At the beginning of the fiscal year, executive managers pass down the organization’s goals for the year. Middle managers then create their departmental goals, and frontline managers work with employees to determine pseudo-aligned personal goals.
The goal of this process is to promote ongoing, focused coaching discussions between managers and employees, culminating with formal year-end evaluations. Unfortunately, the day-to-day reality of the workplace usually derails this plan, resulting in the last minute completion of evaluation documentation and meetings before the cycle can begin again.
This problem is why so many people dislike performance management. Employees don’t enjoy being surprised by year-end feedback. Managers don’t enjoy rushing to finish reviews. Human resources (HR) professionals expend a great deal of time and energy administering an unpopular process. Even the term “performance management” lacks context and humanity.
Good Idea. Poor Execution.
The concept itself is not bad. Goals and feedback are critical components of the working experience. However, performance management execution is behind the times. The idea originated in an era when “career” typically meant working one’s way up the ladder through a single organization. Companies were simpler to navigate, strategies were stable and long-term, and work structures were based on hierarchy. The review process was a way to ensure that employees received feedback and to provide reasoning for compensational, promotional and disciplinary decisions.
Performance management has not evolved as quickly as the workplace overall. HR has added new elements, such as digital platforms, pulse check surveys and 360-degree assessments, in an attempt to modernize the process, but performance management is a lot like modern Hollywood filmmaking: Even with new elements, it’s still the same story everyone has already seen.
Rather than continue to take the safe route and lean on remakes and reboots, HR must create a new story that truly meets the needs of the entire audience, including employees, managers and organizations.
Performance in the Modern Workplace
Performance — an employee’s ability to do his or her job as expected — is not an HR topic but an operational topic. Expectations and accountability are the foundation of the manager/employee relationship, but this relationship is often lacking. Employee performance expectations are constantly shifting due to the disruptive nature of today’s workplace. At the same time, managers are overburdened with operational demands that shift their focus away from their teams.
Performance is also a nuanced, personal concept. There are a myriad of reasons why an individual may or may not succeed in his or her role, including environment, experience, motivation, training and support. Trying to neatly fit each employee onto a one-to-five rating scale doesn’t make sense.
While HR professionals are typically not part of day-to-day workplace execution, they are in a position to influence the organization to think differently about the concept of performance. Rather than talking about performance as if it can be managed through structure, HR professionals must help organizational leaders shift their mindsets to focus on enablement. Then, they can partner with stakeholders across the organization to apply right-fit tools and tactics that will enable employees to do their best work every day.
Begin With Managers
Managers — not HR professionals — are the most important players in performance enablement. They must be able to provide clear expectations and feedback as part of the everyday work experience, but first, they must have two key tools: time and training.
Even the best managers struggle to find time to focus on their employees. Payroll, scheduling, inventory, customer service and strategic planning have to happen for the business to operate. Individualized coaching does not. Organizations must assess the manager role and determine how to shift managers’ priorities so they can focus less on tasks and more on people. Automation can play a key role in this transition, as machines can perform many repetitive managerial tasks more quickly than humans.
Many managers aren’t selected due to their coaching abilities but are promoted because of their operational experience, resulting in an immediate gap in their ability to enable employee performance. While adjusting the selection process to focus on people skills would be beneficial, it may be unrealistic in many organizations. Therefore, managers must receive practical, situation-based training on coaching skills. This education should begin before they step into the manager role and continue as an everyday part of their work through practice and reinforcement activities.
Most job descriptions fail to capture nuanced performance requirements, and most organizations change too quickly for employees to wait for annual goal-setting discussions to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing. HR leaders must partner with operational managers to clearly define and document the measurable performance expectations of every role. Employees should be able to access their performance goals whenever they need to in order to determine how they are performing.
Transform Feedback Through Data
Performance is not usually black and white, but you can eliminate a considerable chunk of the gray through the use of performance data. One of the most effective ways to hold someone accountable is to associate an objective measurement with each desired outcome.
Organizations should also apply multidimensional data, including continuous measurements on employee development, on-the-job behaviors and business results, in order to help managers proactively identify gaps, provide targeted coaching and recognize proven capability.
Make Learning Part of Work
Because performance expectations change so quickly, employees must have the opportunity to quickly respond to feedback and enable their own development. Just as managers struggle with priority conflicts, frontline employees often do not have control over how they use their time at work. Therefore, learning and support must be embedded within the workflow. Applying a range of data-enabled tactics (e.g., performance support, microlearning, adaptive learning and reinforcement) can help employees develop their knowledge and skills during the workday.
Traditional performance management doesn’t work. For employees to do their best work in an always-changing workplace, they must experience feedback, coaching and development every day, not just during a scheduled annual process. HR must influence stakeholders to think differently about performance and shift their mindset and tactics away from structured management and toward continuous enablement.