25 years ago we worked with an enlightened TechCo who offered a super-flexible menu of performance management tools – one literally a ‘Blank Piece of Paper’ – with individuals able to choose what to use instead of the typical ‘appraisal’ process most of us recognise as well past its sell-by-date.
Ever since, along with most HR/OD/leadership professions, we have grappled with how to put human connection and conversation at the heart of performance, supported by the positive psychology movement. Much progress has been made, and many leaders embrace the fact that performance differential comes from engaged, inclusive, inspired people who believe in themselves and colleagues, and know their efforts and skills are appreciated and make a difference.
During lockdown we have seen and heard about brilliant examples of senior leaders being more engaged than ever with front-line workers, and of many other great initiatives including inclusive colleague-family-pet virtual coffee meetups.
At the same time organisations are grappling with many contradictions. For example whilst positive engagement has been high during this global home-working period, there is evidence it is beginning to erode as an increasing number of conversations turn to financial sustainability and restructuring, or the insistence on the target levels set pre-Covid & how to ‘measure’ the performance and productivity of people continuing to work from home.
Organisations are reviewing analytics about home-workers email/system log-in and activity patterns, and whilst we hope this is in an effort to avoid employee burn-out, we are concerned about possible misinterpretations of colleagues performance if for example they are not at ‘their desks’ by 9.00am. In a recent CIPD study 45% of employees think tech surveillance is taking place in their workplace; with 73% believing this will damage trust with their employer.
We passionately believe performance and productivity do not change simply because of working from the car, home, or local park; or from local cafés, gyms and other social locations when allowed during the ever-changing phases of lockdown. Much research has shown individual productivity typically increases with home-working options.
Although this may not always be healthy productivity, with the danger of over-working for some, and loss of human connection for others. Or individual productivity gains can be overshadowed by the loss of collective intelligence, know-how, and deep collaboration if we do not pay sufficient attention to important sharing, learning and reflective processes as part of our virtual approaches.
We believe those organisations whose leaders can skilfully ‘hold’ these and the many other contradictions and integrate their organisation’s needs with the individualised needs of their people, will be the ones thriving and full of talent for the future. And we think high-performance is ultimately bought about by working the many subtleties of the psychological contract between individuals and employers; alongside a strong collaborative and communicative culture.
We leaders have a lot to enable (not do) through our people, and to ensure our people ‘processes’ match our aspirations for agility and sustainability. How can the conventional three-pronged performance management process respond to these increasing contradictions we are experiencing?
We believe they can’t! We need holistic flexible approaches, built on the great experimentation which has taken place in recent years, for example:
Trust and empowerment are key.
We need to put the power of performance in the hands of individuals and teams themselves. Have compelling conversations about organisational purpose and ambitions then enable teams & individual to co-create their own focus and targets in relation to these. We need to collaboratively review progress in performance.
Continue to upskill leaders/managers to have frequent high quality conversations with individuals which include: supporting their aspirations and values; triangulate with any multi-source multi-dimensional feedback; and link this to the expectations of business-performance and likely future realities, and their role.
Focus the conversations on feed-forward i.e. what approaches, behaviours and skills do we want to encourage for future success in our rapidly evolving organisations. Looking back at past-performance is less & less helpful in the agile 2020s. Instead leaders need to become committed to regular check-ins with employees to reflect, learn and adjust. Time to review is not a ‘nice-to-do’ but an ‘essential’ dialogue if working life is to evolve positively.
Hold regular reflective dialogue with your leader community as a whole; on their progress in enabling the super-balance between organisational vs. individual needs.
The importance of paradox management has been heightening in recent years, and polarities are popping up to the surface even more because of this intense period of Covid challenge and change. Leaders need the skills to raise awareness through holding discussion about the seeming contradictions we face, e.g. control v empowerment, going back to the office v working at home, etc. Through these conscious conversations we can explore the tensions and how the benefits of both polarities can be maximised through a commitment to agile and inclusive ways of working together across our organisations.
Pay particular attention to leaders/managers who have typically avoided or find these conversations hard, and to quote a client have ‘gone backwards during lockdown:’ Create specific virtual peer-learning groups (cross-organisationally or multi-organisation) to encourage their learning about what can support their transition to contemporary leader, alongside facilitated support to put this into practice; help them connect with consequences of not making this leadership shift in the 2020’s.
Individual Performance and Team Contributors
Continue with any existing corporate ‘setting-expectation’ tools which your workers genuinely report are helpful to guide the expectations of their performance e.g. co-created values statements, brief role-profiles, online skills definitions, learning platform resources on career transitions, etc
Invest less resource in ‘training’ and more into formalised facilitated ‘peer-reflection-groups’ which can work virtually and at multiple levels e.g. i) enable people to explore their talents and hone reflective learning skills ii) build individual self-awareness and resilience iii) enable conversations about particular organisational challenges and paradoxes such as agility, financial sustainability, etc; iv) offer tailored support for any marginalised or struggling groups v) create broader deeper networks of supportive peers across the organisation
This last one is particularly important as virtual working research has shown working remotely can increase negative productivity judgements between colleagues if there is insufficient relational connection or understanding of one another’s contexts.
These groups can also support colleagues to hear about and experience the diverse talents of their colleagues and how to capitalise on these, as again research has shown these become harder to know and spot as work becomes more virtual.
Professionally facilitated groups can significantly reduce the need for more external counselling and employee assistance programmes, as support becomes more sustainably built into the organisation, even more so when a sensitive link is developed between these groups and the leadership of the organisation through a two-way feedback mechanism or similar. When done properly this form of performance development enables empowered adult-adult cultures to thrive in organisations.
Supplement the above with highly accessible and interesting data and information to enable everyone to constructively reflect on their multiple dimensions of performance; ideally using apps and agile tools, alongside more conventional methods such as 360.
Ensure your reward strategy is flexible and includes intrinsic rewards linked to individuals’ values such as additional days for holidays or volunteering, and can differentiate between people at the extremes of the performance spectrum (perceived fairness). This way performance management is both relevant to the individual and the organisation as a whole.
So, can we agree a date when we HR/OD people will ceremonially ‘rip up’ outmoded performance ‘management’?
We’d love to hear what we’ve missed in our reflections, or about your own performance management or performance culture interventions contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com