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Hey Boss! You Missed More Than an Annual Review

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Recently I completed writing a three part series on Performance Management, but I’m almost positive that Scott Adams, the insightful genius creator of the Dilbert comic strip, did not read it. In fact, from the lower than usual stats for those three days I’m also fairly certain that nobody else of importance did either. My comments that this may have stepped on a few toes could be the reason, but I think the basic reason for the lack of interest is that it is a b-o-o-o-ring subject. I’m not sure why I am going back to the well on this one except for the fact that I believe with a passion that most existing performance management systems are running on empty and are about to stall out.

In July of this year, China Gorman’s Data Point Tuesday blog presented data from a whitepaper from Achievers that was a real eye opener in showing that apparently everyone thinks that more frequent performance reviews are necessary. In China’s words: “…if employees, HR professionals and CEOs all know that employees don’t want feedback in an annual context, then why are the majority of performance feedback systems in use today based on an annual model?” Great question! The follow-up to the question of “Why” is the question “How?” Is there a force great enough to turn this ship around or does it have too much forward speed to avoid the iceberg?

Why don’t the CEOs initiate change? Forgive me if this sounds cynical, but steering the ship sometimes means making pragmatic decisions to maintain forward progress. HR and employees alike want to attribute godlike qualities to the CEO without realizing that sometimes there are conflicting priorities. This is not to say that the CEO does not care about people as that would be a foolish stance, but someone has to balance the resources available to run the business. In a large corporation with entrenched annual review systems, change is not a stroke of the pen decision. It involves an investment of time, money, training and obtaining buy-in from line managers or it will fail. The path of least resistance is to tweak the status quo or not even bother to change it at all. Inertia rules apply and things in motion will continue in motion unless somebody stops it. The CEO is usually the only person who has the power to make a change of this scale.

Why doesn’t HR initiate change? With rare exceptions, HR does not have the management authority to implement change of this nature without approval. While not in a purely advisory role, most often HR sits on the Staff line of the organization chart and is not structured to implement a massive change of this proportion. Of course this varies from company to company, but there also seems to be an overall reluctance to gather, analyze and present data that would justify the ROI for allocation of the resources to make the change. Perhaps this is because of a lack of vision or training, but even when the head of HR is a master of analysis and communication it is an uphill battle. The added necessary ingredient is the courage and willingness to rock the boat mixed with the finesse not to sink it.

Why don’t employees initiate change? No, this is not a stupid question to imply that the resource being evaluated can direct change. On the contrary, courageous leaders from within the organization’s infrastructure can wield tremendous influence if it is done responsibly and without hostility. Any manager can tell you that there is a grapevine of information just beneath the surface that usually is more informed than upper management about things that may impact the business. The chief grapes on this vine of information can be a source of data and culture rattling ideas. Having little power to directly make a change does not mean that employees do not exert tremendous influences toward reformed practices. Honest feedback directly to managers and HR on a more frequent basis than required is ideal, but at a bare minimum there has to be engagement at review time and in exit interviews.

How do we make this happen? It would seem that survey data supports the theory that we already are on the same page in terms of what needs to be done. We also can see the ineffectiveness of the key players and all the myriad of reasons that they can’t do it alone. Bingo! They do NOT have to do it alone! HR initiates the action through independent study and analysis, but an inclusive consultative approach involving the major players starts the ball rolling. The consultant approach to a solution means making an impartial assessment of the situation, determining the stakeholders in the process, and compiling a steering group consisting of Executive, HR and Employee resources to brainstorm, evaluate, and vet alternative solutions. This methodology gives powerful input to decision making and comes with an automatic buy-in from all parties.

Oversimplified? Of course! Repurposing the work of managers and the rank and file employees into believing that things will be different is the best way to make it work. By removing the dread of having to recap an entire year of performance into one documented exchange takes the pressure off of managers. More frequent dialog also addresses the fact that there is a wide variability in employee performance over time and helps to redirect and standardize performance. Employees will gradually become more comfortable when a single incident is diluted over time rather than becoming the defining characteristic of the review.

Not mentioned here is the unnatural tie between performance management and salary determination. There are so many opportunities for HR leaders to make a significant impact. More work to be done? I think so.





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