Do we really need performance management?


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Individual performance management is rubbish. Not only that, it’s patronising and disabling. I’ve said it before. When people aren’t performing, it’s extremely probable that it’s not a behavioural problem; it’s the system. It’s not that performance management as a concept has been sullied because it’s been ineptly carried out. It’s just that it’s pointless and in some cases counter-productive to actually getting good performance. Deming’s 95% percent rule.

Sure, some people are not performing well enough. They aren’t doing their tasks. They are not meeting targets. Targets. That’s another, connected conversation. Stop looking at the individuals and look at the whole.

There is a mindset that says, “an individual’s performance must be monitored/managed/reviewed”. What’s a mindset? I like Bob Marshall’s treatment of this: “a set of ideas, assumptions, beliefs, heuristics, etc. (e.g. memes) which interact to reinforce each other.” In most cases, we are unconscious of the mindsets out of which we operate and see the world. We just behave out of them. So there are a whole set of these (mostly) unconscious things that coalesce in our minds. It’s a reflexive thing, too. We have a set of beliefs and assumptions, we then have a bunch of experiences. We give meaning to these experiences out of the beliefs and assumptions that we bring, which in turn reinforces those assumptions. An example of a self-preserving, self-reinforcing mindset:

“Why do you keep that rabbit’s foot?”

“Because it keeps the elephants away.”

“But there are no elephants anywhere near here.”

“See? It works.”

Like Bob, I believe that “attempting to simply swap out selected memes, one for another, on an incremental basis appears infeasible.” Granted, this also comes out of my own mindset and I could be shooting myself in the foot by saying this. At the same time, I have come from “individual-performance-management-land” and it was found wanting. Back in the old days when all this was fields, I also used to assume that someone had to monitor and manage my performance because that’s just what happens in the workplace. Then I grew up and realised I don’t like being “told off”; it’s demoralising, it’s disrespectful, it’s limiting. Counter-productive to being productive because it often leads people to withhold any kind of effort beyond what they are instructed to do by the all-knowing, all-seeing bossman (though in one case for me it was a woman).

The “individual performance management” meme was also blown out of the water by experience. Many years ago, I had first hand experience of “effectiveness-land” and it worked. By this I mean that the work was far more satisfying for everyone, we were incredibly effective at what we did and we all brought our creativity to the table, making for a culture of genuine continuous improvement. We knew we were effective, not because our managers told us we were or that we achieved X% of our KPIs. We knew we were effective because our stakeholders told us so. They included the clients we worked with directly, the statutory government agencies to whom the agency reported, the media and our peers in other agencies. And if the quality of our work was substandard, we had good feedback systems in place and were told about it, and because we already had in place a culture of learning, we sought to adjust our working practices….

…..and we talked about our performance all the time.

In recent years, with growing awareness of the need to humanise workplaces, some have advocated for a more humanised performance management process. This means, in many cases, that managers have been trained to structure performance reviews as more of a mutual conversation than a top-down, Manager-driven assessment of performance against a pre-determined set of targets. Often, though,the mindset has still not changed. Forms are filled out, the conversation revolves around targets and KPIs, only the employee is invited to speak first and evaluate themselves against the same old criteria. The assumption that monitoring individual performance is essential still underlies what goes on, it’s just done in a friendlier way. I’ve used the expression before: you can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter.

You don’t get a flower to grow by pulling on it. You create the conditions within which it will flourish and do what comes naturally to it. If we hold to a Theory X mindset, then we will be oriented towards a carrot and stick approach to getting better performance. If we hold to a Theory Y mindset, then we will be oriented to crafting a structure within which people will flourish and do well. I read a very short but very delightful article this week by systemthinkingforgirls entitled, “The only question a manager should ask in an appraisal.” That question is, “What stops you from doing a good job?” Behind this question sits the mindset that it is the system which stops people from doing well at work, not their individual skills, knowledge and attitudes. Performance appraisals as we currently understand them focus on people’s individual stuff. Tarting them up so that they aren’t as scary or rejigging them so they are “two-way conversations” still doesn’t address the underlying assumption that they are useful.

This notwithstanding, I am not suggesting that managers suddenly stop talking to anyone about anything they do at work. I’m also not suggesting that people just stop having conversations about performance. I’m suggesting that conversations that presume managing and monitoring an individual’s performance is essential will not necessarily lead to effectiveness or a high-performing organisation. It’s specious logic to say that we’ve always done it, look at that business there, they do it and they are successful, therefore…. That’s Monty Python logic: we’ll throw her in the pond and if she floats, she must be made of wood and therefore, a witch.

Perhaps a more useful performance conversation is done with a view to offer coaching and support or to detect noise in the wider system. “What stops you from doing a good job?” Lack of knowledge or technical expertise? Poor relationships with peers? Inadequate or impenetrable policies and procedures? Outdated or insufficient information? Poor resourcing? Lack of experience in the organisation? Breakdowns in communication between different parts of the organisation? All of these questions point to the clues as to where we would find the barriers to high performance, and it’s more than likely it’s not an individual’s inadequacies. Deming’s 95% rule.

By poo-pooing individual performance management, is the inference that I’m anti-performance, anti-effectiveness, pro-lovey-dovey-nicey-nicey? You might as well say I’m pro-crime because I think our current criminal justice system is broken. I realise it’s heresy to suggest that managing individual performance is useless. To reference Bob again, he wrote a great list of invalid premises that businesses would do well to jettison, one of which is that an individual’s productivity and performance is down to the individual. Related, yes, for if you have someone in a job who doesn’t have the technical skills necessary to carry it out, they are likely to do poorly. “Related”, but not “down to”. If the system is screwy, it will be hard for any individual to excel.

A bad system will beat a good person….every time. Deming

Let’s get good performance, yes. Let’s also look at how we get it and examine the assumptions we make about how it happens. Are we doing the wrong thing righter? Or are we establishing the fertile ground from which high performance will spring? Let’s have performance conversations, yes. Let’s look for the systemic causes of poor performance in the organisation. Let’s talk about the organisation’s performance, not that of individuals.

What do we do if individual performance management is abolished?

What would we find in a high-performing organisation, then? A 2007 AMA study, “How to Build a High-Performance Organisation”, sets out five domains they observed in their survey of businesses that excel. It acknowledges that external factors impact on performance and looks at what they do to navigate an environment which is volatile, uncertain, ambiguous and complex. The five drivers that most heavily influence performance are:

  • Strategic approach: clear vision supported by flexible plans
  • Customer approach: clear focus on engaging and maintaining good customer relationships
  • Leadership approach: clear goal-setting, coaching and mentoring when necessary and appropriate, ensuring people have a clear line of sight that that vision stuff
  • Processes and structure: “good enough” policies and procedures that facilitate the work, not create busy work that takes people away from their real work. Structure that eases information flow and good relationships across businesses
  • Values and beliefs: easily understood set of values that are lived by everyone, not laminated

If we default to old mindsets, some might read in there that we still need to manage individual performance, otherwise, how would we achieve that stuff? I believe it’s more about creating the conditions within which let people do well. If we could substitute leadership for performance management, perhaps we would get there. If those who lead the business did some reflection and committed themselves to adopting Theory Y as their touchstone, perhaps energy would be spent on making sure people had all they need to do their jobs well and then getting out of their way.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

John Wenger
John Wenger is one of the Directors of Quantum Shift. He has a background in education, counselling and management of commercial and not-for-profit organisations. He brings a passion and understanding of learning and human behaviour to his current work in organisational learning and development. He has a particular interest in uncovering solutions which get people to be less stuck and more creative in their workplaces.


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