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Dec 1, 2016

There has been a significant increase in articles about performance management in my inbox lately, so for the last month, I saved them all with the intention of seeing if there was anything I could add. I kind of consider performance management my niche, and have always believed there was value in the process.

I’m thrilled today to see organizations addressing those very things that turned off both leaders and employees: the awkwardness of the pay discussion, the ridiculously long forms that took hours to prepare, self-evaluations that really made no difference in the outcome of the appraisal and finally, the ratings.

With six links in my inbox I set out to see what’s happening. Two were webinars, one infographic, and three e-books or articles. All seem to indicate that the traditional one-way, annual, formal process is giving way to a more collaborative exchange of knowledge, needs and expectations. I absolutely agree.

The recommendations include eliminating the term “management” which implies control, increased frequency, using a neutral location (I like that – less formal), being transparent about the process, focusing on future and growth, and developing leaders.

All good.

As with so many business articles that talk about shifting paradigms, I am missing the crucial “How do you really make it work?” element. Let’s talk about that.

Clear the slate

First, get rid of the notion that HR can design a program in a vacuum or overlay a “best practice.” For too long we’ve been doing that, using vendor solutions, implementing someone else’s program, and assuming that a good program must include specific elements. Now is the time to get creative and push all those solutions away until you have figured out what you want to happen with your program.

We are beyond the days when rankings were required to allocate a healthy merit budget; we just don’t need rankings anymore. We’ve focused on “documentation” so that we can defend management actions; we can’t motivate commitment by forcing compliance. We no longer need the voluminous forms; no one ever looks at them anyway once they land in the employee’s file.

Get everyone involved

Start with the question, “Why do we even want a performance management program?” Ask everyone, and then draft a purpose statement. Facilitate a discussion about that purpose statement, validating that this is, in fact, the outcome you want and are willing to invest in.

This is the single most important element of new program design. Why? Because unless folks know why they are doing something and agree on the process, agree on the importance, and indicate that they have both the capability and capacity to execute, they’ll pay it only lip service. These are the same folks who have been telling us that existing performance management programs are broken and we haven’t listened. It’s time to listen.

Match process to purpose

Armed with a purpose statement, we can now explore solutions, be they vendor, best practice or otherwise. Carefully match the solution against the purpose statement. Does it do ONLY what the purpose statement says?

Does the solution include more than the purpose statement defines? Go back to the stakeholders and make sure that “extra” is important, and that they have the capability and capacity to execute well.

It’s always better to start small and add. Most organizations have a bunch of overworked leaders and employees who would welcome a shorter, more value-added process.

Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate

And here is the secret sauce: Now that you have a purpose statement, get those stakeholders to agree on how you will know if the process is working. We’ve allowed a broken system to exist for several years, but we don’t have time for that anymore, and our stakeholders are rebelling.

Any time spent should be time spent wisely; after all, you’re paying for every hour involved.

How are you going to measure it?

It depends on your purpose statement. If your purpose includes improving engagement and reducing turnover, there’s your measure. Use the results as a learning tool, rather than a judgment. If your engagement scores don’t improve, are the leaders really leading the process effectively? If not, why not?

If your purpose includes improving organizational performance, how will you measure that? Again, the outcome isn’t to be rewarded or punished, but instead to help the organization learn. Why didn’t the process perform as expected? Is there a tweak we can make? Are leaders being held accountable? Do they know what to do?

Any process can be a good process

Every solution out there can work, but it isn’t as simple as implementing a solution. What is important is what happens before and after implementation. Being clear on the purpose and expected outcome enables measurement of results. And that tells you that the process is working; that the time invested is time well spent.

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