Jan 7, 2014

Steve wanted to end 2013 on a high note with the HR Roundtable in Cincinnati, so he made sure there had a juicy topic to discuss.

The topic was this — “Just what is Performance Management?”  This drew a very engaged group of folks who wanted to dive in and discuss this emotion-filled area of HR.

The small groups were tasked with answering the following questions:

  1. How do you define “performance management?”
  2. Why is this area of HR so inconsistent in organizations?
  3. How can we turn this around and make it more consistent?

The energy in the room jumped as soon as they were given the chance to examine their experiences, good and bad, with performance management. When everyone reconvened to share, here’s what came out:

How do you define “performance management?”

  • A set of written criteria that delineates expectations for employees. This honestly was the first answer, word for word. It is one approach to define these systems, but it is also very reflective that people initially look at performance management very formally and in a structured manner. We’ll explore this later, and not in such a structured fashion.
  • A tool to measure engagement. Steve brought the “pink pen of catch phrases” out, and if there was a buzzer, Steve would have used it. There is no way that these systems measure engagement. That is way too much of a broad brush stroke, and you can run into problems if you’re relying on performance management to see if your employees are engaged.
  • Performance management IS NOT performance reviews.  Interesting response because there was mixed feedback to this answer. Most of the attendees actually disagreed because they pictured the “tool” which can be used the same as performance management overall. If companies feel they are the same, then you will hit the inconsistency (discussed in just a bit) that happens on most companies. If PM doesn’t involve performance reviews, then there needs to be clarity around what is involved.
  • Performance management takes place from “cradle to grave.” People meant that true performance management occurs during the entire time an employee is with a company. It’s not an annual “sit down” but a continuum that evolves over time based on what the employee needs. Another way to look at this for HR is that we are responsible for employees for their entire life cycle.
  • Performance management should be a strategy. This took the perspective that in order for this to be successful in an organization, then it must be approached strategically so that is has definition, vision and direction. This is an exciting approach if companies are willing to put the time and effort into making this happen and be sustainable.

Why is this area of HR so inconsistent in organizations?

  • People are involved, so it can be messed up. This may seem a bit harsh, but the fact that these systems are created and implemented by people lends itself to bias, filters and human nature. This rarely is clean and clear. People are messy (which is why it’s so cool to be in HR!). People by nature are inconsistent — which is an obstacle for performance management to succeed.
  • No one method is used. There is inconsistency in the processes that people use as well as how people interpret how the system(s) should be used. Some people are very good with following a continuum method, while others fall back on the “HR told me to do this” mentality. In both cases, inconsistency abounds.
  • The tone that is set by Senior Management. This truly is a case that if Senior Management isn’t consistent in providing development and feedback to their direct reports, then others won’t do it either. The power of modeling is so strong when it comes to performance management. If only one leader steps away from being consistent, the system will buckle quickly, and often, permanently.
  • It’s hard. Great, honest answer! Not only will people “mess this up,” it’s hard because people don’t really like talking to others about performance. They are more than willing to talk about social items, or issues that are not directly involved in a person’s performance. This is a giant hurdle that has to be addressed.
  • We don’t like taking time for people. This is encouraging isn’t it? The “most important” asset of a company is seen as a burden. I can already hear the HR purists screaming that this just isn’t true, but it is true and it’s prevalent. The truth of company cultures, and society, is that we will make the time to talk with people we like, but if there is any hint of a person potentially being difficult, we will do all we can to avoid them. Also, we think that the time dedicated to performance management will be such a huge commitment that “takes away” from productive work. Until that mindset changes, these systems will always fail.
  • We focus on the negative. This is on HR. How can we continue to think that any system that points out shortcomings, and not strengths, will make a person suddenly have an “aha moment” that changes them into a rock star? EVERY performance management system is based on traditional goal setting that is meant to attack and eliminate those pesky weaknesses. And yet, so little time is spent with employees intentionally that this will NEVER change behavior.

How can we turn this around and make it more consistent?

  • Have a “development” approach vs. a report card approach. This is the antithesis of most performance management systems. We have kept the grade school model of grading/rating people thinking that poor marks will encourage people to say “I want to be better!” and then change. Development is a much better approach which can show results immediately and over time. It does take more effort, time and an individual vs. a corporate focus, but it works.
  • Get rid of the money. This assumes that people have performance reviews and performance management as synonymous entities. However, the vast majority of companies tie merit raises (which often are 3 percent cost of living budgetary moves) to a person’s performance. Money is the great demotivator. To change the tide, separate compensation discussions and systems from performance management. There are many companies who now do this consistently and successfully.
  • Focus on the positives. This isn’t simply the opposite of the point listed above. This is a monster to try to do! People are used to the annual beat down which has been used for generations in companies. This is a great opportunity for HR to create, train and implement a new culture in a Company. People do have areas where they can improve. The key to making behaviors change though is approach. A positive mindset and approach has to be learned, unfortunately, but it works in amazing ways when it’s modeled consistently between departments and over time.
  • Make performance management the norm. Annual meetings must be eliminated. Performance management is daily. Yes, daily. We have the time to develop and give people feedback every day in all aspects of their work. If you take the approach that you want to see those around you thrive and succeed, you’ll make the time to see that this happens. For those of you who live in the, “Yeah, but what about the people who don’t buy into this?” syndrome, here’s an answer. This is a culture stance and not an HR system. If people don’t want to perform in this type of culture, talk it over with them and let them know that this is how the culture is going to be. They will either choose to leave your company, or their behavior will get to a point where you will ask them to leave. This honestly gives an employee a better chance to learn the parameters of how to do a great job in their role more than an annual meeting.

Steve shared that there is a great book out now that shows how this culture can be developed and implemented. It’s called Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go by Beverly Kaye & Julie Winkle Giulioni. You can get this great book here.

This was a great session to wrap another great year of HR Roundtables in Cincinnati, and 2014 looks to be a bright and energetic year for this forum as well. Make sure to contact Steve at if you’d like to come to the HR Roundtable, or share it with others so they can be a part of the mix as well.