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Performance Management—What Just Happened?

By Jim Kauffman

Jim KauffmanIt was a day like any other day in the land of HR initiatives and Performance Management was sitting at home minding its own business. Suddenly there was a loud pounding at the door, and Performance Management got up to determine who it could be. Performance Management was stunned to find a crowd of angry, growling citizens armed with pitchforks and torches. Many of them carried hastily painted signs and placards reading, “You're not wanted here! Go away!”

The message was clear: Performance Management was being run out of town. But why? Why the sudden anger? Performance Management had no idea, but was certain that life in the land of HR initiatives would never be the same.

The End.

And that my friends, is a true story.

Performance Management has been doing exactly the same thing year in and year out for the last 20-30 years. Suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, dissatisfaction with the practice has escalated to a level of unprecedented vitriol. Indeed, some rather nasty things have been said of late about Performance Management. “Waste of time, demoralizing, stupid, frustrating, cumbersome.” (Other descriptors unfit for print have been deleted by my editors.) If performance management has not changed for decades, why the sudden Performance Management Revolution?

Can a Band-Aid cure a disease?

While I have not personally heard Performance Management referred to as a disease, it certainly has taken on the characteristics of something that needs a cure. If Performance Management were a disease it would be a rather nasty disease; light treatments might feel good for a while but the disease will return if not cured. Just as a medical researcher would attack a disease, this calls for a thorough epistemology to uncover the root causes that have given rise to the venom and bitterness being directed at Performance Management.

Symptom   Band-Aid
It takes too long! Create a shorter evaluation form.
I don’t like being evaluated Eliminate ratings.
There is too much paperwork Put it in the Cloud.

…you get the idea. These are surface level treatments that don’t get to the root cause. We will only improve Performance Management when we understand what has caused some of the relatively recent calls to overhaul it. Here are a few likely sources and needed solutions.

Organizational transformations

Organizations today must operate with agility and are required to take actions, make decisions, drive communications and foster relationships fluidly across traditional boundaries. Under these conditions, much of what any individual employee accomplishes throughout the course of the year happens in ad hoc teams and cross-functional project groups with limited or no oversight from the direct line leaders. Under these circumstances, very little value can be extracted from a once or twice-a-year conversation designed to look backward and evaluate performance.

Solution: Managers need to learn to ask good seeking questions in order to generate insights and guide development throughout the year.

Work environment

The nature of work is changing and the change is occurring at an accelerated rate. Gone (in fact long gone) are the industrial era jobs in which output could be measured by the number of widgets produced. Enter the rise of the knowledge worker. Today's employees contribute in ways that often cannot be planned or predicted. The very nature of the value they create comes in the form of new ideas, creative approaches and transformed business processes. In that environment, how frustrating must it be for an employee at any level to be sat down at the end of the year by their “expert” manager and told how adequately or inadequately they met the quantitative goals typed into their performance plan 12 months ago. (And how uncomfortable for the manager as well!)

Solution: Managers need to learn skills to conduct these conversations in a way that will motivate others to continue creating and innovating.


Despite grave dissatisfaction with Performance Management—managers and employees alike have tolerated it as a necessary practice to enable merit based pay and pay-for-performance. Employees needed to be evaluated and “graded” in order for differential compensation to be administered. As we continue to gradually emerge from the recent recession, employees look back to recent years where pay increases were all but eliminated as organizations struggled to contain costs. The current frustration is likely exacerbated by the realization that all those painful performance management meetings with their cumbersome forms and ratings were forced upon us, even when there were effectively no compensation decisions linked to the process.

Solution: Managers need to shift the emphasis away from evaluations and ratings toward conversations that develop and enable stronger performance.

As these examples illustrate, the root causes leading to the Performance Management “disease” cannot be cured with a new evaluation form, software, or a mobile app. We must rely on managers to conduct frequent and forward-looking conversations to help engage employees. Managers need to acquire and apply skills to effectively set and monitor priorities, coach, deliver feedback and continue to develop stronger performance.

So friends, a Performance Management Revolution is underway. Let’s shift our thinking and actually cure the “disease.”

Also here’s a link to the recording: Reinvent Performance Management into a Leadership Process—a webinar hosted by Chief Learning Officer, in which my colleague Diane Bock and I shared ways to help you rethink your approach to performance management.

Jim Kauffman is a Product Manager in DDI’s Leadership Solutions Group. At DDI, his focus is on mid and senior level leadership development. When not at DDI, Jim spends a good deal of time spoiling his two grandsons, Jason and Trevor.

Posted: 25 Oct, 2016,
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