Are Your Talent Management Programs Simply Popularity Contests?

Leafing through a recent HR Magazine, I noticed (well, couldn’t miss) a full page advertisement for employee recognition programs.

Nothing unusual about that, right? It is a compelling ad, in that there is 25 percent of a face – an amalgamation of the Terminator and Men in Black – next to the words “employee recognition helps your team feel like Hollywood Heavyweights … whether to get a 24-hour personal bodyguard will be up to them.

The premise is that these are your star performers that you are recognizing. Quite an innovative ad. Perhaps an outstanding program; I don’t know.

Just a popularity contest?

I stared at the page for a while trying to figure out what was bothering me besides the amalgamation of Will and Arnold. I have seen hundreds of ads for recognition programs, but this one put the star performers on a pedestal like I’d not seen before. My first thought was, how do the other employees feel when they see their peers on this obvious pedestal?

That led to this question: How do you know these are your star employees?

Sales forces have been hosting highly successful recognition programs for years. They have the luxury of solid data – sales, revenue, profit – with which to identify top performers.

Call centers have similar data, and stats are usually public, quantitative, and clear. It is much more difficult to identify top performers when the criteria and results are cloudy. And the bigger the prize, the more cynical employees will be if they see misalignment between the recognition and the contribution.

Without good data, any employee program is susceptible to becoming a popularity contest. That can do incredible harm to an organization, and will damage senior leadership credibility in a heartbeat.

The value in doing performance management well

Talent management, succession management, recognition, engagement … they all must be based on a credible and thoughtful match between what employees are supposed to be doing (now or later), and what they actually are doing. When done well, performance management can serve as a solid foundation for other programs.

True, performance management has gotten a bad rap, and many readers are probably rolling their eyes about now. But the fundamental premise is sound; set expectations, provide feedback and training, assess progress and continuously develop. Along the way, you have the opportunity to develop trust, engage in mutual learning, and steer performance in the right direction.

Leaders today are overworked and overloaded, and they don’t have time for effective performance management? Think about that — they don’t have time to set expectations, provide feedback, assess progress, develop trust, and steer performance?

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But yet we layer on requirements for talent/succession management, employee development, engagement survey action planning, added to the requirements established by finance, operations, marketing and other staff groups.

Bear with me, and let’s go with the premise that a good performance management process can serve as a foundation for retention, engagement, talent management. Would there be value in doing performance management exceedingly well?

Making the system work

What would we need to make that happen?

  • We would need leaders who can build trust, provide effective feedback, teach, learn, and who are aligned 100% with the business strategy and objectives.
  • We would need clear expectations for performance.
  • We would need a methodology for matching expectations to performance.
  • We would need active involvement of senior leadership to hold leaders accountable.
  • We would need an oversight process to ensure that the program was effective at all levels.

This isn’t easy. It is the most difficult kind of organizational change – building a process to truly engage and retain talent. But nothing worthwhile is really ever easy.

The big “if” …

If we can achieve that, do you think there will be a positive impact on engagement, recognition and retention? If…

  • Employees are clear on expectations and how they perform against those expectations;
  • Employees see their peers performing well, or being addressed;
  • Leaders adapt to the needs of each employee;
  • Senior leadership is involved in dialogue about performance on a regular basis and holds leaders accountable for effective performance and development of talent.

I think it would go a very long way. I would be interested in what you think.

This originally appeared on the ….@ the intersection of learning & performance blog.

Carol Anderson is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in February 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications. Contact Carol at