Performance Management Without Tears

Performance Management Without Tears

A vision of hope for the management of work

Performance Management Without Tears

Performance Management Without Tears

A vision of hope for the management of work

There is an organisation I know well, which is not my present employer I should add, that is having problems with its performance management methodology. Its leaders have tried seven successive approaches to performance management, and while some failed less spectacularly than others, not one of these commonly used strategies worked in the case of this problematic performer. So what were these seven approaches that failed to deliver sustainable performance improvement? You might have tried some of them, and maybe you had better luck than the organisation I studied, but they were, in no particular order;

changing the performance targets,

long term rewards,

short term incentives,

internal competition,


laissez faire management, and

contextualising the performer's task in the bigger picture.

So let's run through the strategies.

(1) Adjusting the performance goal - this can take two forms; either reducing target or substituting an easier goal. Neither of these create a win:win strategy for the organisation.

(2) Long term rewards, which by the way is the strategy that the failed banking sector seems to have latched onto - how did that work? Most of the problems with rewards concern the remoteness of causation and the systemic nature of all organisational performance, and make them unfit for the purpose of improving performance in the present.

(3) Short term incentives have been analysed extensively since BF Skinner first documented them, and the overwhelming conclusion is that they actually undermine implicit motivation, and create a sub-optimal performance system.

(4) Internal competition. The trouble with having a competition for who can achieve the most sales or the best results is that the same performers always come last, which makes the competition even more de-motivational, apart from those occasions when the competition was rigged, which is what many sales forces have had to do with their internal leader boards to give the semblance of a fair game.

(5) Coercion. Can you make performance happen by doing it yourself? Yes, there are times that this delivers a short term result but this cannot be a strategy for any of your organisation's longer term performance problems, and not a strategy that builds long term performance capability on the part of the core team.

(6) Laissez-faire management. What performance problem? Unfortunately if any of you have tried this one in your organisations then you'll know that the performers don't always pick the same goals to work on as the organisation needs them to work on.

(7) We were really excited about seven. There are so many books about engagement and alignment that we were convinced that all we needed to do was get the performer on board at a cognitive level with the organisational objective AND the reason for it - and we'd be away. So now the performer can accurately tell you the organisations mission, vision, values and link to his job description, but as many of you have probably also learned, cognitive alignment is not enough.

So there we are - seven failed strategies. These are also the seven failed strategies that have been used to try to run the banking system, to deliver good welfare benefits, to run world class schools and hospitals and the reason they have failed is because they all flow from a flawed mental model.

That mental model holds that only hard work leads to success and that success leads to happiness, contentment and satisfaction. This is a flawed model for two reasons.

Firstly it is flawed because, as individuals and as a society, we keep on raising the bar higher and higher. Did you get good GCSE's? Then you need to get good "A" levels. Did you hit your target? Then we'll increase your target. Did you get a good job? Then you need to get promoted. What we have done collectively as a culture is to push any hope of contentment or happiness beyond the cognitive horizon. We never let ourselves get there.

Secondly it is flawed because the way our brain works is exactly the opposite to this. When we are happy, satisfied with what we are doing, content for who we are and enjoying the task we are doing that very the moment then our brains switch into a different mode of operation. The technical description for this concerns an increased level of dopamine and serotonin while levels of cortisol and nor adrenaline are limited. The experience that accompanies this is characterised by greater creativity, feelings of energy and loss of time-awareness, greater short term memory performance and enhanced verbal and mental reasoning skills. This state of mind leads to greater success in whatever we were doing at the time.

So what is the answer to performance management? Well it starts with helping your people to find joy, meaning and purpose in the actual tasks they are doing, and that calls for a different view of the role of work in society and a new role for managers of people. Not a quick fix then, but an exciting hope for a way of organising work for the common good.

Simon Nash

Simon Nash LLB FCIPD is the HR director of the law firm Carey Olsen and a founder member of...

Simon Nash

Simon Nash

Founder of a start-up business called Insight. Its mission is to change the thinking of businesses about people and work. Formerly global HR Director of an international professional services firm and churchwarden of an Anglican parish, Simon has been having a year of reinvention, recovery and renewal. Simon lives in Jersey with Katie and their three boys; Edward, Adam and Benedict 

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