The Fundamental Shifts of Great Performance Management #6: Stop Policing.

Fundamental Shift #6: Stop policing, start empowering.
Shift from: Control and oversight

Shift to: Managing by exception

As I wrote in a previous post, there are eight “shake-the-kaleidoscope” changes in perspective that you’re going to have to embrace in order to create a high-performing organization in this day and age. They are the givens that should be baked into every aspect of your new performance management cake. I’m sharing a few of them over the next couple of weeks; for the full eight, check out the book!

I’m betting by now you get that one of my hobbyhorses is that control and oversight doesn’t lead to better performance. It might make us feel better, more confident, and, well, in control. But all that oversight comes at a price, one that’s paid by the individuals who engineer and operate our traditional structured performance programs, the organizations that invest in the process, and the employees, who bear the burden of the process. If we hadn’t wasted so much on the controls, systems, templates, tracking mechanisms, rating debates, audits, and oversight, it would be almost comical that we’ve done all this work for questionable results. We’ve got some work to do to bring down this beast that we’ve created.

This shift is about questioning the rigor we’ve built into our one-size-fits-all, manager-led models. It’s about asking ourselves if the control and oversight is needed. On a deeper level, it comes down to having that heart-to-heart conversation with ourselves about why we thought we needed all that rigor to begin with. Often the need for control sits more with us than with our people, due to our inability to select qualified employees or our personal inability to let go. You hired these people because you felt they were the best candidates for the job, you’ve trained them to do their jobs well, and they’ve demonstrated that they’re capable of doing what they were hired to achieve. But now can you bring yourself to back off and give them the space to do it their way? If so, that autonomy will lead to better work, stronger engagement, and improved odds of delivering on the company’s goals.

We still need a solution to deal with problem situations and difficult people when the need arises—and of course, it will. We all make hiring mistakes, and no matter how great a hiring manager you are, there will always be people who need additional attention. I can’t deny that we deal with these issues in the normal course of leading teams of people, and I’m certainly not suggesting that you throw up your hands and ignore them when they arise. Quite the contrary. My advice is to address disruptive or inappropriate behavior, poor work, excessive absenteeism, heinous mistakes, or any other bad juju immediately. But here’s the thing: we don’t need an over-engineered system that burdens all our employees with make-work documentation in order to be ready to take action in these individual situations.

The big idea is to manage these problem situations as the exceptions they are. Let’s imagine that you have an employee who isn’t performing well, and your newly designed approach to managing performance doesn’t include a documented annual review. What do you do? Simple. Talk to him or her immediately. Discuss the issue and how it can be fixed. If you feel the situation warrants it, start your documentation as soon as you become aware that things are going off-track. This allows you to capture a simple, uncluttered account of what’s happening, unencumbered by checklists, ratings, and competency assessments.

It may surprise you to learn that this exception-based approach is quite likely to present less legal risk than what most of us are doing today. Corporate lawyers have told me that many of the annual reviews written today fail to call out these “off the tracks” performance issues, leaving organizations on poor legal footing. In fact, too often reviews look largely the same for average performers as they do for poor performers. Think about it: having no documentation at all would be preferable to documentation that makes the troubled employee look as if he or she is sailing along with no problems. I’ve yet to talk to any HR team that hasn’t found itself caught between reality and what the review says. When performance has gone off the tracks, you can avoid this bind by creating one-off documentation in the moment, when the issue is fresh in your mind. That way, you’re far more likely to have something that accurately reflects the situation. In addition to minimizing risk, this approach spares managers the burden of providing feedback for a troubled performer while their plate is already full with producing reviews for others.

You can see why I’m a proponent of managing by exception. Capture what needs to be captured, and take the burden of documentation off the broader team. Move quickly when action is needed, and keep things simple, factual, and direct.

The point of this fundamental shift is that one should address bad behavior when it happens—but back off when things are going fine. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. As managers, most of us struggle to keep control of our people and their performance, when we really should just let them do what they need to do and only step in when something arises that requires our attention (or if we’re asked, of course). If you’re anything like me, you just read that last bit with a sense of relief. After all, simply trusting your employees is a lot easier than constantly stressing out about how to rein them in and stay on top of everything they’re doing. You’ll save yourself some headaches while seeing improved performance from people to boot. Autonomy for them, less stress and better results for you: it’s truly a win-win.

Happy rebooting,

This was an abridged excerpt from my book, How Performance Management is Killing Performance – and What To Do About It. I’ve condensed the content quite a lot in order to keep this post shortish here – check out the book (you can order it from Barnes and or Amazon) for the “full meal deal” – MTC

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