Productive performance – optimising individual performance and realising potential

The recession has focused minds on the importance of individual performance, with many organisations learning that performance management processes based on 1950’s business theory will not work. Although the recession has tempered people’s immediate expectations, the underlying socio-economic pressures remain. Workers expect to be able to influence their personal circumstances, have more control, and feel “part of” rather than “done to”.

Little has changed over the last five decades. The only significant changes have been, firstly, the development of competencies as a language for discussing capability and performance; and secondly, the automation of poor-quality paper-based processes. And, in the first instance, much of the added value has been eroded by consultants, trainers and HR staff who have over-complicated the competency models.

We are beginning to understand that the over-simplification of processes has trivialised performance planning and appraisal to the point where they add little. This does not mean that employees, managers and HR do not want individual performance managed; quite the opposite. Most employee engagement surveys confirm that employees place very high value on being given clarity around expectations, receiving regular performance feedback and being advised on how they can improve. Most managers say that they need to be able to better manage the performance and development of their staff. Most HR professionals state that a critical need is to acquire better-quality data about people and their performance.

Clinton Wingrove

Clinton Wingrove, executive vice-president and principal consultant at Pilat HR Solutions.

The major influence over performance management now is technology. No longer can a manager control communications when there are websites where employees can post comments about their organisation – an employee recently Tweeted his experience while actually being fired.

Information is available and is power. Employees share information with people inside and outside the organisation even when they are sitting in meetings. Employees have hundreds more interactions per day with people other than their manager. And yet the role of the manager as a leader of people appears to have been eroded; we have simplified performance-appraisal processes to the point where they are so trivial as to be ineffective; we have overloaded managers with policies, procedures and reporting; and we still expect the manager to do the good work that led to their promotion.

Organisations are beginning to realise that they need to embrace these changes, embrace technology and change fundamentally the way in which they interact with their staff, establishing a culture in which the needs and expectations of the employees and the company are aligned; where the process of leadership and management is taken seriously; where staff are developed and engaged so that work can be delegated to the lowest possible level rather being than sucked up to the highest level willing to burn the midnight oil to do it.

In a performance culture, performance management is management; it is not an add-on, and it has seven visible elements. These seven elements are not optional; they are always there. If the organisation does not define, implement and sustain them, then managers and employees will, often not consciously and to the detriment of the organisation.

The seven elements are:

1. Direction setting This is everything that informs employees about goals, priorities, plans and strategies. It is about what they see, not what the organisation says. For example, many organisations promote teamwork yet reward and encourage individualism; they say they value work-life balance yet promote those who do the most hours; they say “our employees are our most valuable asset” yet managers only engage with their staff when they have to.

2. Clarifying roles Not merely the job but the role in performance management. In a true performance culture, everyone understands that performance matters. Accountability goes beyond “my goals”. For example, there are continuous informal processes for eliciting and providing performance feedback in addition to the formal process.

3. Planning and aligning performance Whole performance is planned, not merely the results sought. In a performance culture, everyone understands what is expected of them. They know how to go about achieving the goals and they know where they need to grow, why, and how. In a true performance culture, performance is also not planned merely between employee and manager; employees agree performance expectations with those with whom they work – often a much larger network.

4. Monitoring and measuring Annual appraisals depend on memory, which research has shown is flawed. In a true performance culture, performance evidence is captured and discussed at the time it occurs. Technology now enables real-time performance evidence collection. In a true performance culture, process compliance is also monitored and measured. All too often, we design processes to enhance the performance of the poorer managers and their staff yet it is only the good managers who follow the process anyway. The importance of process compliance should also be understood – a great process can only produce great performance if it is followed.

5. Enabling and enhancing A leader’s and a manager’s role is to elicit optimal performance – a combination of the obligatory and the discretionary. Engagement is largely about the latter. Managers must focus their attention on enabling and enhancing performance – providing their staff with the necessary direction, resources, knowledge, skills, inspiration and feedback so that they can give their best. Such managers also ensure that they limit any actions that may inhibit performance. In the current media context, leaders and managers have to work with and through the new forms of communication, not fight or hide behind them.

6. Assessing and evaluating Performance is always contextual so there is a fundamental difference between measurement and evaluation. The former should be objective and fact/evidence-based. The latter must reflect the leader’s/manager’s judgment, account for circumstances and demands, and consider contributions outside of any formal plan. They must then engage in a dialogue to achieve consensus – unless both share the view of performance, the view has little value.

7. Recognising and rewarding Most so-called performance-related incentive schemes are neither truly performance-related, nor incentives. They are often based on a single overarching rating that lacks validity and reliability. Most are not incentives as they fail many of the tests of an incentive such as recipient’s ability to predict and control the outcome, timelines matching the recipient’s cashflow horizons, the differentiation in the amounts is often too narrow and only a small percentage of good performers are motivated by financial reward once they believe that they are being paid sufficiently.

In a true performance culture, there is a seamless integration of reward with the performance-management philosophy and practice. But, more importantly, leaders and managers are taught to diagnose individual needs and expectations and to adapt their interactions with each individual to ensure optimal performance. This is not merely about being nice or supportive to staff and it is not big initiatives applied to all. It is about attending to the individual, treating them as such and recognising them in their own preferred way for the performance that has been planned, aligned, measured, enabled and enhanced.

Clinton Wingrove, executive vice-president and principal consultant at Pilat HR Solutions

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