Case Study 

Performance management that works – balance the power

A case study on giving employees more responsibility for their performance resulted in the reform of the performance management process and improved results in the business.
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Just before the holidays I was with the HR director of a large partnership – he was late for the meeting and arrived flustered and stressed. “It’s that time of year,” he said. At first I was a bit puzzled; I’ve clearly been out of corporate life for too long! But what he meant was that it was annual review time, or the performance management cycle was taking place. over the last 18months we have seen Performance management become the most talked about topic in HR. hardly anyone seems happy with their system and we are seeing lots of high profile companies make radical changes. Many of these changes are being made without any clear evidence base for the results that can be expected.

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Most managers I’ve worked with hate this time of year and their teams hated it even more.

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That being said most managers I’ve worked with hate this time of year and their teams hated it even more. When I was in a corporate role remember having a conversion with my CEO about how we should completely change performance management. My view was that the end of year conversations should be no more than a confirmation of what everyone already knew. All the discussion, data collection and performance feedback should be happening on the job, all year not during one month of the year.

He was so enthused that he agreed to give it a go. The process would be driven by the employee not the boss, and certainly not HR. So this is what we implemented:

  • Employees set their goals and agreed them with their supervisor. We made the data available to staff to monitor their own progress. Employees could request a conversation at any time with their boss to discuss progress, update their goals due to business changes, and request any support or help they needed. They were responsible for asking for feedback from relevant stakeholders- from their boss or internal clients or colleagues
  • We created a ‘success profile’ of the behaviours and mind-set needed for success in the business. We shared it with people and turned it into a six-question 180 review which people asked their internal clients or stakeholders to complete for them at least once a year. They used this data to adjust their behaviour and how they were going about meeting their goals.
  • Managers were asked to monitor the hard data and the 180 results, and they got a quarterly report of who was exceeding their goals and who was off-track. Managers were also required to share information about the evolution of strategy and to provide coaching and support.
  • Managers were strongly encouraged to focus on the good performers and to support them to be even better. This was one of the hardest changes. For many it seemed counter intuitive but the data told us this was where the most performance gains could be made. Getting more out of the employees who were already in the top quartile of performance gave a greater return on investment.

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People loved this process and our other key metrics improved too. Unfortunately, it only lasted 18 months.

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People loved this process and our other key metrics improved too. Unfortunately, it only lasted 18 months. The firm was acquired and the new owners instituted their traditional system. I still occasionally meet my former leadership team colleagues and they still talk about the performance management system that worked.

It seems that we stumbled onto something and neuroscience findings can now tell us why it worked. Most traditional performance management creates a threat response. It reduces creativity, rational thinking and narrows the individual’s perception. Hardly conditions for someone to take on new information and turn it into new behaviours. To make matters worse, feedback impacts the employee’s own sense of certainty about how to be successful, their reputation in the group, and what they thought their options were in how they do their job. It can make them ask “Have I got to do it the boss’s way?” which most staff feel is unfair ( see our CORE model video for more).

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Giving employees’ options and control, coaching rather than judgment, and focusing on what is going right rather than what is going wrong is brain-savvy.

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Giving employees’ options and control, coaching rather than judgment, and focusing on what is going right rather than what is going wrong is brain-savvy. But how do you move from where you are today to something that works? Well, a good start is to engage senior leaders and appeal to their CORE elements. Oh and of course, the promise of improved performance should convince the CEO.

Giving employees’ options and control, coaching rather than judgment, and focusing on what is going right rather than what is going wrong is brain-savvy.

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