‘We’re Looking at Performance Management in the Wrong Way’


By Kathy Gurchiek November 5, 2012

There’s a need for a fundamental shift in how organizations look at and use performance management, said Rose Mueller-Hanson, Ph.D., director of leadership and organizational leadership for Personnel Decisions Research Institutes (PDRI).

Performance management, she said, “is one of the most powerful talent management practices we have as HR professionals.” However, “for many of us, performance management fails to live up to its potential, even though there’s a lot of power to it.”

Mueller-Hanson was the speaker during an October 2012 webinar, “Driving Performance Through Increased Employee Engagement,” hosted by PDRI and TMGov.org. PDRI is based in the Greater Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. area, and TMGov.org is the portal for Talent Management in Government, based in Northern Virginia.

“We’re looking at performance management in the wrong way,” Mueller-Hanson said. She called for a “fundamental mind shift” in how organizations use it to drive high performance and engagement.

“Even the label [performance management] comes with a lot of baggage and anxiety,” she observed, and “evokes a lot of strong feelings and opinions.”

Often, there are lofty goals for performance management: to align individual actions with an organization’s mission, to help employees learn and grow, to help improve communication and the relationship between employees and managers, and to improve the performance of individuals and the organization as a whole. Few of these goals are achieved.

During the webinar, Mueller-Hanson challenged some long-held assumptions that link engagement and performance management.

“Oftentimes, those terms get mixed. … They’re actually very different,” she said. “Recognize that if you’re trying to use the same approach for both, you may be working against yourself.”

For example, if an employer asks an employee to weigh in on their strengths and weaknesses as a way to build skills, and then uses that same information in the employee’s performance review, there is a disincentive for the employee to be honest.

Additionally, organizations often get caught up in approaches to performance management that might not achieve the desired results, such as “SMART” goals (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Timebound), team goals, individual goals, cascaded goals or no goals.

“They take a lot of effort to do and there’s no evidence they necessarily produce value,” Mueller-Hanson said, adding that some systems skirt the real challenge of driving high performance in an organization.

Additionally, organizations devote a lot of time to the rating criteria and rating scale, and focus on who rates employees, but they ignore the audience for which such tools are intended. Mueller-Hanson urged employers to focus less on the system and more on the people.

Emphasize setting ongoing expectations, providing immediate feedback and having career discussions as a way to drive high performance among employees in your organization, she advised.

High-performance, high-engagement organizations have managers who:

  • Make expectations clear.
  • Help find solutions to problems.
  • Play to employees’ strengths.
  • Discuss strengths and development needs.

In order to manage performance day-to-day, she recommended conducting a baseline assessment with employees, managers and peers. Use the assessment to illustrate any gap between what exists and where the organization wants to be. Establish expectations, provide and ask for feedback and provide experiences that develop the employee.

“Even small changes can have a meaningful impact,” she said. “Find what works for you in the context of your organization … and focus on that.”

Some suggestions:

  • Help people understand the big picture on how an employee’s day-to-day work contributes to the organization’s mission.
  • Establish expectations, so employees know what success looks like for them.
  • Provide rich, positive, constructive feedback on how employees can improve performance.
  • Talk about key behaviors employees demonstrate and the positive or negative impact of those behaviors.
  • Provide key experiences to develop employees.

Mueller-Hanson encouraged organizations to have three critical conversations annually:

  • In one conversation, talk with managers about how they communicate and how to improve their ability to hold candid conversations with employees.
  • Have a second conversation at the team level that discusses how it works with other teams and how to overcome any barriers.
  • Have a third conversation with individual employees focusing on individual achievements over the past year and what needs to happen for growth and development.

Managers may be held accountable through monthly check-ins and/or quarterly pulse surveys on key questions, such as the quality of the employee feedback they receive or how often managers are having key conversations.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor, HR News.


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