Performance management systems are part of the mechanics of work as we know it. This idea that people and their performance should be evaluated and used as a lever to benefit business outcomes is not new. It appeared when Robert Owen, an early industrialist and textile factory owner, recognized that his workforce could have a positive impact on productivity and employed a variety of techniques to improve his employee output.

His approach to managing factories was not what we’d accept as “great place to work” conditions. While he demonstrated progressive thinking for the time, Owen embodied the competing priorities that still tug at organizations today: People or profit? Profit or people? For Owen, it was all about the profit. People were the means to that end.

Today, more than 200 years after Owen’s spark of enlightened thinking, there is progress. Last year, the Business Roundtable, a nonprofit organization whose membership consists of prominent chief executive officers, released a new “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation,” which states that yes, it is profit. Yes, it is people. Beyond both, it’s purpose — contributing to the greater good by supporting communities and maintaining fair and ethical practices. Combined, each contributes to other. Certainly, there is a lot of skepticism around the deeper meaning behind these statements, but the stake has been planted.

While we have a long way to go, the idea of investing in employees includes attempting to unlock performance potential. Management luminaries and organizational psychologists alike have developed system after system and approach after approach to what is commonly known as performance management. Weighed down by technology meant to create order, and modern human resources (HR) regulations that add further complexity, it is not easy.

Performance management has expanded to include helping people become their best and to add meaning and fulfillment to work. Unfortunately, Gallup research indicates that only one-third of employees “strongly agree[s] with the statement, ‘The mission or purpose of my organization makes me feel my job is important.’”

In the process of managing performance, we can lose sight of the people in the process. As part of this continued evolution, let’s pause and remember the whole person — the human — these systems are intended to “manage.”

Shifting the Performance Management Mindset

Instead of managing performance, let’s focus on facilitating growth, fostering impact and coaching for potential. These are mental shifts, with the foundational thinking that organizations need to loosen control instead of continuing to tighten the process. Agile approaches are a start, but what would happen if we took it even further by considering how to put the individual person at the forefront of the performance process?

An initial step is to clearly define expectations and set the course. Communicating one vision helps employees understand what the organization is trying to do. With that clarity, they can decide whether it’s a journey they can believe in and contribute to meaningfully.

From there, create flexible frameworks that provide guidance about your organization’s philosophy and approach. Show what great work looks like, and provide the tools and technology necessary to do great work. This process provides a guide for employees to work comfortably within — but also to press against and make better.

Overcommunicate expectations and why they are important. Provide on-the-job training, led by preparation and practice. Beware of blanket, general statements, and instead, say, “This is good work because….” and, “This is helpful because…” With that information, employees can make connections and smart decisions about how to create impact.

Encourage employees to set goals that are both professional and personal. Support them in showing up as their whole selves, with permission to be creative and to both give to and benefit from the organization.

Create Conditions for Growth

Once you’ve laid the foundation, you can shift your focus from control to support. Let people surprise you with how they iterate against the framework you provided. Ask for check-ins, seek to understand decisions and track results. Be honest about what you see, and think about progress so you can make course corrections if needed.

Create opportunities for internal and external coaching and mentoring, and provide the tools and practices to make self-coaching a reality. One resource to check out is from Ed Batista, a coach and professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He puts the full syllabus and resources for his “Art of Self-Coaching” course online for anyone to access and learn from.

Understand Impact

It can be uncomfortable to loosen control after trying to curate and orchestrate everything and everyone perfectly — and to shake the belief that this traditional approach is the way it should be. To better assess and understand the impact of letting go, consider looking at as many qualitative and quantitative variables and data points as possible.

Consider how employees are…

  • Contributing to organizational goals.
  • Chasing personal goals.
  • Putting in discretionary effort.
  • Achieving personal successes.
  • Demonstrating pride in their work.

The industry is making incredible advances in people metrics, making the effects of our strategies more visible and readily available than ever before.

In closing, Robert Owen deserves a slight nod. He opened our minds to the power of people. It’s about time for those people to come from behind and to lead their own performance.

I, for one, am ready to be wowed.