Reframing Employee Performance Management

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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