Beyond Performance Reviews

If you had to create a system from scratch that would contribute to having higher levels of work engagement among employees, would you create a conventional, traditional performance management/ review system as exists currently in most organisations? My guess is that few of us would choose to do that, at least without skepticism and a certain degree of sadness that we wished we had something better. Why - because we know of enough reasons why conventional performance review systems don't contribute to improved or increased engagement and more often, we know that they can be highly demotivational for a significant proportion of our team members.

Who would willingly choose to engage in a process that is ostensibly intended to improve performance, to drive up standards across an organisation and keep 'all the fishes' swimming in a common direction, where the evidence actually suggests that the process demotivates many and leaves others ambivalent about the process, their longer term career and life aspirations and the contribution they make to the organisation?

In knowledge-based organisations and professional fields the process of finding, recruiting and integrating new people is an enormously expensive one. It doesn't necessarily appear as a defined line in budgets, so many of these costs are concealed and hidden in other working costs. In addition, turnover of people, the inevitable times when there are gaps when a position is left vacant because a suitable person can't be identified all act as further hidden costs. It's even worse than that, though. Finding people who are a perfect fit is almost impossible. So, people are taken in to the organisation and considerable time and effort goes in to helping them to fit the roles for which the organisation needs them. In those circumstances to either lose the person or (maybe worse), to have the person stay but never really fulfil their potential is a massive cost. When it happens too often, you have an underperforming organisation that can never really be all that was dreamed or envisaged.

So, we have to be open to all ideas and possibilities about how to lead knowledge workers effectively, in ways that are respectful and respected. To lead people in ways that enhance people's potential contribution, make them feel certain that they're in a place where their personal and organisational goals can be aligned and to see that their future dreams can often be achieved in some form in the organisation (instead of believing that they must go elsewhere).

Ironically, i suspect the lack of meaningful discussion with employees about the future - their futures - is one of the reasons that so many reduce their organisational existence down to just a discussion about money. If i believe the organisation isn't interested in me and the future i dream of for me, then i might as well at least get as much money from the organisation as i can for the limited period that I'm going to stay.

As Russ Laraway highlights in the video above, and in this Fast Company article the biggest shortcoming of performance management reviews (when they happen and even when they're done well) is that they are inherently backward looking. Worse, to my mind, is that they don't look at the past from the perspective of what was important to the individual, but according to a checklist of tasks or deliverables that the organisation wanted from the individual. Laraway acknowledges that the past is an important part of career discussions, but from the context of the person's whole past and especially those aspects of the past that hold clues to who the individual is and their priorities today.

I wrote yesterday about the millennials and how they are different - requiring different approaches from us in the workplace. This is a classic example. As highlighted in the video shared yesterday, they want more attention to be made to them as people. Attention to their aspirations and dreams is something they want, so this approach makes sense and will strike a chord.

We live with a new reality. Workplaces have changed in the last 20 years or so. Leaders cannot be making assumptions that because they issue an order or instruction or declare that something is to be done in a particular way (or even the statement of a vision or mission) that it will be blindly followed, obeyed or done as stated. This isn't to say that millennial employees are willfully disobedient. It's more that they see the workplace and a job as something more transactional. In those circumstances, respecting the individual has dreams, taking time to understand them, their past and those dreams for the future fits right in with the sort of attention they seek in return for their professional contribution.