Reframing Employee Performance Management

August 27, 2013 by Stacey Barr

Guest Post by Bryan Hansen

While working through the implications of an assignment I was given by my employer to awaken a deeply hibernating employee review process, I began to experience a bit of a gestalt and used this mind map to help me keep all the plates spinning while I continued to follow some important rabbit trails. Some of these trails turned out to be more established roads than trails, thanks in large part to Stacey’s work on Performance Measurement. I shared a bit of the scary monster with her and she asked me to write a bit of an explanation as to what is here. I’ll start with the broad brush strokes and drill down on one or two specific revelations I encountered that came at the intersection between (A) concepts that Stacey emphasizes and (B) some of my background in organizational communication and development. We’ll start in the upper left-hand corner.

The task that started this was the desire to get employee reviews going again after having been neglected for a few years. I wasn’t really looking forward to the assignment in part because I don’t care much for formal reviews personally. They often feel contrived, and can be empty of meaningful feedback. I can’t recall if it was something Stacey wrote or quoted, or if I ran across it somewhere else, but this thought seemed very true to me: employee reviews often seem more like a letter grade we would get on a paper in school than a tool for getting better at what we do in our jobs. This really hit home when she mentioned the concepts in the book Abolishing Performance Appraisals by Coens and Jenkins. These concepts hinge on one cluster of fundamental and paramount questions: Why do employee reviews? What is the objective? What are the desired outcomes? The fork in my mind map represents two fundamentally different objectives: (1) To affect Employee Performance, and (2) To affect Business Performance. This is perhaps an arbitrary division and is certainly not comprehensive—but it followed two separate concepts I needed to tease out in more detail, so I split my thought tree on that point.

The predictable response to those questions about desired outcomes is simply to find the objectives and tailor-make a review process that achieves as many of those goals as possible. But what if we took a step back and asked a different question? Rather than asking: “How can I get an employee review process to accomplish these objectives?” why not back up and ask: “What other things might I be able to do in my organization to better accomplish those same objectives?” Some of these objectives are listed on the mind map. And the fish is asking: “Are there alternative ways to accomplish these objectives.”

This is precisely what Coen’s and Jenkins’ book offers. Additionally, the research on performance appraisals widely acknowledges that appraisals are often fundamentally biased and flawed in what gets reported. Consequently, different methodological choices must be made depending on the desired outcome of the appraisal in order to avoid biases. So whether the objectives for the appraisals be for employee development, compensation considerations, or employee deployment, no one assessment can provide unbiased data to address all the objectives. Something important will get left out or be so skewed as to render it useless.

So the funnel on the right side of the page represents the larger concept of Employee Management. Coens and Jenkins book is one piece of my thought process. Another was RSA Animates great video outlining Dan Pink’s talk on human motivation. The video is really helpful in pointing out that motivation is not simply about carrots and sticks.

The third element in the funnel that was especially intriguing to me was the idea of employee-initiated feedback for growth. The idea here is that ideally, as leaders of organizations, we want to see people growing in their skills and adding value to the organization. Rather than waiting once a year for an appraisal process to set some goals for improvement, why not develop a culture where employees are taking the initiative on an ongoing basis to ask for feedback from everyone around them about how they are doing so that they can improve and contribute to organizational success? Coupled together with other concepts, Employee Management can then become about charting a course to have an employee operating at their Highest Point of Contribution (the colored target on the right). I’ll save that part of the diagram for another post some day, but I developed it on the foundation laid by Greg McKeown in his article in the Harvard Business Review.

So that covers prong one of the fork: Employee Performance. Prong two is Business Performance. One of the reasons this exercise came up at all for me was that we needed to find better measures of business performance The idea was to, via performance appraisals, hold people accountable to targets derived from these measures. If you’ve been reading Stacey’s blog for long, you’ll know that there isn’t much that gets under her skin more than this precise approach.

Before tracing further down the path toward measurement, I want to draw your attention to the blue blob in the middle. Organizational Culture.

It is not an overstatement to say that everything about business performance hangs on organizational culture. The trap that many business owners fall into is spending more time working in the business than they spend working on the business. And when they encounter problems in business performance, by default, they double-down on working in the business. Get more sales. Improve margins. Increase revenue. But more often than not, poor sales, sliding margins and drops in revenue have more to do with a gap in organizational culture than in actual business practice. And the skill sets for working in a business vs. working on a business are as different as the skills required to pilot a sailing schooner and the skills required to design and build a sailing schooner. Similarly, the larger and more complex the organization, the more time must be given to design and building than to running the day to day operations of it. Effective leaders must be effective builders of Organizational Culture. And they must be mindful of organization member’s experiences, expectations, stories, and traditions etc. as noted around the blue section of the mind map.

So to pick back up on the mind map…Business Performance hangs on the kinds of elements represented on that Organizational Culture blob. Those elements not withstanding, some fundamental business practices are important to tease out. I left this Goals section fairly general because those elements are open to the individual and unique realities of any given business. Then, to the right of the Goals are Initiatives.

Initiatives is where Stacey’s work comes most heavily into play. I’ve outlined from left to right some of the considerations I found while pouring over Stacey’s blog and looking at performance measurement. I have a lot more work to do here, but this is where the mind map stands for now. When we bring these three things together (The Funnel: effective employee management; Initiatives: effective performance measures; Targets: clear business goals) and press them out to where they overlap we can establish a person’s Highest Point of Contribution and manage to that to increase performance.

Thanks for reading and I appreciate any feedback you have on this.

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  1. John Matthew says:

    This is a great article. Being an enormous advocate for Dan pink’s work, it certainly resonates.
    However, what really resonates from the article is that it is not the performance review per se that is the problem – it is how that review is conducted. As a business coach, I finally shared with a client my new-found belief – having been convinced by a number of books, articles – that performance reviews should be abolished. My client argued vehemently, saying that they worked really well and that her staff actually looked forward to them as an opportunity for further discussion, contribution and sharing of ideas.
    Obviously, this caused me to re-think! It is not the process, but the way it is conducted and the initial purpose of the review.

    • Stacey Barr says:

      John, I agree with you. That was something I really loved about Bryan’s mind map and his story about it. When we can make performance reviews focus on growing each other, rather than judging each other, they take on a completely different energy, and require us to adopt different approaches to the traditional. Thanks for you comment, John.

      Smiles, Stacey.

  2. Barry says:

    Call it old age, experience, dementia, whatever you wish. I like to keep things simple, though not simplistic. Improve employee focus and performance and organisation performance will improve. It’s that simple.

    How to improve employee focus and performance?
    • Align employee focus with organisation strategy and priorities
    • Align and derive employee goals, targets and initiatives to that of the organisation (line of sight)
    • Make performance evaluation (organisation and individual) part and parcel of the corporate rituals and culture – Invigorate the feedback and learning process
    • Reward and incentivise the right behaviour and results (not only financial rewards but also acknowledgement and encouragement)

    The all-important evaluation ritual. It’s about
    • Feedback and learning (both ways), not about judging
    • Initiating and executing remedial action
    • Improving individual and organisation performance

    The best framework is one from Harvard Business Review some years ago
    • Know what to do
    • Know how to do it
    • Understand why to do it
    • Care why

    The devil is obviously in the detail and it is easy to get lost in the maize of tools, techniques, data, systems and other complexities. All the more reason to articulate and communicate organisation strategy in a clear and concise manner that employees can comprehend and relate to, especially how their performance contribute to the bigger picture.

    • Bryan says:

      Barry,

      Thanks for your comments. One of the facets that makes this not quite as simple as it could be relates more specifically to the skill sets of the leaders of the organization. This is the point I tried to illustrate with the pilot/designer analogy. When the leaders of an organization fail to pull up from piloting to spend time designing and building the organization, the obvious action items that you point out are obscured. The forest is lost for the trees. If this kind of failure persists over time, core pillars of healthy organizational culture erode and restoring them (if they existed in the first place) or creating them is a fight against what I might term “bad gravity”. It can be done. But it takes resolve, discipline, and some intentional thought & action directed to cultural elements.

  3. Emma Langman says:

    Hi Folks,

    What a great article! You might also enjoy reading some older books on this subject (which I am sure complement, rather than replace Pink’s work and Stacey’s great ideas). I highly recommend Peter Scholtes’ works “The Leader’s Handbook” and “The Team Handbook”.

    Also,(but beware, if you are a parent, you may find this particularly challenging…) a wonderful book by Alfie Kohn, called “Punished by Rewards”. Personally, I think that this is a deeper analysis than Pink’s popularised version, and builds on his explanation (even though it is an earlier work).

    I hope this helps, and I look forward to reading what others think of the synergies between these books and the very interesting ideas presented in tihs article.

    Kind regards,

    Emma

    • Bryan says:

      Emma,

      Funny that you mention Alfie Kohn. I watched a few of his lectures, and one in particular on Punished by Rewards. In an earlier draft of the map above, I actually had that video. I changed my mind however. While I think Kohn’s arguments and the social science behind it have merit, his focus is too narrow in my opinion. Human motivation is complex. Part of my criticism lies in (as you predicted so accurately) the fact that I have four kids and each of them respond differently to different motivational factors. Some of this is based on their developmental stage. Some of it on the way they are hard-wired in their personality and tastes. And sometimes it just depends on the day!

      The important thing to keep in mind as organizational leaders and motivators (and parents) is that there isn’t a magic bullet for motivating employees or members of an organization. People are complex. Situations are nuanced. Environmental factors are abundant. Effective management means that we have to take careful stock of who people really are, what they are passionate about, what they are capable of doing, and then find where the alignment is within the organization to deploy them to their highest point of contribution. Otherwise, we’re just using people to get what we or shareholders want.

      Thanks too Emma for the recommendations on the other books you mentioned. I haven’t heard of them and am always looking to round out my reading and conceptual toolkit. This makes me think of another resource worth mentioning: Frederick Herzberg’s Motivational-Hygiene theory. His is another insightful perspective on human motivation at work.

      Thanks again Emma for joining the conversation!

      Bryan

  4. Stacey Barr says:

    Barry, if what you call ‘focus and performance’ and ‘the right behaviour’ includes mostly collaborating well to improve organisational processes and procedures and policies so they better serve the strategy, and to carry out those processes well, then I think you’ve nailed it.

    I just don’t subscribe to the idea that the performance of the organisation is equal to the sum of the performance of the individual people. Though I’ve seen many organisations that, by how they point a searing laser at the people and remain completely blind to organisational processes, appear to believe in this mathematics.

    Thanks for the insights!

    Smiles, Stacey.

  5. Bryan says:

    What is especially challenging about organizational culture and performance management is that when culture is unhealthy and the leaders of an organization either fail to see it or if they confuse the root of the problem with the fruit of the problem, finding alignment in order to bolster improvement is next to impossible. This is where the difference between working IN an organization and working ON an organization is most felt. When performance is poor, and when the organizational culture is unhealthy, the cart often gets placed in front of the horse and the symptoms get attention instead of the disease: doubling-down on managing business performance and attempts to invigorate performance measurements while neglecting to address the culture and all of it’s nuances actually makes things worse. Employee disillusionment rises. Morale falls. Performance suffers.

    It isn’t as linear as I’m presenting it here, as if performance didn’t affect organizational culture: no one wants to play on a losing team. However, the tendency in far too many organizations is to put the emphasis on improving business practices when the business might be sound. The business isn’t the problem–the organizational culture in which every business is inextricably nestled is flailing and simply needs some concerted attention. Sometimes, leaders of businesses have great business acumen but lack fluency in organizational development. As organizations grow in size and complexity, a leader’s business skills need to begin to be delegated while they migrate energy and focus over to organizational culture.

  6. Barry says:

    I am a firm believer in Systems Thinking (ST).

    In its simplest form ST is about natural patterns that occur over time driven by the interdependencies (cause & effect) of components within a system (e.g. an organisation is a “system”). Reinforcing loops and Balancing loops are the basic building blocks to model complex systems.

    The Kaplan & Norton Strategy Map concept is a simplified model (abstract) of an organisation system of which their high level cause & effect assumptions are – Improved Internal Capabilities and Learning leads to Improved Business Processes, which in turn leads to Better Products & Services and therefore happier Customers, which in turn leads to improved Financial Performance.

    Clearly their model is a simplified representation (1-dimensional abstract) of the complex dynamics of an organisation system, though their assumptions and hypothesis are logical. Understanding where to relatively focus time and energy in the system is critical to enable a leveraged effect.

    Systems:
    – are dynamic,
    – components within a system have interdependent relationships
    – these relationships are non-linear
    – and these relationships (cause & effect) have differing time lags

    So, “performance of the organisation is NOT equal to the sum of the performance of the individual people”, but it is a non-linear dynamic function of the performance of all the components within the organisation and their non-linear interdependencies.

    Culture is a critical aspect in an organisation system, albeit one of many. The Kaplan & Norton model places it right at the bottom (core building block or foundation) of their strategy map which should be read from the bottom-up.

  7. Lina Hamdy says:

    Dear Bryan, thanks for this interesting article and mind map. Totally agree with you. I think that employee performance evaluation process should be “alive”. Something that we do daily during our daily operation.

    However, what really confuses me is how to design an easy, effective and “alive” employee performance assessment system, where all concerned parties are involved and they enjoy doing it. Especially for organizations with more than 800 employees with different job descriptions and consequently different tasks.

    Appreciate your feedback

    Thank you
    Lina

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Lina, I’m going to weigh in here with a thought I’ve always had about the role of performance measures in an employee performance assessment system that is “alive” (love that!).

      Basically, I wonder how it could work if we, in part, assessed people’s performance by how well they use performance measures to work ON their processes and in alignment with corporate strategy, as opposed to using performance measures to assess how well people are working IN their processes and judging them by what is essentially always essentially always going to be the product of many factors. Measures as tools rather than big sticks or judgements?

    • Bryan says:

      Lina,

      Excellent question Lina. And it’s a challenge for sure–especially in large organizations. A few miles from where I am is the Boeing plant where they have thousands of employees working multiple shifts to build airplanes. Whenever I write or think about assessment, in the back of my mind I have the nagging question of how the ideas/approaches I am proposing would work in that environment, as well as in the smaller organizations that I am more accustomed to working with.

      A significant difference between large organizations and smaller ones is how limber they are–how quickly they can change and adapt. Organizational culture tends to have an especially heavy inertia, and in bigger organizations, this inertia is at its heaviest. So implementation of any kind of initiative affects and is affected by organizational culture. So first of all, it’s going to take time, energy, and concerted/intentional effort to make it happen.

      Secondly, it’s going to rely the leadership of the managers at whatever level of the organization they are at. Despite trends toward flatter organizational structures, hierarchy has its place and I think this is one of those places. It all hinges on how managers engage with the members of the teams they lead. (Marcus Buckingham’s book First Break All The Rules, if it teaches anything, it teaches that managers make or break most employees job satisfaction.) So behind any assessment system are philosophical presuppositions from which managers operate. Those presuppositions about people drive much of how they view people and how they manage and assess them. And I think it first starts with finding those alternative ways to accomplish the goals/objectives identified in the mind map above.

      To me, employee assessment is fundamentally about employee deployment. And employee deployment is about determining where the employee finds their highest point of contribution. If you haven’t already done so, I would read the article at the hyperlink above by Greg McKeown. With this in hand, I would begin putting a process in place of assessing each of the three elements he discusses (though I use different terms than he does): employee passions, employee competence, and business performance drivers. The assessment system, in my mind, will be a collaborative effort to find what each of these three things are and then find the area where the employee can contribute most to achieving business performance goals.

      The employee invests in the company by working hard to contribute to performance. The company invests in the employee through assessment and training in order to deploy them to where they do what they enjoy doing and what they are good at doing. And it becomes a win-win.

      This is the point where performance measurement is so important and where Stacey’s work is really helpful. If an organization doesn’t know how to measure its performance, and what factors are driving that performance, it really has no idea where to deploy an employee most effectively. Deployment then is based on a hunch, past experience, or maybe a book they read. Who knows. But it isn’t based on what is actually happening.

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