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

P.S. Don’t miss a post – sign up here for my email list to keep up to date on PM Reboot ideas.

P.P.S. Please help spread the PM Reboot revolution by sharing this post with your networks!

Your Performance Management is NOT Fine: Defending Against the Naysayers

One busy Friday, I met with a West Coast client in the morning and then returned to my office to take a call from one of my East Coast clients in the afternoon. In the span of a few scant hours, both of my clients used exactly the same phrase to describe their current performance management programs: “Our performance management program is fine.”

All weekend that phrase was stuck in my brain like an annoying popcorn hull wedged between my teeth. I pondered what those words meant to each of them and what ugly truths might lurk beneath an innocuous word like fine. I think that phrase spoke loudly to me because I’d heard it so many times before.

So what do people mean when they tell me that their performance program is fine? Perhaps it’s this:

Sound familiar?

Sound familiar?

The low expectations expressed in the phrase “Our performance management is fine” are indicative of how much we’ve lost sight of our people. We seem perfectly happy to settle for “fine” on their behalf. But if our intentions for investing in performance management are to connect our teams to our strategies and goals, to recognize outstanding contributions, and to enhance the development of each individual’s capabilities, how can we possibly continue to tolerate “fine”?

If you’re reading this post, chances are you’re someone who is already at least partially on board with the idea of rebooting your performance management. But no matter how comfortable you are with the idea of throwing everything out to start over (or not – after all, I’m advocating a custom approach that’s tailored to the needs of your business, and yours might not need a thorough overall), one of the biggest stumbling blocks you’re likely to encounter is doubt, skepticism, and downright antagonism from the old schoolers in your organization.

When I have a debate with someone who is defending the traditional performance management approach or with someone who is fearful of making changes to such a deeply rooted process (and trust me, I have many such debates), I always hear the same counterarguments. So much so, in fact, that it’s worthwhile to prepare you to answer those same objections in your own organization. Do any of these sound familiar?

“My boss will never buy it.”
It is always wise to pay special attention to “the boss.” Engage, educate, and bring him or her with you. Of course, you can’t expect this to happen overnight, especially if the boss in question leans more toward the PM traditionalist mind-set. Meet leaders where they are, build a plan, pace your progress, and maintain your resolve. Find out what they really care about, then connect your case to that theme. Be diplomatic and creative, and make sure they understand the real costs (both soft and hard costs) to your business of continuing with the old way — in terms they understand.

“We can’t trust our managers.”
Other than getting leaders on board, this is the second most common concern I hear from people, and it’s a legitimate one. Since I’m advocating implementing a design that relies heavily on good, or preferably great, managers, this problem often stops teams in their tracks. It’s not a simple issue, either. It’s cluttered with questions of structure, role definition, and manager expectations. Many organizations suffer from being over-managed and under-led. This happens because we often promote managers for technical or functional expertise and not for their people or managerial skills, and because most organizations have historically underinvested in building great leaders.

If this resonates with you, I’d encourage you to use it as motivation to address the bigger problem (i.e., the fact that you don’t trust your managers). Start by peeling your own onion to get at the root of your manager concern. Do you have too many managers or too many levels? Are they not the right people? Are their goals out of alignment with what’s valued by your organization as a whole? I’m not saying that these issues can be fixed quickly or easily; in fact, this may create a completely new agenda item for you. But the fact that you don’t trust the capability of your managers has much more far-reaching consequences than its impact on your performance management. It’s something that you’re going to need to address, no matter what.

“Legal will have a fit!”
We know we need a paper trail to document behavior and performance problems, and we think our annual review cycle does that for us. Too often, though, it doesn’t. We’re human: we tend to rate people too leniently, and to downplay or completely gloss over potentially awkward issues. This is one reason why the reviews of underperformers and good performers often read very much the same. The problem then is that if a legal issue does arise, or we simply want to take action in response to an employee’s behavior or performance, we’re caught in a bind between what we really know about that employee’s history and a series of reviews that don’t appear all that bad. This can lead to a messy situation. It’s better to avoid this potential pitfall by documenting issues as they arise. Then the issues will be fresh and more accurately recorded—giving you a better legal footing and a more actionable position overall.

“Why change? Everyone else does it this way!”
While the majority of organizations still use a traditional system, the tide is definitely turning. Today we’re seeing respected and forward-thinking organizations trying to drive organizational performance, develop people, and reward equitably in new and innovative ways. These pioneers have received significant positive exposure for their innovative programs. And that attention certainly doesn’t hurt their employer brand (a measure of how positively prospective employees view you compared with your competitors). You have a decision to make here: Are you ready to be out front, or would you prefer to wait until your competition has passed you by before you take action?

Maybe you have to wait because you feel you have bigger issues to tackle. Or maybe you’re simply going to procrastinate until you’re finally dragged kicking and screaming into the new world of performance management at some point in the future. But like it or not, the world is changing, and our old accepted practices will eventually crumble under the weight of the research and the evolving expectations of our employees.

Lead or follow—the choice is yours.

Happy rebooting!

This was an abridged excerpt from my book, How Performance Management is Killing Performance – and What To Do About It, due to be published March 14. I’ve condensed the content quite a lot in order to keep this post shortish here – check out the book (you can pre-order it on from Barnes and or on Amazon for the “full meal deal” – MTC

P.S. Don’t miss a post – sign up here for my email list to keep up to date on PM Reboot ideas and the book release.

P.P.S. Please help spread the PM Reboot revolution by sharing this post with your networks!