I got the chance to talk to top consultant M. Tamra Chandler about her new book, How Performance Management is Killing Performance — and What to Do About It (Berrett-Koehler). The book takes a hard look at the incredible fallacies traditional performance management is based on, and then offers a comprehensive and inspiring roadmap for revamping what she refers to as a truly broken system.
In your book, you talk about the need to completely rethink our concept of performance management(PM). How have we gone so long with such a dysfunctional process in place?
For years we thought we were doing the “right thing.” While we didn’t like the process, we accepted that it must be good for us, like exercising or taking a foul-tasting medicine. That was based on several underlying beliefs in Western culture: first, that telling an individual what they are doing wrong is the best way to make them better; and second, that we’re all perfectly capable of assessing someone else’s performance in an unbiased and equitable manner. Neither of these beliefs is true, and plenty of research shows that. Thanks to thought leaders such as David Rock, Marcus Buckingham, and others, we now also understand why.
What does traditional performance management actually accomplish?
When I’m speaking about PM, I frequently joke that my grandmother would say, “Well, bless its heart.” That was her way of saying that the best intentions had gone sadly wrong. When something is built on faulty assumptions, it can’t deliver. For instance: in trying to differentiate performance, instead we fostered unhealthy competition and created ways to game the system. In the pursuit of fairness, we created standardized processes and policies that are nothing more than “mind-numbing, tick-the-box exercises,” as I write in the book. This is supposed to be a process about people, but meanwhile it’s minimizing the human side.
You also talk about the impact traditional performance management has on true dialogue — that “have a seat …” conversation between a manager and an employee that’s supposed to make things better. Can you elaborate?
Again, the system accomplishes the opposite of what it’s intended to do. Instead of driving manager-employee communication, it teaches people how to time-box their conversations. There’s no openness or spontaneity, no collaboration. Instead of being ongoing, it relegates the dialogue between manager and employee to a prescribed place and time with a specific, narrow agenda and an adversarial tone.
What are some of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of a comprehensive fix?
The big fly in the ointment is compensation/rewards. Many organizations struggle with how to determine fair pay without the rigor of the traditional performance management model, or at least what they perceive as rigor. This factor has been significant in holding people back. But again, there’s a lot of compelling research, and it’s giving people the courage to step away from tradition.
Have things changed since you started researching PM?
Absolutely. When I started my research several years ago, there were whispers in the HR halls that “performance management isn’t working.” Now, you hear shouts. And modest improvements were executed in good faith and with the best intentions — to make performance management work better and deliver better outcomes. But that’s not enough of a fix — and I see many HR leaders finally willing to raise the white flag. It was time someone compiled the research, clearly defined the problem, and provided ideas, counsel, and solutions to move beyond what we’ve always known. All of that contributed to my passion to write this book.
You talk about the three common goals of performance management: to develop people, reward equitably, and drive organizational performance. What’s the best way to design a system that hits those marks?
First, each organization needs to understand their own priorities: which of those three goals is most important, or are they relatively equal? Is the answer different for different segments of your workforce? Further, consider the connectedness of these goals. For example, do you want a strong linkage between key organizational metrics and rewards programs?
Then, I recommend every organization create a unique set of design principles that define what you want your performance solution to deliver — and consider which tools, methods, and mechanisms will best fulfill them. I call this step “determining your configuration.” I spend considerable time in the book sharing my configuration framework, and giving examples of what different configurations might look like for different organizations, depending on their priorities and connections across those three common goals.
Say we’ve got the whole company committed to a reboot of its performance management. Can you nutshell the steps, start to finish? Will it take years?
In the book I lay out a five-step process, from start to finish: 1. mobilize, 2. sketch, 3. configure, 4. build, and 5. implement. There are several sub-steps and nuances within each phases. The process and the timeline depend on the nature of each organization. Some firms may take a year; others may take several years, building out all the desired elements of their new solution through a phased approach. This is especially true when you focus on providing more tools and insights related to roles, development, career paths, etc. You also need to consider the rhythm of the business, and how the PM process will connect to strategy planning, budgeting, other talent processes, and more. Finally, if you’re asking a lot more of your managers, it may take some time to ready them for the role you are asking them to play.
Once you’ve revamped the system, are you done?
You’re never really done: as your organization evolves, the needs may shift. But as you go forward and try new things, you’ll learn and adjust. As an organization shifts its emphasis to people development or organizational performance, your PM process or approach can shift as well.
Learn more about M. Tamra Chandler at www.peoplefirm.com.