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Dec 14, 2016

Although my professional experience is in very large organizations, we now work with smaller clients. This work has helped to change my paradigm about those processes that organizations put in place to engage their workforce, and measure the progress of engagement.

This revelation – that big companies try to mandate relationships between leaders and their employees through bureaucratic programs – has been evolutionary for me. Heck, I spent my career designing bureaucratic performance management processes, chasing non-conforming managers down, and cleaning up the misunderstandings when their communication style angered an employee.

Accountable leaders

I get it, I do. When an organization is so big that those who run the organization never, ever see those who do the work, there has to be a process by which leaders are held accountable for leading without getting the organization in trouble.

But the more I work with smaller clients, the more I realize that you can’t mandate an engaging relationship between leader and employee. That must be authentic in order to truly engage. Following the myriad steps in a process without the heart or skill to be authentic results in cynicism, and does just the opposite of engaging: it tells the employee not to bother.

Take the case of a huge organization’s talent management program. In fairness, a huge organization needs a mechanism to identify and groom talent across a wide footprint. So they create a talent management process:

  1. Rate everyone.
  2. Calibrate the ratings so that not too much cream rises to the top.
  3. Go back and “share” the feedback.

Calibrate. It sounds good. I used the term myself in my corporate days to explain the process of leaders defending their ratings. Some of the reasons? Well, leaders tend to inflate ratings, and we didn’t want them giving messages of excellence when the work is really average. So we graph the ratings hoping for something similar to a bell curve. After all, average is actually good, right?

Not so fast. No one wants to be average. So we came up with a new term — meets expectations. Then, because no one wanted to just meet expectations, we added some adjectives — consistently, almost.

When I look back on the amount of time we spent wordsmithing the process to make ratings palatable to those receiving them, I do so with the clarity of hindsight, and a little help from smaller organizations.

No more ratings?

Today, my clients are exploring doing away with ratings. Eek, you say, how do they measure and calibrate? Well, by talking. The quality of conversation becomes a key talking point up the chain of command, with as much weight and interest as budget and operational measures. We also go to the source: “Are you receiving helpful feedback from your leader?” After all, if you really want to improve engagement, don’t you really want to know the truth directly from the employees?

Case in point: A big organization finished its “calibration” session for the annual talent management program. A leader was “sent back” to talk with her employee and share a rating that was less than what she actually gave the employee, based on her personal interaction and observation of the work. Why? Because there were too many with that rating.

How do you think the conversation went?

“So, I’m really pleased with all of the work you did this year. You completed all your goals, and brought in a project ahead of time. Your rating is 3 on a scale of 1-5.”

“Um,” says the employee. “If I did as well as you are telling me, why am I only a 3?”

“Well,” stumbles the leader, “I did try to rate you higher, but wasn’t able to defend it in the calibration sessions, so they made me reduce the rating.”

So much for authentic conversation. No matter how hard that leader tries, she can’t be authentic with that employee. And the employee? Well, why should he work so hard? Why not just sail along?

A better way

There is a better way. It’s harder, and messier. It’s called real open communication and dialog with a minimum of bureaucratic process intervening.

Why do you need a rating? Is it for the employee? It sure isn’t. It is for the leadership and human resources folks to use to measure compliance, to force leaders to do their job and to defend claims that might arise.

Here is my challenge to anyone in human resources who is designing a talent/performance management process. Before you create a hierarchy of ratings, think carefully about why you are doing it. If you can’t draw a line back to some benefit for the employee, don’t do it.

Put your energy toward dialogue. Help executives recognize the value of real relationships and real engagement. Take that time you’re putting toward calibration, and put it toward honest dialogue.

The last decade has seen many companies bailed out because they’re too big to fail. Perhaps those same companies are too big to succeed? If bureaucracy is leading the company instead of authenticity, that’s a problem.

If you think I’m alone in my recent disdain for traditional performance management, watch this: