Do we really need performance management?

performance management

Individual performance management is rubbish.  Not only that, it’s patronising and disabling.  I’ve said it before.  When people aren’t performing, it’s extremely probable that it’s not a behavioural problem; it’s the system.  It’s not that performance management as a concept has been sullied because it’s been ineptly carried out.  It’s just that it’s pointless and in some cases counter-productive to actually getting good performance.  Deming’s 95% percent rule.

Sure, some people are not performing well enough.  They aren’t doing their tasks.  They are not meeting targets.  Targets.  That’s another, connected conversation.  Stop looking at the individuals and look at the whole.

There is a mindset that says, “an individual’s performance must be monitored/managed/reviewed”.  What’s a mindset?  I like Bob Marshall’s treatment of this: “a set of ideas, assumptions, beliefs, heuristics, etc. (e.g. memes) which interact to reinforce each other.”   In most cases, we are unconscious of the mindsets out of which we operate and see the world.  We just behave out of them.  So there are a whole set of these (mostly) unconscious things that coalesce in our minds.  It’s a reflexive thing, too.  We have a set of beliefs and assumptions, we then have a bunch of experiences.  We give meaning to these experiences out of the beliefs and assumptions that we bring, which in turn reinforces those assumptions.  An example of a self-preserving, self-reinforcing mindset:

“Why do you keep that rabbit’s foot?”

“Because it keeps the elephants away.”

“But there are no elephants anywhere near here.”

“See?  It works.”

Like Bob, I believe that “attempting to simply swap out selected memes, one for another, on an incremental basis appears infeasible.”  Granted, this also comes out of my own mindset and I could be shooting myself in the foot by saying this.  At the same time, I have come from “individual-performance-management-land” and it was found wanting.  Back in the old days when all this was fields, I also used to assume that someone had to monitor and manage my performance because that’s just what happens in the workplace.  Then I grew up and realised I don’t like being “told off”; it’s demoralising, it’s disrespectful, it’s limiting.  Counter-productive to being productive because it often leads people to withhold any kind of effort beyond what they are instructed to do by the all-knowing, all-seeing bossman (though in one case for me it was a woman).

The “individual performance management” meme was also blown out of the water by experience.  Many years ago, I had first hand experience of “effectiveness-land” and it worked.  By this I mean that the work was far more satisfying for everyone, we were incredibly effective at what we did and we all brought our creativity to the table, making for a culture of genuine continuous improvement.  We knew we were effective, not because our managers told us we were or that we achieved X% of our KPIs.  We knew we were effective because our stakeholders told us so.  They included the clients we worked with directly, the statutory government agencies to whom the agency reported, the media and our peers in other agencies.  And if the quality of our work was substandard, we had good feedback systems in place and were told about it, and because we already had in place a culture of learning, we sought to adjust our working practices….

…..and we talked about our performance all the time.

In recent years, with growing awareness of the need to humanise workplaces, some have advocated for a more humanised performance management process.  This means, in many cases, that managers have been trained to structure performance reviews as more of a mutual conversation than a top-down, Manager-driven assessment of performance against a pre-determined set of targets.  Often, though,the mindset has still not changed.  Forms are filled out, the conversation revolves around targets and KPIs, only the employee is invited to speak first and evaluate themselves against the same old criteria.  The assumption that monitoring individual performance is essential still underlies what goes on, it’s just done in a friendlier way.  I’ve used the expression before: you can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter.

You don’t get a flower to grow by pulling on it.  You create the conditions within which it will flourish and do what comes naturally to it.  If we hold to a Theory X mindset, then we will be oriented towards a carrot and stick approach to getting better performance.  If we hold to a Theory Y mindset, then we will be oriented to crafting a structure within which people will flourish and do well.  I read a very short but very delightful article this week by systemthinkingforgirls entitled, “The only question a manager should ask in an appraisal.”  That question is, “What stops you from doing a good job?”  Behind this question sits the mindset that it is the system which stops people from doing well at work, not their individual skills, knowledge and attitudes.  Performance appraisals as we currently understand them focus on people’s individual stuff.  Tarting them up so that they aren’t as scary or rejigging them so they are “two-way conversations” still doesn’t address the underlying assumption that they are useful.

This notwithstanding, I am not suggesting that managers suddenly stop talking to anyone about anything they do at work.  I’m also not suggesting that people just stop having conversations about performance.  I’m suggesting that conversations that presume managing and monitoring an individual’s performance is essential will not necessarily lead to effectiveness or a high-performing organisation.  It’s specious logic to say that we’ve always done it, look at that business there, they do it and they are successful, therefore….  That’s Monty Python logic:  we’ll throw her in the pond and if she floats, she must be made of wood and therefore, a witch.

Perhaps a more useful performance conversation is done with a view to offer coaching and support or to detect noise in the wider system.  “What stops you from doing a good job?”  Lack of knowledge or technical expertise?  Poor relationships with peers?  Inadequate or impenetrable policies and procedures?  Outdated or insufficient information?  Poor resourcing?  Lack of experience in the organisation?  Breakdowns in communication between different parts of the organisation?  All of these questions point to the clues as to where we would find the barriers to high performance, and it’s more than likely it’s not an individual’s inadequacies.  Deming’s 95% rule.

By poo-pooing individual performance management, is the inference that I’m anti-performance, anti-effectiveness, pro-lovey-dovey-nicey-nicey?  You might as well say I’m pro-crime because I think our current criminal justice system is broken.  I realise it’s heresy to suggest that managing individual performance is useless.  To reference Bob again, he wrote a great list of invalid premises that businesses would do well to jettison, one of which is that an individual’s productivity and performance is down to the individual.  Related, yes, for if you have someone in a job who doesn’t have the technical skills necessary to carry it out, they are likely to do poorly.  “Related”, but not “down to”.  If the system is screwy, it will be hard for any individual to excel.

A bad system will beat a good person….every time.  Deming

Let’s get good performance, yes.  Let’s also look at how we get it and examine the assumptions we make about how it happens.  Are we doing the wrong thing righter?  Or are we establishing the fertile ground from which high performance will spring?  Let’s have performance conversations, yes.  Let’s look for the systemic causes of poor performance in the organisation.  Let’s talk about the organisation’s performance, not that of individuals.

What do we do if individual performance management is abolished?

What would we find in a high-performing organisation, then?  A 2007 AMA study, “How to Build a High-Performance Organisation”, sets out five domains they observed in their survey of businesses that excel.  It acknowledges that external factors impact on performance and looks at what they do to navigate an environment which is volatile, uncertain, ambiguous and complex.  The five drivers that most heavily influence performance are:

  • Strategic approach: clear vision supported by flexible plans
  • Customer approach: clear focus on engaging and maintaining good customer relationships
  • Leadership approach: clear goal-setting, coaching and mentoring when necessary and appropriate, ensuring people have a clear line of sight that that vision stuff
  • Processes and structure:  “good enough” policies and procedures that facilitate the work, not create busy work that takes people away from their real work.  Structure that eases information flow and good relationships across businesses
  • Values and beliefs:  easily understood set of values that are lived by everyone, not laminated

If we default to old mindsets, some might read in there that we still need to manage individual performance, otherwise, how would we achieve that stuff?  I believe it’s more about creating the conditions within which let people do well.  If we could substitute leadership for performance management, perhaps we would get there.  If those who lead the business did some reflection and committed themselves to adopting Theory Y as their touchstone, perhaps energy would be spent on making sure people had all they need to do their jobs well and then getting out of their way.

17 thoughts on “Do we really need performance management?

  1. This article is so dead on the target. Performance management is an invention of HR departments as a means to justify their existence and cover themselves, legally so they can build cases to justify their actions when they let people go. Performance management is counter-intuitive to truly managing individuals and teams, and getting the most out of them. It’s actually a lazy form of management, which, unfortunately, far too many companies ascribe to these days.

    1. Thanks Mildred. It’s certainly a case of doing what we’ve always done just because it’s always been done. If managers are doing things to cover themselves, it comes out of fear, I reckon. Not a good thing to have in the air conditioning because it infects everything and everyone. I might go as far as to say it’s not much laziness, but a default setting, mostly unconscious. Gary Hamel’s statement, “We are prisoners of the familiar” fits quite well here.

      1. You’re right, of course. It’s actually NOT laziness but it is a default. One that is rarely questioned. And, if you are the one questioning the system, YOU are now a ‘problem’ to be dealt with, not the system. Companies preach innovation yet they DO default to using systems, some good, some bad, that once in place, seemingly can’t be challenged. That’s certainly not a road to innovation, creativity, or a means to creating a challenging environment (in a good way). I truly believe that most people placed in a truly challenging, rewarding environment will rise to the occasion and will work at a level far above expectations. Performance management places an artificial ceiling on expectations and is confining to the workers instead of being liberating.

  2. This also is linked to the thought that leadership puts someone ‘in charge’. That X in charge, determines and is competent to singularly determine, by decree or by solicitation, the fate of those who serve that X in charge. Perhaps, the rest of the world is Y, and perhaps X and Y make the universe at work. Although this is about the term ‘performance management’ the term in itself does not preclude, or exclude agents of performance. It is as John argues a mind-set product where leaders in charge hold individuals accountable. Maybe there’s a moralistic tinge, and that the new moral is emerging. We live interdependently, and if all are in charge, then X in charge may help by conceding, especially if Y include X in the charge of what X and Y can do together.

  3. John

    What can I say? Your insight, your speaking shows up as sheer magic! The system, always the system. Structure determines/drives behaviour. Take the same plant plant it in different conditions and you have a variety of outcomes: one wilts and dies, the other one struggles and hangs on, another one flourishes magnificently. I talk of this from experience – I do gardening!

    I love that single question. I have come to strategy from an operational life: making business work especially businesses that had fallen on hard times. I have also been responsible for large teams implementing ERP and CRM systems. Once we agreed on the play, the roles, and the rules of participation, I focussed only on one question:

    “What is getting in the way of you showing up with enthusiasm and doing a great job?”

    I saw my role as the guy whose role was to clear the obstacles that were getting in the way of me fellow team members doing what they were up for doing. And it worked!

    As Deming says a “Bad system beats a good person every time”. And that occurred to me more than once. When I sought to point that out I found no listening for this with most of my managers. People speak as if we live from reality. Rare is that the case. Almost all of us live from ideology. And the current ideology has no listening to that which Deming speaks. Which is why we have to continue speaking and create the listening.


  4. Another gem, John! I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts on performance management – from the perspective of one whose performance has been managed, and the perspective of a manager forced to see to others’ performance.

    Mine was an organization that delighted in processes and most of our work was designed to keep the machinery going. I was lucky enough to work in a group that valued artists and creator – for their experience, creative thinking and ability to work their way around problems. But the broader system we worked in ground down those valued attributes by repeatedly calling upon these skills and then shelving the results.

    What a different world it would have been if we’d been able to engage in a serious discussion about the barriers to doing a great job. We all knew what they were but there was no desire in the hierarchy to address the situation.

  5. I have heard this for years, but the author forgot that the first bit is missing… the problem seems to start with job descriptions which inevitably lead to a list of Accountabilities which lead to annual objectives which means reviewing performance. If individual responsibility is removed, no one is responsible, the buck keeps getting passed but not to the shareholders. Could it be that job descriptions individual goals and performance reviews are not the problem? Could it be that poor performance management systems, lazy managers and weak HR leaders are the problem?

    Deming (and others) have said that to achieve quality output or products, start with clear specifications, establish measurement systems, measure, look for deviations from what is specified, look for causes of deviance. provide feedback, take corrective action. Do not hold hands and sing “Kumaya”, it won’t help.

    Now if you want to talk about how the system is carried out, that is a productive conversation that doesn’t involve “throwing the baby out with the was water”. Feedback is the breakfast of champions. Granted it has to be balanced (positive and negative) and has to be focused on improving overall organizational performance. A variety of inputs (peer reviews, customer reviews, 360, etc) can be employed but they also have their limitations.

    The point is that performance management can and does work, if done well.

    1. The author is not suggesting a love-fest of Kumbaya. The issue is not with quality, clear responsibilities, feedback, corrective action or continuous improvement. It is with the mindset that says individual performance can or should be managed. Theory Y says that “under the right conditions” people will flourish. Those conditions are essential. If we institute more leadership in organisations, leadership that sees its role as steward of a healthy, living, complex and emergent system, the aim is to set the conditions for good performance to happen. Good organisational performance. And good organisational performance is a systemic issue. It includes how hiring happens, how learning happens, how development happens…. To focus on lazy managers or weak HR takes us back to a mechanistic approach. It’s not the individuals, it’s the system; the whole system.

  6. Another great article John. I’ve been reading a lot more about performance appraisal recently, since joining a company whose CEO insists it is the way to move forward and be successful. Sadly, this company had a rather lame performance system in place when the CEO joined. No one liked it. But rather than use that as an opportunity to reassess its value, the new CEO “improved” it. Surely an example of doing the wrong thing righter. Or maybe not even. Probably doing the wrong thing wronger.

    Here’s an article I particularly like on this topic, that you may not have come across yet: Appraising Performance Appraisal

    1. Thanks Tobias. What you say makes sense. A new CEO will naturally want to make a quick difference to things. If they aren’t familiar with anything else, they will understandably do the thing they know, which, as you say, is sometimes doing the wrong thing righter. Thanks for adding in the link.

  7. Hi,

    I fully believe in the theory you are putting and i am trying to put into practice by using peer feedback to support the discussion about performance and retrospectives to give the teams the ability to drive improvements.
    The feedback i am getting from the poeple is mixed though. I had multiple poeple coming to me asking for an individual performance appraisal.
    Did anyone experience this mindset too ? Has anyone got ideas on how to approach this resistance ?

  8. Nicely written article but people’s ‘Incompetence’ is such an easy target. The term performance management has been hijacked and destroyed by non-specialists. Performance Management is actually the nicest, most socialist, ‘lovey dovey’ thing anyone can do for someone else (inside or outside of the workplace). Performance Management should be carried out in the style of the Dalai Lama with the inspiration of Steve Jobs, the planning and foresight of Napolean and the tact of Ghandi…. if it is not, then it is being done wrongly and this is why it fails. The concept is sound and when PM is done CORRECTLY it is the core reason for success in every company, government, military, sports team, society or Empire that has ever been great.

    1. Thanks for stopping by to read and for commenting. However, I suspect you won’t like my response to your comment. I can only repeat my assertion in the article which is that performance management is a waste of time. Performance management done “correctly” is merely rolling a turd in glitter. It’s doing the wrong thing righter. My assertion ( and that of many others ) is that the MINDSET that individual performance can be “managed” is simply wrong. To my mind (and, again, that of many others), there is no correct way to do individual performance management. It’s certainly not a nice thing to do for people and it’s certainly not effective in catalysing real systemic change. Performance management, done wrongly or done correctly (as you describe) is useless to organisational effectiveness, achievement of purpose or success. I strongly believe that any evidence that says so is specious. To reiterate the example in my article:

      “Why do you keep that rabbit’s foot?”

      “Because it keeps the elephants away.”

      “But there are no elephants anywhere near here.”

      “See? It works.”

      Same goes for performance management.

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