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Performance Failure or Performance Appraisal Failure – Part III

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Image credit: <a href=''>iqoncept / 123RF Stock Photo</a>In all honesty, writing about performance management ballooned far beyond the point that I originally planned to be the end. I have commented on other peoples’ blog posts about these issues and have watched others opine over solutions, but it is frustrating to see the me-too status quo advocates that are stuck in a rut of compliance with the way it has “always been done.” It was probably the desire not to appear to be another me-too voice that drove this beyond a single posting. In Part I I called attention to five of the core issues that appear to be the common ground for complaints about performance management system. Part II added other factors that in one way or the other have started as progressive additions to basic performance management functions but either went too far or not far enough.

Part III – What If’s, What Else’s and What Next.

It is people that make performance management work, not the system. What if we turned the whole process over to machines? Well, not much would happen! No bombshell here, but with all the things that have and will go wrong with any system it is still all doable with the right people in place. Seriously! Even if the existing canned in-house system has all five of the core issues causing serious people issues, digging down and finding the right modifications using the proposed changes mentioned or finding new solutions that match the current environment can spark new life into the company. Many of the problems listed are a matter of perceptions based on past experience. Revitalizing the people with education, training and leadership can be used to offset any number of problems. Of the twelve points mentioned as problematic in performance management, all twelve can remain place and the right people can still make it work.

Company culture is not static and performance management must conform to culture. What if we allowed this elusive “culture” thing to kick in? Well, it already has! There is a symbiotic relationship between culture and performance appraisal. A shift toward encouraging collaboration, innovation, and diversity of thinking will change the key evaluation factors because of a shift in the definition of productivity. It is also true that instilling a culture of cooperation between managers and employees contributes to a mutual willingness to participate in the performance management process. The element of trust that was missing in some systems is gone. More importantly, like yogurt the good stuff is often on the bottom. Stirring up the ideas from lower boxes on the org chart requires a system that recognizes and rewards the flavor that enriches the entire company.

Regardless of the type of system employed, formal documentation is required. So what else is new? Most current systems have us so bogged down in timetables, forms, reports, and bureaucracy that nothing much is left to chance. Go to any company still using an annual review process and try to get the attention of any HR Partner during review time…they are unavailable either because they are too wrapped up in minutia to think about anything else or the system is failing them. Somewhere between this all-consuming time suck and total anarchy is balance. The objectives and rules associated with the plan must be in writing and available to managers, employees and regulatory agencies that seem to take the most interest at the most inopportune time when something goes wrong. Formal documentation of employee reviews need to be complete, concise and accurate. This IS the necessary evil part of the system because there should never be anything left to chance. Simplified reporting means challenging each element and if it is unnecessary, get rid of it and only keep the necessary parts. Overcomplicating the process for managers reduces the chance of honest appraisals and compliance with policy.

Professionalism in compliance means being the leading voice for doing things right. What else is more of a paradox than HR assuming ownership of a process they don’t own? Not much, but it is a common theme in all we do. Being an ambassador for diversity doesn’t mean continually throwing up the EEOC or OFCCP as transparent justification against a worst case scenario. A sincere belief in what is right and a confident understanding of the right direction supported by data will make things happen. Performance management is important to the bottom line of a company because it involves one of the most valuable resources, the workforce. If you don’t believe this deeply enough you will probably give it lip service and fail. This requires being there for managers when they have difficult leadership roles to learn, coaching and teaching them, but not doing it for them. It means listening to employees struggling for work/life balance when the company needs 110% to succeed, but not settling for less than the best. It also means being exposed. Another word for professionalism is courage when faced with tough times. If you do not have what it takes, then anybody off the street could do it and you have not only failed yourself you have added another black mark on the profession you represent.

The next steps forward in performance management depend on so many variables that it can never be itemized separately. There is no “if this::then that” matrix other than what we figure out in our brains. The human element is needed to make human decisions about managing the human resource. Simplifying the elements covered so far, there are three recommendations that seem to make sense in keeping performance management on the right path based on the current environment.

  • Start-ups or first time performance management implementation – It would probably be a gross overstatement to say that you only have one chance to get it right, but the cost may be prohibitive if you miss the mark. A new system should be well documented, easy to administer, targets the desired results and is automated. Having a blank slate to work with is a dream situation for an HR pro, but is it is also a major commitment in time, resources and reputation. In-house proprietary systems are probably best if you have the resources to commit to the project, but outside consultants are probably best for providing a wider range of alternative choices. Some “consultants” associated with performance management software companies can be valuable resources as well, provided there is an opportunity to evaluate more than one system on a level playing field. Scalability is of primary importance. The system must grow as the company grows.
  • Mature organization with problematic results. Without rehashing the points already covered in Part I and Part II of this review, analysis of every aspect of the system needs to be completed with an eye toward the underlying problems of the organization rather than just the symptoms of a system failure. Company culture and employee engagement cannot be fixed by tweaking a performance management system. Some employees do not want to be held responsible for company objectives and goals forced upon them may lead to simply soldiering rather than doing work. Unless these conditions of management related issues are resolved first, there is little hope for having any positive performance to manage. System related symptoms appear when employees appear apathetic, angry or apologetic. There are two extremes: appraisals are either welcomed as an affirmation of their worth or approached with fear and dread… usually because there is no warm-up… only the game. There has been a costly investment in the system in place, but it may take surgically pruning the dead branches to encourage new life through training, education and extensive monitoring.
  • Mature organization with irreparable system – The most common reason to replace a performance appraisal system in its entirety is inflation… when it is no longer able to distinguish differences between individuals’ performance. There still may be a fine line between determining the salvage value of a performance management system and scrapping it entirely. A sign would be when previous fixes, improvements and band-aid surgeries become more costly than starting over. The primary difference between this stage and that of a start-up is that there is already a built-up legacy regarding the significance of managing performance. If the system is so broken that the reputation of the process has been tarnished, then the problem is deeper than a new system can fix. Damage control to halt the decay in management influence and re-marketing the concept to the CEO must come first. Re-education of managers and employees begins before the new system takes root. In fact, collaborative groups of stakeholders can often be a breath of fresh air in writing policy for the new performance system.

A classic quotation by that famous philosopher Anonymous goes like this: “Dance like nobody is watching, sing like no one can hear, love like you’ve never been hurt.” In performance management, it could be translated to: “Work like nobody is evaluating you. Evaluate others as if you are not watching.” To build and maintain a performance management system that is that transparent doesn’t require magic; it only requires the persistent work of dedicated HR professionals who care.



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