Psychologically Safe Performance Measurement

by Stacey Barr

To make performance measurement meaningful, we have to make it psychologically safe, and remove everyone’s fear of it.

Psychologically Safe Performance Measurement. Credit: https://www.istockphoto.com/portfolio/AndreyPopov

One of our PuMP alumni once said to me that “PuMP is a psychologically safe way to develop metrics.” I’ve never heard that before. And that she felt compelled to articulate this thought reminds us that performance measurement is all too often not psychologically safe.

Psychological safety in the workplace is a very real thing:

“Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”Center for Creative Leadership

In the context of performance measurement, therefore, psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for the unacceptable results of any performance measure or KPI. And it begs the question: who would be carrying out the punishment or humiliation?

Typically, it’s the leaders or managers or supervisors that will evaluate if a performance measure is unacceptable, and then dose out what they deem an appropriate level of punishment or humiliation for the individual in question.

Wow. Just writing that sentence felt horrible. Does it really happen that crudely, in organisations that use measurement to judge people? Even if it’s only half as crude, it’s little wonder that people feel psychologically threatened anywhere near a performance measure.

It’s why governments don’t publish outcome-oriented dashboards for taxpayers to see, publishing only activity-focused measures. They don’t feel psychologically safe being that transparent because of the judgment that will come from the media and community groups.

It’s why employees will ‘game’ performance, by manipulating the KPI, the data, the target or the underlying business process, to hit targets. They don’t feel psychologically safe missing targets because of the judgment that comes from managers or supervisors about their performance.

It’s why executives will choose vanity metrics to report organisational performance. They don’t feel psychologically safe sharing any ‘bad news’ because of the judgment that will affect their remuneration or future on the leadership team.

You may or may not have the power to change this in your organisation. But if you were to try, there are eight qualities your measurement approach will need for it to be psychologically safe:

  1. Focused on measuring business processes (not about measuring people).
  2. Structured to guide the steps required (not dependent on your current measurement know-how).
  3. Structured to guide the thinking required (not limited by your current understanding of the goals to measure).
  4. Played like a team sport (not resting all on your shoulders, alone).
  5. Emphasising feedback and learning (not about success or failure).
  6. Driven by continuous improvement (not about hitting targets).
  7. Prioritising ownership and buy-in (not pushing technical sophistication too soon).
  8. Allowing iterative progress (not expecting immediate mastery).

These qualities are all designed into how PuMP works. Which of these qualities are missing from your approach to performance measurement?

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