The 5 Conditions to Measure Personal Performance

by Stacey Barr

If one person measures another, it rarely improves performance. These 5 conditions must be met to measure personal performance so it can and will improve.

One giant person measuring a much smaller person. Credit: https://www.istockphoto.com/portfolio/gearstd

When we measure individual employee performance, we see time and again that it rarely improves performance beyond the short-term, if at all. And it can too often turn performance in the wrong direction. I’ve called this the downward spiral of measuring people’s performance.

Self-quantification isn’t all bad, though. It can be quite empowering and useful in pursuing personal goals that matter to us, and reaching them with greater ease and speed. The problem with measuring personal performance has more to do with ownership. And ownership of personal goals – ownership sufficient to strive for those goals – is only possible when five conditions are met in our process for setting personal performance measures.

Condition 1: Your goals – not goals someone else sets for you.

Imagine if someone else set a goal for you, without your input or agreement. For example:

  • losing weight
  • getting fit enough to run a marathon in 3.5 hours
  • becoming more trustworthy or dependable at work
  • doubling your productivity
  • reaching a specific quota (of sales, or project milestones, or whatever tangible or intangible widget you produce)

How likely would you be to own that goal, to take it seriously, and to be held accountable for reaching it? Not likely. There’s not much dignity in submitting to the goals that other people want of us, especially when those goals are not important to us. And without dignity, summoning the personal power to pursue, let alone achieve, such a goal is next to impossible.

PRACTICE TIP: The best personal performance measures are based on goals that a person sets for themselves. So be proactive, if you have a manager or other stakeholder that has expectations of you. Write your own goals, and write those goals well.

Condition 2: Your measures – not measures developed by someone else for you.

Whether you’ve truly agreed to a goal someone else set for you, or you’ve managed to set your own goal, performance can still be derailed by the measures chosen for that goal. Imagine these situations:

  • You have a goal to lose weight, but someone insists you use skinfold caliper measurements, which erks you. You’d rather use the scales and a tape measure for your waistline.
  • Your goal to double your productivity is tricky to measure, and you really don’t like your manager’s insistence that it should be the percentage of your work time spent at your desk.
  • You want to achieve a goal of having all the skills necessary for your role, but you don’t believe HR’s recommended measure of number of training hours is going to help much.

If we don’t trust that a measure is telling us the truth about our goal, we won’t be able to bring ourselves to use it. To trust a measure, we need to understand its inner workings and be convinced that it is objective and direct evidence of our goal. The best way for that to happen is if we design and build the measure from scratch.

PRACTICE TIP: People feel more excited about measures they have created themselves, for their goal. So don’t wait for others to tell you what you should measure. Instead, design your own measures using PuMP’s Measure Design template.

Condition 3: Your monitoring – not used by others to judge you.

If there is one place in the personal performance measurement process that poses the greatest risk of driving performance in the wrong direction, it’s here. It’s when someone else judges us – and even rewards or punishes us – based on measures of our performance.

Judgement is felt as a personal threat and loss of dignity. It too easily tempts us into performance-sabotaging behaviours. We do desperate things to make a short-term gain:

  • To lose weight quickly and not be judged as a failure, you eat too little, or throw up what you eat.
  • So that your colleagues score you higher on trustworthiness and dependability, you limit our promises to them to very simple and easy things, and avoid the important things they might want from you.
  • To increase your productivity, you cut corners, or let the quality of your workmanship slip, or work too hard and too long.

PRACTICE TIP: When measures are a judgement about us, they trigger the game to hit the numbers instead of improve the results. To avoid chasing numbers in desperation, be the hero in search of the root causes.

Condition 4: Your interpretation – not conclusions that others might draw.

The common practices of interpreting performance measures are dubious at best and completely wrong at worst. Those people who have a vested interest in any of our personal goals are more likely than not to draw the wrong conclusions from our measures. Like so:

  • They look at how your weight is higher today than yesterday, and accuse you of eating too much over the past 24 hours. But you know that weight will naturally vary every day, even for skinny people.
  • Your manager might rank you beneath most of your colleagues, based on 360 degree feedback scores. But you know that your scores have steadily increased all year, while some of your higher-ranking colleagues’ scores are staying static or dropping.
  • HR says that you’re not hitting your training hours targets. But from the training you have taken, you’ve already gained most of the skill you needed to reduce your cycle time and increase your accuracy to that of a top performer.

PRACTICE TIP: If we react to other people’s interpretation of the measures of our goals, we’re just the blind following the blind. Instead, it’s up to us to show those people the real story and the real signals of change, using better methods like XmR charts.

Condition 5: Your improvement – not actions someone else mandates.

Well-meaning friends and supportive managers can be quick to give us the fixes to our performance limitations. Only when we’re at our wit’s end, or feel completely stuck, do we ever feel truly open to the solutions others shower upon us.

Until we’re at the end of our rope, it’s hard to follow the advice of others. It can seem like they don’t understand or appreciate the unique constraints on our personal performance. And it can go like this:

  • Your skinny friends tell you just to eat less fat and exercise more. But you’ve noticed over the years that when you eat more carbs, no matter how much you exercise, the weight creeps up.
  • To help you become more productive, your manager wants to send you on a time management course. But you’re pretty sure, being an introvert, that it’s the constant noise and movement in the office that shatters your focus a million times a day.
  • Your running coach advises you to do a lot of long, slow runs to build your endurance. You’re pretty sure that you won’t be able to fit all this into your schedule, and you suspect that replacing a couple of long, slow runs with HIIT sessions might still work.

PRACTICE TIP: Nothing feels more futile than spending our energy and time doing something we don’t believe will work. Before defaulting to the mandates of those who feel they know better, design a few little experiments to test which solutions create the most improvement for you.

***

There is no real, lasting improvement in performance without complete ownership. These five conditions for measuring personal performance, if you hadn’t noticed, are fundamentally about getting full ownership.

To measure personal performance, the person must own the selection, implementation and use of the measures.
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  1. Dennis Evans says:

    Shame if you don’t measure it you can’t change it.

  2. R.H. says:

    Hi Stacey,

    I’m loving your work on KPI performance measures.
    I agree measures should never be used as a stick, to discipline people.
    99% of issues will be related to underperforming systems rather than people (unwitting victims of systems).
    There can be direct measures for people though, and I’m interested in your thoughts regarding this.

    I’ve taken up lifting weights recently, and over the last few months, I’ve increased the weight loading and the repetitions I’m completing. On Monday I was feeling a bit off colour and only managed one repetition of weights, whereas 2 days later, I’ve completed 5. So I see my state of wellness as being the system, and my general progression a measure of personal performance.
    I’d be interested in how you approach the measurement of personal performance – though you may cover it in the lessons to come.

    Keep up the good work!,

    Cheers, R.H.

    • Stacey Barr says:

      The short answer to your question RH is that I don’t ever help any organisation measure personal performance. But I have measured my own personal performance, like you, with health and fitness. The ways to measure a personal result are the same ways we can measure any result, and my blog has hundreds of articles about all that. I will ponder your suggestion though, in case I can think of anything unique to consider when we measure our own performance.

  3. Mohamed Abdelkarim says:

    Dear Stacey,

    Good day. Your opinion regarding measuring individual performance is really interesting. May I ask about two things?! ;

    First, in any organization, each employee’s targets are not personalized or such an individual’s target, it’s the company target! it’s not about losing weight or gaining some knowledge or skills, usually, it’s related to the overall company objectives which are broken down on the employees scale especially the financial aspects and compliance with due dates, so how come these individuals’ performance will not be measured?

    Second, The performance measurement is an evaluation tool for those who perform this performance! I know there are system factors and human factors, but at the end of the day it’s related to “human” performance which will be measured at the end, don’t you agree with me?

    For your clarification as usual from your good side.

    Thank you, Mohamed Abdelkarim

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Mohamed, I don’t believe that organisational performance is the sum of individual personal performance, which is an assumption that must be made if we believe that objectives are broken down from corporate to personal KPIs. What I believe (not just randomly but from my life’s work experience and learning) is that organisational performance is systemic and complex and most definitely not the sum of individual people’s performance. People need to use measures to understand the way the organistion’s systems are working and performing, and collaborate to change the systems so the work better.

      • jo says:

        Pls if I may come in, who is to generate KPI management or staff? I am of the opinion that your personal performance should be measured with the company KPI and not yours.

        • Stacey Barr says:

          It should be a collaboration. When management sets KPIs for staff without staff input, it too easily creates threat and reduces buy-in and ownership. If you refer back to five conditions I’ve written about above, in this article, you’ll understand what to do and why.

        • Stacey Barr says:

          Jo, the company KPIs measure the company’s performance, not any individual person’s performance. People use KPIs as tools to make better decisions about the company’s processes. It doesn’t work if the KPIs are used to try and make people better. It just leads to threat, and dysfunctional behaviour. Try reading Jerry Muller’s book, The Tyranny of Metrics. Or Measurement Madness by Gray et al. Or Drive, by Dan Pink.

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