  1. Autonomy. People use measures to improve performance, rather than the measures being used to judge their performance. When they have autonomy, people will choose measures that can help them understand business performance and motivate them to do something about it.
  2. Mastery. People have the skill not only to do measurement well, but to do the performance improvement element well too. When people have mastery in working ON the business, they have the confidence to change the business processes and systems to make performance better.
  3. Purpose. People understand the bigger picture, they can see how their work contributes to the organisation’s promise to its customers. With purpose, people know their work matters, that what they do is important, and when they see one of their improvements make something better further up the chain, that’s a tremendously rewarding feeling.

It’s when people have autonomy, mastery and purpose in their use of performance measures, we can start to change the definition of accountability for performance. We can hold people accountable, in a way that’s fair, for monitoring their performance measures, interpreting them validly, and initiating action to improve performance when needed.

But leaders aren’t ready to stop measuring people.

The reason why leaders measure people is because they want to manage performance. The intention is good. But if all they have ever known is that measuring people is the way to manage performance, then it’s hard to let it go.

Leaders have some specific beliefs that mean they’ll feel like they’ll lose control of performance if they stop measuring people:

  • Many leaders still believe this: organisational performance = the sum of employee performance. But when we come to understand that employee performance is often constrained by the design of the business systems and processes and policies, it’s easier to see that we should be measuring those systems and processes and not the people.
  • Many leaders still believe that humans – and particularly employees – need extrinsic rewards to stay committed to work. But from the research of Dan Pink and others, we come to realise that it’s the intrinsic rewards that really drive us, like a sense of accomplishment or being part of making something better or being of service to others.
  • Many leaders still believe that employees cannot be trusted to get the work done; that they have to be actively managed or they’ll just slacken off and do the least they can get away with. But with a shared purpose, we know that most people want to contribute to something bigger than themselves.

Beliefs don’t change overnight. So we cannot expect leaders to just stop measuring people. But we want to help them change their perspective away from working harder and toward the idea of “baking in a better way of doing things”.

The first step to move away from measuring people is involvement.

If you have people resisting performance measurement, either because their performance is being measured directly, or because they believe measures are used to judge them, then the best first thing you can do is to get them more involved.

There are a few ways we do this in PuMP:

  • Involve them in wording their goals so they are crystal clear, specific and measurable. We do this with PuMP’s Measurability Tests technique, which helps people deeply understand what their goals really mean and why they matter.
  • Involve them in designing measures of their goals, to at least understand and possibly influence the choice of measures they are accountable for. We do this with PuMP’s Measure Design technique, which logically helps people see how to quantify the most relevant and feasible evidence of their goals into performance measures.
  • Involve them in defining the calculation and data collection for their measures. We do this with PuMP’s Measure Definition technique, where people can see the intimate details of how to calculate each measure, and how to choose the best data for it, but also how to interpret what the measure is saying.

The second step to move away from measuring people is accountability.

To feel a sense of ownership of a measure, people need to know what they really should be doing with that measure. And this is the perfect time to redefine what your organisation means by accountability.

A constructive definition of accountability drives the right behaviour. The behaviour is right when it is trying to fundamentally improve performance and not do the gaming and goalpost-shifting that comes from being measured.

Accountability probably isn’t defined in your organisation, is it? Try this constructive definition of accountability, with three essential parts to it (and there’s more detail here):

  1. Monitoring the important results with meaningful performance measures.
  2. Interpreting the performance measures to identify performance gaps.
  3. Initiating improvement action, if and when action is needed.

For this type of accountability to become the new norm, it needs constant discussion, reflective practice, and reinforcement from leaders. That will take time, but it’s definitely not a reason to wait: start now with discussing this meaning of accountability. More people will step up to this type of accountability.

The pharmaceutical company, with the trivial Call Rate measure, proves this is possible. The leadership team recently experimented with our new definition of accountability. They held a “Live Learning” session and involved the account managers in figuring out what the whole organisation needed to do to improve performance in reaching their customers to have the right impact.

***

When leaders and managers and employees all begin to realise that the power of performance measures is only unleashed when they are used as a tool in people’s hands and not a rod for their backs, that’s when the organisation starts its journey toward high-performance. We have to stop measuring people. We need to instead help people to measure and improve the processes they work in.

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  1. I loved Dean Spitzer’s quote about creating a cheat-proof measurement system. It reminded me of one of my favorite T.S. Eliot quotes, from Choruses from the Rock… “They constantly try to escape
    from the darkness without and within by dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will
    need to be good.” Instead, let’s create safe spaces where people are free to be good!

    • Stacey Barr says:

      That’s a powerful quote, Peter. I agree with you though, that we need safe spaces for people to experiment, make mistakes, learn from mistakes, and make both themselves and the organisation better.

  2. Jenny says:

    There is no such thing as “measuring people”. There are people forming opinions about other people’s performance. From a social psychology perspective, it is inevitable that people who interact frequently develop cognitive and affective bonds among them, including the opinions about how competent my leader and coworkers are. Yes, we can get rid of performance appraisal, but we can’t get rid of our thoughts and feelings about other people even if we don’t disclose them. It turns out that there are many situations in organizational life when these opinions are needed to make high stakes decisions such as selection, promotion, training, layoffs and so on. When you are a good leader, you want to develop you people, but you cannot coach them unless you have an opinion about their job performance. Feedback is the same thing. In your mind you judge and say, “that’s an excellent performance, I’m going to provide positive reinforcement or that’s poor performance, constructive feedback is in order”. Bottom line: leaders and their teams need to have performance conversations on a regular basis without ratings to discuss openly about their performance not only as an employee but also as a leader in relation to the objectives and goals that are set. Yes, we need autonomy supportive leaders to unleash the autonomous motivation that Pink wrote about.

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