2016 seemed to be the year of eliminating the performance management system. Companies that did away with performance management that year included Adobe, Juniper Systems, Dell, Microsoft, IBM, Gap, Lear, Oppenheimer Funds, Deloitte, Accenture, PwC and General Electric. That decision came amid complaints about the time it takes to administer a performance management system, that it doesn’t differentiate performance and that giving constructive feedback is uncomfortable for supervisors.

I have always taken whatever time was necessary to give people I supervised thoughtful, descriptive feedback about their performance for the preceding year. I believed after their efforts on our behalf that it was the least I could do for them. For me, the process starts with establishing the performance objectives for the coming year. If they lack specificity and measurability when they are created, they won’t be effective the following year, when it is time to discuss them.

Many managers lack courage and avoid difficult conversations about performance. Those are not reasons to eliminate a system that, theoretically, is intended to recognize performance; be the basis of salary increases, bonuses and incentives; and provide a forum to discuss a person’s development plans for the coming year.

I one led a group that revised the performance management system at a Fortune 100 company. We introduced competencies to address the “how” of performance. The supervisors liked the specificity (behavior descriptions) that competencies introduced. They also liked the idea of focusing on development but were not sure how to implement it on the job. We created some tools to help them, with examples of how they might work on various competencies. With learning agility inventories, we now have another tool for leaders to help their people better develop themselves.

Carol Dweck’s “Mindset” focuses on the theory that people have either a fixed or growth mindset. A fixed mindset doesn’t leave a lot of room to improve, while with a growth mindset, change is possible. Dweck talks about ways to enhance that process through learning goals.

How does this theory tie in with learning agility and performance management? Think of it this way: A learning goal could be a precursor to a performance goal. For example, say I want to become a leader, and I know communication is a capability I will need. I have never done any public speaking (it terrifies me), but I am willing to work on it. My supervisor and I agree to establish a learning goal whereby I will serve on a committee for my community homeowners association (HOA). This goal will require me to present a report quarterly at the HOA meetings. One of my peers, who is a good public speaker, will help me prepare my presentation and provide feedback after each meeting. None of these activities will appear in my performance appraisal for this year.

The following year, my supervisor will send me to a presentation skills class, and I will lead the preparation sessions for our department’s presentation at the annual planning meeting. These activities will be an objective on next year’s appraisal. So, year 1 focuses on a learning goal and year 2, a performance objective.

Let’s use another example to illustrate. Imagine that the person for whom we are creating a development plan is Sally, who has been a human resource generalist with the company for three years. She is seen as a good performer and has expressed interest in moving into recruiting. We are going to establish a performance objective in this area. The skills she learns on this project will make her a better generalist. From Sally’s learning agility inventory, we learn that her highest score is in reflecting and her two lowest scores are in feedback-seeking and collaborating.

The company is adding a new production line in one of its plants that will necessitate hiring five new employees. Sally will start by assisting the lead recruiter on the first three hires; then, she will take the lead in hiring the last two people. The lead recruiter will explain the recruiting process to Sally and her responsibilities in that process. With the first three hires, she will be responsible for logistics and technical screening. For the last two hires, she will be the lead person from the start of the process through the decision of to whom to make an offer.

The supervisor is clear that this objective will:

  • Help Sally be a better HR generalist
  • Better prepare her for a recruiter position in the future
  • Allow her to strengthen her collaborating skills by working with a colleague from a different background (the lead recruiter)
  • Allow her to strengthen her feedback-seeking with a peer (the lead recruiter)
  • Allow her to use her strength in the area of reflecting

Sally will summarize her experience on the project at the end and describe what went well and what she would do differently. She will then share that reflection with her supervisor and the lead recruiter.

This is just one example of how to integrate learning agility into the development plan side of an employee’s performance appraisal. Next month, we will look at using learning agility in a coaching relationship.