Performance Management: The End of Year Circus

For most of us the whole circus of performance reviews, calibration and performance management in general is coming to its conclusion. I, like many employees, think the process is unfair but unlike many employees I don’t believe it can be any better.

The end of year review process has most organisations asking their employees to write some words about how they have met their objectives and how they live the company’s values. Their manager then does the same before a calibration exercise to make sure that a manager who thinks his team is the best thing since sliced bread is consistent with a manager who has higher standards, despite their teams performing at about the same level. At the end of this, employees get a rating on what is typically a 5 point scale ranging from ‘really needs help’ to ‘walks on water’. Very few end up at the top end of the scale, because it is meant to demonstrate true excellence. The logic here being if too many attain this rating, the organisation is setting the bar far too low and rewarding mediocrity – apparently pushing high performing teams even harder.

There are a number of aspects of  this circus that frustrate me as both a manager and as an employee:

1. The ability to achieve your objectives is only partially in your control.

As an employee there is a large element of fortune involved in being able to achieve what you committed to try to achieve, tied to strategic prioritisation, pivots and in some cases plainly how much time you have available – not taking into account that you didn’t do what you said you would because those you were dependant on were unable to make the time or you were working on something more important (usually deemed so by the same person you agreed your objectives with). Regardless of the statements encouraging it, I have never seen a case where objectives are actually actively revisited and revised throughout the year according to these pivots.

As a manager it is worse, because  the pivots are largely unpredictable,and sometimes two in succession result in ending up in the direction you were originally heading in.  Not only does that mean ensuring your own objectives remain relevant (as an employee) but also to ensure alignment down the hierarchy too.  This doesn’t happen because of the distraction caused from really dealing with the pivot and frantic activity it brings.

2. You get compared to people who do very different work, with a different focus and a different cycle

In order to level the performance of an organisation, it becomes necessary to compare individual contributors even when they do very different things on a different cycle. The behaviours that people exhibit are tied to these dimensions. A good architect for example displays certain attributes and behaviours (say for example an adversity to risk) that make her good at her job, but may not be seen so favourably on an individual in sales or marketing. How can you possibly measure these people against each other so as to get a level playing field? How can you say that engineering played ‘a blinder’ whilst operations had ‘a shocker’ – operations may have had a tough time because of the quality of something which engineering released, because there was a massive market pivot, or because the economic climate changed.

3. Performance management measures you like a robot

Good managers recognise that everyone is different. To get the most out of any contributor you need to, to a large degree, adopt the contributor’s style. To then measure everyone without taking this  individual style into consideration is not about measuring the person but more about comparing them to yourself as a manager. Being disruptive can create real value when it encompasses an unwillingness to accept the status quo – However, I don’t recall being  disruptive being recognised as a positive behaviour in any grading exercise.

4. A year of hard work for the company doesn’t result in a comparable amount of reward

The optimistic side of me thinks that everyone comes into work to do a good job and to work hard for the good of the company. The realistic side of me knows that this isn’t always entirely the case. However, a performance management process measuring based upon achievement of objectives really doesn’t take this into account. As a manager you do tend to make exceptions where you know this to be true, but that is more about trying to make the process more fair rather than strictly following the process.

5. The process doesn’t reward the reserved or the humble

Ultimately the people who are running the performance management process are human beings. Sometimes our friends from HR seem to be from a different planet but they are human. This means that the approach cannot be completely objective and fair. Whoever is doing a grading or levelling exercise is going to remember what they have been told by and about the individual. This means that marketing yourself is hugely important – making sure that every victory, small or large, is known about by those that will ultimately be ‘writing your report card’. They will remember the victories and the fanfare that comes with them. If an individual is the converse, reserved or humble about their achievements, no matter how important, his achievements may get forgotten.  The fact that there are so many books on this subject on Amazon, particularly about how to write ‘a good end of year statement’, suggests that there are  a good few people who believe marketing yourself is important.

6. Good people become disengaged by badly positioned feedback

The lower down on the spectrum you are, the more likely you are going to think you deserve a higher grade than you got.  The consequence of this, is how an explanation is given as to the rating and areas for improvement are communicated can result in an energised and committed employee or one that becomes completely disengaged.  This is particularly important when the employee is largely good at what they do and need to smoothen areas of  their personality or approach to make them even better.  My experience as an employee is that very few managers are good at giving feedback and as a manager, my greatest fear is an employee of mine becomes disengaged as a result of my inability to give  feedback in a constructive way.

Spending 1 minute talking about the good and 29 minutes about areas of improvement can make an employee feel that he is doing nothing right – to an employee who prides himself on working hard and giving everything to the organisation, it is very difficult to stomach.  Spending 15 minutes talking about important achievements and then 15 minutes  talking about areas for improvement, led by the question ‘where do you think you could do better?’ can have the employee thinking that the organisation cares about him and that he should ownership of the improvement areas.

Obviously a lot of the above is coloured by experience and as I said at the beginning of this post, it is very easy to critique a system which you had no part in designing. Having never had to design such a system, I have little idea with the conflicts that must be dealt with to get to a system, regardless of how imperfect that system is. I am not sure a perfectly fair system can be built.  I do worry that good people who bring real value to an organisation can become disengaged as a result of a process trying its best to just be fair.

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