OUCH! Performance Management

20151104_145447Hey, why not start with the ‘low hanging fruit’!

Is there anyone out there that just loves the performance management system in their organization? Is there anyone out there that even likes it? No one that I’ve heard from in the past few decades!

I’m quite convinced that if every performance management system in existence simply stopped being used tomorrow there would be next to no impact on the performance of organizations. My guess is that most people reading this would agree. I would also guess that most people reading this will still actively participate in some kind of performance management system in the next year.

It’s very important to ask the question why we have performance management systems if there is more or less general agreement that they do very little to actually ‘manage’ performance. We’ll look at perhaps the bigger question of whether or not managing performance is even possible at all in a later post…

If we go back to the premise upon which most organization theory is built – We want certainty in our organizations, and we want individuals with power to deliver this certainty – then the idea of a performance management system makes all kinds of sense. Especially if you also do two things to the interaction model:

  1. Ignore the lower arrow in the right loop
  2. Ignore the left facing arrow in the gesture and response dynamic

Note that doing these two things is almost mandatory in order for the statement in bold above to hold up.

Interaction Model

If you want certainty and think someone in power can deliver that certainty then having some kind of system with the intention of managing performance to deliver on that certainty not only makes sense, it is a REQUIREMENT in organizations.

In terms of the interaction model the person in power (let’s say a manager) has the intention of helping (causing, creating, motivating, demanding, coaching…) their managee’s to higher levels of performance. Those higher levels of performance will increase the certainty that the manager’s area of responsibility (let’s say department) meet the goals of this department. The manager needs to and should be able to deliver on these higher levels of certainty (i.e. meet the departments performance requirements) because the manager has legitimate power and this power should deliver certainty.

So the manager needs to interact with their managee’s in order to accomplish this.  The lower arrow in the right loop (which represents adaptation) does not exist since the manager’s intention of creating higher performance levels is the only way certainty can be delivered. This intention should not and cannot change. No matter what happens in the interactions with managee’s this intention should and cannot change so the lower arrow does not exist in any meaningful sense.

With this level of clarity of intention the formal interaction between the manager and the managee begins. If the manager’s gesture is ‘good’ enough the managee’s response will be to act to increase their performance and certainty is delivered in the form of the department reaching performance requirements. The outputs of this interaction are captured in some kind of accessible file for others to review, verify etc.

Everyone is very busy so the fewer of these formal interactions needed the more efficient the performance management system is. This means the manager’s gesture needs to be really good in the formal performance management interaction.

The reason the left facing arrowhead in the gesture and response does not exist is that the response of the managee is irrelevant in any meaningful way with regard to delivering on the intention. The response is simply another ‘thing’ that has to be managed by the manager so the managee understands the gesture ‘correctly’.

This is why there is almost an endless amount of content and training dealing with managing performance, and specifically managing the performance management ‘meeting’. When you critically look at this content and training; the vast majority of it is focused on helping the manager be so good with their gestures in the meeting that the managee responds just how the manager wants them to.

When the foundation of understanding organizations is that certainty is deliverable by those with power then what is outlined above makes perfect sense.


And while we may more or less chuckle with this OUCH! there is a real dark side to this other than just the time we feel we waste in these meetings. When you look at what happens in this dynamic, if things do not go as planned, someone has failed, at a very real and personal level. Performance management systems are a breeding ground for blame, guilt and shame.

This is primarily because the expectations of a performance management system are based on our belief that certainty can be produced by those in power.

It’s a good time to review a point made in the first post; the flaw here is in expectation and intent, not one of content. This is very important.

When I interact with people on the concepts of OUCH! and on the topic of performance management it is not uncommon that my gestures produce a response something like – ‘So you’re saying we shouldn’t try and manage performance or just scrap our performance management system?’ When someone responds like this and we dig a little deeper we often find that they think by questioning the expectation and intent of a performance management system, it also means you should question or scrap the content as well.

The content of these interactions may be very important and the idea of interacting about performance is critical, it is the expectations and intentions of the performance management system and the assumptions on which those lay which need serious questioning and yes, perhaps even to the point of scrapping them!

The pattern we will now follow is that the next post will focus a little bit on the theoretical ideology from which I question these formal organization processes and the posts after that will focus on what can we actually do about these misfits, these OUCH’s!

Discussion and comment points for this post:

  1. What do you really think would happen if the performance management system in your organization stopped being used tomorrow?
  2. Would your performance be compromised?
  3. What are your general thoughts on the post above?




2 Responses

  1. We don’t have a performance management “system” within our organization so I won’t respond to Question 1 or 2. As for point 3, when I got to the paragraph after Ouch! “When you look at what happens in this dynamic, if things do not go as planned, someone has failed, at a very real and personal level. Performance management systems are a breeding ground for blame, guilt and shame.” I just thought to myself how very sad.

    How sad that a system exists for people who, no doubt, put in a lot of time, work very hard at what they do and presumably with good intentions. The process is bound to end up moving to a place that is unpredictable because people are involved and people are unpredictable.

  2. Thanks for the comment Kathi! I would agree with you that at some level, a lot of performance management systems create dynamics that are indeed sad. Interacting about performance may be challenging but people I find are typically up to that challenge. Those interactions however, put into the context of a performance management system often are not worth the challenge because those interactions are rarely, really about performance!

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