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This is the second in a series of blogs by Rob Baker and Julia Smith themed around the need to bring a personal touch to our work to lift wellbeing, performance and engagement.

Performance management should enable performance and build capability. When it is done well, it has the potential to positively influence culture, employee engagement and organisational effectiveness. Until recently, performance management had a poor reputation, but in recent years many organisations have made a positive shift in performance management mindset and approach. Whilst the changes are welcome and encouraging, there is a risk that we repeat history by falling into the trap of applying performance management in the same impersonal and generic way.  

Personalising Performance
We perform at our best when we have clear and stretching goals, when we feel we have the skills and autonomy to do our work, when work has meaning, and we can see the impact we have.

The drivers of high performance are highly personal yet for decades we have tried to manage performance using generic, homogenous, ‘pre-packed’ approaches, particularly when it comes to goal setting, performance conversations and evaluating performance.

One of the big problems with performance management is that we have tried to make it do too many things.  It morphed from a process designed to enable performance to a process that simply feeds other processes such as reward, promotion, redundancy selection and training course nominations. I worked in one organisation that used performance ratings to decide whether you were invited to a Town Hall with the CEO when he visited. It really is no wonder that performance management became over-engineered and impersonal. It lost its purpose.

In the last few years, we have seen a positive shift away from the slow cascading of pre-defined goals, infrequent appraisals, and impersonal ratings. These have been replaced by frequent performance conversations, dynamic goal setting and the ripping out of divisive ratings and distribution curves.

I am an advocate of these changes, but I do have a niggling worry that we may be falling into the same trap of applying processes (albeit better than they once were) without really personalising them to the individual. So, my rallying cry is let us make performance personal again.

By taking a more personalised approach, organisations have the potential to really catalyse high performance.  This can be achieved by cultivating a performance and development culture that has one primary purpose, helping everyone be their best

Enabling personalised performance
Personalised performance can be achieved by tapping into the concept of ‘Psychological Empowerment’.  Psychological Empowerment is a form of intrinsic motivation that is made up of four factors: meaning, capability, self-determination and impact. Psychological Empowerment is the experience of feeling connected to the work we are doing, having the skills to do it well, feeling in control of how we do it and being able to see the impact we have.  When a person experiences these four factors, great things happen. Research has shown that Psychological Empowerment is associated with organisational citizenship, employee voice, positive leader and employee relations and crucially, job performance. 

People leaders can apply performance and development techniques in a way that creates Psychological Empowerment which is easy to do when they truly understand their people.

 Here are 3 ways that we can personalise performance and achieve psychological empowerment:

  • Goal setting – we can personalise goals by crafting them in a way that they play to individual strengths and preferences. By doing so, people are more likely to connect with, and be motivated by those goals. Also, ensuring they are co-created so the individual feels some ownership and control over what they need to achieve. By shaping goals in this way, our people will feel a greater sense of purpose and connection to their work.  (Meaning & Self-Determination)

ExerciseMarathon goals -Think of a member of your team and consider their strengths, preferences, personality and working style. Taking all those characteristics into account, if you were to set that person a goal to train to run a marathon, what would you include?  For example, if the person is more extraverted, perhaps include group or club training. If they love data, include training that means they measure their progress using different data points. It does not have to be a marathon; it can be any goal, but the essence of the exercise is developing a goal through the lens of the individual’s strengths and preferences.

  • Performance conversations – having more frequent, less formal performance conversations that are grounded in coaching, create stronger connections between the leader and team member, and conversations become more natural and tailored to each person. Through coaching, ideas, learning, and solutions come from within the individual giving them control and helping them grow (Competence & Self-Determination).

Exercise – Quiet Coaching– Making coaching your default style when having performance conversations will be pivotal to personalising performance. Most of us are not naturally good coaches because we dispense advice too readily. However, true coaching is about enabling others to come to their own solutions.

Next time you are in a coaching conversation, limit yourself to using as few words as possible (perhaps give yourself a budget of no more than 40 words) and use them only to ask good questions that elicit what your coachee wants to achieve, where their baseline is, what their options are, what they are going to do and the support they need. If this is different from your usual style you might want to forewarn your coachee that you are experimenting with a new approach, so they don’t think you have lost your voice.

  • Development – we all learn differently and simply having a conversation about preferred ways of learning when agreeing development plans will ensure they are personalised and impactful. If your organisation encourages feedback from multiple sources, even better as this means the development plan will be insight driven and relevant. (Competence)

Exercise – Continue and Consider – In preparation for your next performance conversations, encourage your team members to solicit feedback from at least three people they work with. Encourage them to ask what they should continue doing and what they should consider doing differently. The result is positively framed, actionable feedback which can be used to craft a development goal. Combined with a conversation about how they may achieve that goal in a way that plays to their strengths and preferences will lead to an insight led, engaging development opportunity.

  • Evaluating performance – moving away from ratings, scales or labels toward narratives that describe impact and contribution are a more personal and insightful way of helping someone understand their performance.  Being labelled with the same performance rating as many of your colleagues (probably 68.27% of them if using a standard distribution curve) feels impersonal and adds little value to a person’s awareness. Talking about impact explicitly and honestly is a more meaningful way to help people understand their contribution to the team and the organisation’s success. It is also easier to frame tougher performance messages this way. (Impact and Meaning).

Exercise – Talking Impact – Those of us who have delivered performance ratings in the past will have undoubtedly experienced the discomfort one feels when we unveil someone’s performance rating.  By talking about the contribution and impact someone has made rather than labelling them as ‘meets expectations’ is a much more enlightening and positive conversation than applying a rating that is relative to others and then having to justify it.

Reflect on the performance of your team and consider:

How they contributed over the last three months, and in doing so,

The impact they have made (toward their goals, to the team, to the organisation)

For those organisations that need a form of differentiation/rating then this method can also work by incorporating the language of ‘impact’ when designing a rating system.

Help everyone be their best
We can truly enhance our performance management approaches by simply giving it a primary purpose which is to help every one of us be our best.  To achieve this, we need to create more personalised approaches which tap into each person’s individual intrinsic motivators of meaning, capability, control, and impact. If we apply current performance management tools through this lens, we can unlock potential and prevent performance management becoming the homogenous machine we endeavoured to discard.

Julia Smith, Director and Founder – People Science Consulting

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