If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. Likewise, if you judge an employee by a list of pre-determined benchmarks created months or even years previously, they will invariably fall short. Lists of performance management objectives created for roles rather than individuals should be ripped up, for they are obsolete. We need to turn our attention to interventions that support personal development, growth and wellbeing.
Strategic and individual priorities in April 2021 – when the UK and much of the world was under strict lockdown restrictions – will look very different to those of March 2022 and unrecognisable against a list of outcomes defined before COVID existed. The pandemic is just one – albeit very large – influencing factor, in how organisations have been forced into a state of flux. Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, gender pay gap reporting, climate protests and a multitude of other global movements, have forced organisations to quickly change strategy, sometimes overnight. If organisations don’t want to be judged on what they were doing yesterday, they cannot expect their employees to be judged on a list of months-old priorities. Against this backdrop, traditional assessments have been rendered obsolete, but measuring outputs alone provides little insight into personal performance and skills that have become increasingly essential – such as resilience and agility – are subjective and impossible to measure like for like. But if we turn the focus of performance management onto the individual and assess them within their own individual priorities and personal goals, we eliminate this ambiguity. In 2018, management company McKinsey conducted a global survey1 on performance management practices. The report identified three key areas for an effective and fair system: Linking employee goals to business priorities and maintaining a strong element of flexibility, investing in the coaching skills of managers to help them become better arbiters of day-to-day fairness and rewarding stand-out performance for some roles while managing converging performance for others: “These practices are mutually reinforcing,” report the survey’s authors in an accompanying article 2. “Implementing one practice well can have a positive effect on the performance of others and leads to more effective performance management overall.” Back in 2018, at the time of the report, we were all blissfully unaware of the catastrophic event about to shatter so many lives and, four years on, “maintaining a strong element of flexibility”, takes on a whole new meaning. In the level playing field of the office, flexibility related relatively simply to differing levels of skills or experience. Now, we must take into account wildly differing environments, the emotional impact of universal grief, loss and unprecedented levels of continuing disruption.
Not everyone is a top performer, there will always be people who excel and whose skills lend themselves to being naturally more agile and productive. There is no need for these people to be held back in the name of fairness – high performers are high performers – and, of course, there will always be poor performers, who simply are not suited to the role. Regular ongoing discussions, priority reviews and honest conversations should make them easy to identify. But what has emerged as a priority is to recognise those who are consistently performing well in challenging circumstances, support them to develop in a way that helps them as an individual and give them achievable priorities and goals in line with the overall vision. Way back in 1996, the authors of a Personnel Today paper identified “respect for the individual”, as a key ethical performance management principal. In 2022, we need to extend this concept and make it the focus of performance management – a cultural shift that aligns performance and achievement with personal growth. Instead of asking; “has this individual met our requirements and how can we help this individual perform at their best?”
The lynchpin in this scenario is line managers, so how can they become “better arbiters of day-to-day fairness”, in this new working landscape? A meaningful performance appraisal means having insight into the circumstances of each individual and this is only gained by regular, meaningful discussions, talking frequently about how the person is performing and what their priorities are, what support they need at that time, what they can do differently and how they can be helped to play to their strengths. At a structural and procedural level, this means ensuring every leader and departmental head has clarity about the organisational vision and strategic aims, the function of their department in taking the organisation forward and what it means to them and their teams as individuals. This vision should cascade through the organisation, with a collective and collaborative effort to interpret it at every stage. Leadership teams and managers need to understand the strengths of the people who report to them, how those strengths relate to the vision and what support the individual needs to perform effectively and develop personally. Every person with responsibility for the performance of others should be equipped with the tools they need to support personal development and measure performance. This includes the practical tools for performance feedback to help with goal setting, one-to-one feedback, personal development plans and reward and recognition. But they also need to use high levels of emotional intelligence to measure the performance of people in the hybrid era, which presents a very different set of circumstances.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION Hunter Roberts
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