Reducing the OUCH! in Performance Management

20151104_145447There’s a lot to be said here and tried here and I would guess that a lot of the things put forth in this post you may already do, or have considered doing. I hope so. Since a lot of what OUCH! is about is recognizing that we put a lot of effort into trying to make sense of the formal things we do in organizations when our actual experience says they make very little sense at all! That effort IS our actual experience of being in an organization.

This means part of this post is not about things that are new but legitimizing things we do now but more or less think we shouldn’t or have been told we shouldn’t.

As an example of this, some time ago I was working with an experienced middle manager who had just been to a fairly extensive course to help him be a better ‘coach’ in his role. A significant part of this course focused on performance coaching and how to conduct a good performance coaching session as part of the formal performance management system in the organization.

He was a good manager. He hated the performance management system (not sure if there is a significant correlation here or not!) so he was struggling to see the relevance of what he had just learned at the course, which he had enjoyed overall. He simply asked me ‘What do you think of performance management systems?’ After some discussion about where this question might be coming from and all that we got to the heart of the matter.

The performance management system was not going to go away so he had to do something with it even though he knew it was more about checking boxes than performance. What we landed on that he could work with and made sense to him are listed below:

  • The actual outputs of the performance management system were most important to the compensation system and the career/succession process. These things were important so for him to position his work in the performance management system as contributing to these two other things made that work much less onerous.
  • There should be very little difference between the interactions he had daily about performance and the interaction he had in the formal system. What this meant to him was that what he was doing anyway, day to day about performance, was of primary importance and the actual formal meeting was nothing more than a confirmation of this. This consistency also dramatically shortened the formal ‘meeting’.
  • He could be open with his direct reports about what the real importance of the performance management system was (compensation, career/succession) so they could see the relevance of it as well. For him, he said this was quite freeing since he didn’t feel like he, or his direct reports had to play some role that made no sense to them.
  • In his case (and in many others) the goal setting part of performance and the performance evaluation part were supposed to occur at the same time (if there was such a thing as ‘worst’ practices this would be one!) so he split them up and did the performance evaluation part a couple of weeks before the formal meeting schedule and then just filled in the necessary boxes like the meetings had occurred at the same time. Again, the importance of no difference in this type of meeting and what happened day to day was critical.

At one point in our conversation he asked me ‘Do you think it’s ok to be doing this?’ That question is at the heart of OUCH! He was concerned if it was ok to make a system we all know is deeply flawed, work better. What would happen if he was ‘caught’?

My response to him was ‘Well you know better than I do what will happen to you if you’re caught so you have to determine that risk, but my guess is that this is pretty much what you do anyway.’ He thought about that for a bit and said ‘Yeah, pretty much, but this makes it more obvious’. I said to him ‘Well in this case I think more obvious is likely better, don’t you?’ He agreed.

Over 20 years ago I had the task of designing the performance management system for the organization I was working in. In parallel I was also working with Dr. Edmund J. Freedberg around the concept of Self Management (more on this in later posts).

When people came into the training for the performance management system the first thing they saw were two really big signs:


For this post it’s the NO SURPRISES that is relevant. The manager in the story above was different than many of the managers I experience in that he did, consciously and intentionally interact daily about performance with the people he worked with. It was not a shift for him to have NO SURPRISES in his day to day interactions and his formal one(s).

Before we had such a thing as a performance management system this was the norm. Now, the norm is that we are unconscious and unintentional about our day to day interactions about performance. We forget that we are interacting about performance all the time and then are surprised, shocked, angry, scared, confused when what we say about performance in the formal meeting is met with those very same responses!

So if your performance management system is not going away any time soon, and is one of the vast majority that has been described in the last few posts then perhaps a few of the points above can help. But the one key mantra you should repeat to yourself every day is:


It will make your day to day interactions about performance much more obvious whether that be good, bad or ugly!) and will make the formal performance management system work much better for you.

The next post will focus on performance management system design and the one after that on getting rid of it completely.

Comment and discussion points for this post:

  1. How conscious are you of your interactions about performance?
  2. How have you secretly ‘tweaked’ the performance management system to make it work better for you?



4 Responses

  1. Tom,

    Thank you so much for opening up this space. I have been using the concepts around Complexity Theory to solve Performance Management (and other) problems for about 6 years now.

    Some comments:
    – If your organization that you are managing has ~150 people or less (Dunbar’s number) or you organize such that only 150 people interact at a time (Gore Tex model), then no PM system is required.
    – I would take some issue with your comment (March 8 post) that “It is not possible to predict which disturbances may produce these changes or what these change will actually be.” If you construct a good systems map (read not a causal loop diagram), you should be able to see all the agents and their impact on the system. This allows you to evaluate which levers are more “important” than others and their potential impact on the system. Then you can tell which agents will move the system in either a positive or negative direction – modelling really helps in this area.
    – I couldn’t agree more that most PM systems are, at best, worthless and, at worst, eroding value.
    – You are touching on some key elements of a good PM system and it all starts with getting people to write down, “What problem are you trying to solve?”
    – I say all that to say this. The no surprises comment is critical. I have counseled hundreds to make mandatory a question at the end of every performance review. That question is, “Is there anything I said today that was a surprise to you?” This is less for the employee than the Supervisor. Most employees are going to say no because they can’t, without trust, say what they really feel. However, it does tend to change the behavior of the supervisor as they know that the question is coming.

    Thank you again for combining these two concepts. There is much low hanging fruit here.


  2. Hello Tom, and thanks very much for your comment! A new voice is always interesting and valuable!

    I’m hoping you will continue to stay connected to this initiative as I think your stories will have value to all of us and we can continue to interact on the area of complexity.

    To that end, I go further into my perspectives on complexity in the series of posts dealing with strategy which come up after the performance management ones. Of particular interest might be the area of causality as I think I may differ with you in terms of systems, systems maps and predictability when applied to human interaction. I think many people apply the concepts of complexity with an overlay of certainty and for me when that happens, the valuable lessons of complexity can be seriously compromised.

    Nevertheless, when it comes to performance management the idea of No Surprises may seem like a small step but it can change so many things as you have noted in your comment. Perhaps most importantly is that it brings our day to day interactions about performance to a level of consciousness and reality that at present seems to be missing far too often.

    I was meeting with a group just a little while ago and a very senior HR leader said something to the effect; ‘I want every employee to know they have the right to expect at least one conversation with their manager about their performance every year.’ While the intention here was good I think this statement illustrates much of what is being said here. There is an assumption that only the formal interactions about performance are important and more problematic, the assumption that managers are not talking about performance every single day! The consequences of this are huge!

    I hope we will hear from you again Tom. The next post deals with performance management system design so perhaps you can share some of your experiences as well.

  3. I find great value in what both of you Toms have said – What problem are you trying to solve? and No surprises! – resonates with my organizational observations that these perspectives are missing.

    In one organization I’ve been a part of, KPI’s with specific 5 point anchor definitions drove the performance management process. Oddly, many of the KPI’s were not aligned with corporate objectives. The PM process boiled down to the box checking you mentioned above.

    What can we, as HR/OD, do about this? I would love to hear ideas!! I’m favoring a rather practical approach: find sympathetic executives (ideally the CEO or President) and pitch how addressing issues uncovered in climate surveys, etc. can impact the business financially, and how to accomplish improvement through modeling and demanding ongoing feedback. Include training and coaching in the mix. Then measure, measure, measure for financial and survey improvements. This takes a while. What is working elsewhere?

    I am very curious on how performance management system design can embrace continuous feedback? Tom, I look forward to your next post.

  4. Kristen, awesome to see your comment! Thank you!

    I smiled when I read your point – Oddly, many of the KPI’s were not aligned with corporate objectives – smiled because I don’t think it’s all that odd! It really is unfortunate that in so many cases, the entire exercise of ‘performance management’ and the process in which it is housed has become nothing more that box checking even to the point where effort is not made to connect performance to business objectives.

    Many ‘newer’ companies with a younger demographic are under a lot of employee pressure to get rid of their PM systems but what I see happening is more about getting rid of the the evaluation part of the system since people are beginning to see the minimal impact this evaluation actually has on things like compensation.

    For me, the benefit of ridding ourselves of PM systems is that it increases the potential of bringing the day to day interactions we have about performance out into the open and then hopefully taking them more seriously.

    The post on PM system design is now posted Kristen. I’ll be interested in your thoughts!

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