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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Fatal Flaw #2: Nobody Opens Up with the Person Who Pokes Them in the Eye

The following is an overview and one of the Eight Fatal Flaws of traditional performance management from the book. I’ve condensed the content and removed much of the research in order to keep this post shortish – check out the book for the “full meal deal” – MTC

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are eight basic reasons that our old standby performance management process creates as much distrust, disengagement, and wasted effort as it indubitably does. In other words, eight reasons why traditional performance management is almost universally hated, and eight reasons why it simply doesn’t work. I call them the Eight Fatal Flaws.

Fatal Flaw #2: Nobody opens up with the person who pokes them in the eye.
Traditional performance management impedes the reception of feedback and limits honest dialogue.

Imagine that you’re an employee whose third child has just arrived. You really need just two things: more sleep and a raise. At your company, the possibility of that raise is tied to your yearly performance review, which is coming up in a few weeks. What do you do? You plan for that danged thing. You dredge up every last project you completed and work to spin it so that you look golden. You collect evidence and forward it to your boss. You get yourself all amped up for the conversation ahead. You’re pumped. You’re going to kill it!

Now let’s freeze-frame and look at your state of mind at this point. Are you going to be open to hearing anything your supervisor might say that doesn’t support your story? Are you in a mental place where you can take in and process feedback on your performance? No, you aren’t. Your survival is at stake (or at least it feels like it is). Your focus is entirely on making yourself look good, on “winning” that performance review, and the last thing you’re in the mood to talk about is where you need more development.

When we analyze this scenario, we can see that the inherent dynamics of the situation have gone bad in three major ways:

  • It’s made your boss an adversary. Heaven forbid she doesn’t agree with the rosy picture you’ve painted. Any whiff of disagreement between the two of you will only heighten the adversarial tension.
  • Your goal isn’t to have a dialogue. You’re thinking of it first as a sales job and then, if necessary, as a debate. You sure aren’t going in to have a heart-to-heart or to admit to any weakness in front of her.
  • The situation has placed the control in the hands of your manager. This reinforces the superior-subordinate relationship—the opposite of empowerment.

And what is on this manager’s mind, you ask? Well, let’s put ourselves in her shoes for a moment. Imagine you have seven employees reporting to you. Your team has had a solid year, but you have extremely limited resources to offer salary increases. Even worse, your executive leadership has made it clear that if you rank too many of your people as top performers, you’ll be reviewed lower yourself for being too lenient and for violating “top performer” quotas. But there isn’t a clear “low performer” in the bunch: each and every one of them contributed well, collaborated with one another, and ultimately delivered great results. As the manager, are you going to go into this conversation with an open mind and as a keen collaborator in your employee’s success? Sadly, no. It’s likely that you will be defensive from the get-go. How could you not? You’re caught in a bind, denying rewards to employees you feel have earned them while defending a position and a process you don’t agree with. Talk about demoralizing.

But what about the rest of the year, when the performance review isn’t just around the corner? Isn’t everyone inclined to be more open then? Unfortunately, no. The superior-subordinate paradigm set up by the performance review process creates a permanent barrier to open dialogue between managers and employees. There is simply no way you as an employee can have an open and honest conversation about your own performance, hopes, fears, and goals with a person who is going to judge you, especially if her judgment affects such important aspects of your life as salary, recognition, and promotion. And that person who has to judge you? She’s not going to have an honest conversation about how you can grow and develop if she knows that she has to keep your expectations low, or dash them altogether, often for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your performance.

The result? Open communication doesn’t stand a chance. How can we keep on with a system that's so inherently flawed that it actually does the opposite of what we want it to do?

Until next time, happy rebooting!


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