Performance as a Practice

Nobody likes to have their efforts and accomplishments abstracted to a number, their contribution boiled down to a metric that has little bearing on what they may have achieved or contributed in any given timeframe.

Similarly, goals set early in planning cycles often drift, become irrelevant or sometimes become completely replaced over time, whether that is a month, quarter, a year or more. If unattended, they can be totally out of whack at review time.

Often when businesses want to “reckon” their staff they will expect those people responsible for managing them to provide metrics to help educate eligibility for pay reviews, bonuses etc. Some, dangerously, will edict a “bell curve” target to stretch these metrics over to meet a perception of “normal” spread of performance. To my thinking, this assumes poor performance, possibly even tolerates it.

Generally, this kind of situation inflicts the enervating “performance review” process upon the managers and their staff. Often an overhead on top of ongoing work and an initiative (if that’s not an oxymoron) that is costly in terms of time and effort that is wasted whilst managers and staff lobby for their own agendas and favourites.

I’ve been complicit in generating the data needed for this kind of review too many times in my career and they have always been a wasteful exercise, often poorly conceived and poorly executed, especially for the employees. But the root of this failing is not in the measurement but in the way people were assessed; too late, often with no data (or none easily to hand), against old goals and without enough time to do the staff justice.

It’s no fun to sit opposite your manager and have them tell you, whilst looking at their watch, that you need to improve in area A and drop area B to focus on C, as the most engaged and personally important meeting of your year as an employee.

Having fostered and observed more progressive management approaches in recent years, it is clear to me that there is another way to provide these important metrics, whilst still attending to the needs of you and your staff. As with many emerging management ideas, it is making the assessment of staff performance a continuous process, part of your business’ management practice.

1:1s are a key aspect of any real managers toolkit, in terms of gathering an understanding about the day to day activities of staff and getting the inside track on your people. If executed well, they are reinforcing, collaborative sessions, where a manager and direct report can openly engage in dialogue about their respective roles, the obstacles they meet and often their lives. We spend a lot of time with the people we work with, understanding and getting along is a necessity. These meetings are a fertile situation in which to assess staff.

The Practise

Not every business has the processes, policies or management acumen (let alone the opportunity) to navigate the multithreaded challenges of managing individuals on a large scale. But on a spectrum of attributes, it is quite clear how the “bell curve” advocates want to assess people.

  • Skills and Competencies
  • Goals and Objectives

In summary, are your people skilled enough, and able to use those skills well enough, to achieve what you want them to achieve? These questions assume that the business in question know what they want to do in the first place of course…

Whilst I DO believe these attributes are hugely important, they are just an aspect of what rounds out a person when it comes to them contributing at work.

Let’s extend the attributes to Standing and Teamwork. Are your staff respected by their peers and colleagues and able to effectively work with them?

But you can, and should go further.

  • Situation and Wellbeing
  • Engagement and Behaviours
  • Learning and Development

All these things are key for managers for an understanding of the rounded view of a person’s general performance at work.

A layered model using these attributes provides the underlying framework for a continuous assessment model. Covering these during regular 1:1s and ranking staff on an odd scale provides a simple model for maintaining a manager perception of performance, that much more richly educates a rolled up performance review if one is even ever necessary.

I recommend an odd scale to provide a centre point to the scale which is the 100% position.  This is the “happy path” for most people, with one or two underachieving and overachieving levels to add enough scope for the range of performance you will inevitably see in any team or organisation over the course of a quarter or a year.

Simplistically, on a scale of 1-5, 3 would be where you expect people to operate generally, with accepted over and underachievement instances into 2 and 4 and significant diversions from the happy path to 1 and 5. I refer to this as the “happy path” as it is where you should expect people to perform, and not erosive to their overall wellbeing and “happiness”. 3 or 100% is “As Expected”, scalable, repeatable and exactly what any business would want, long term from their staff.  Sure, actual performance will ebb and flow but at or around 3 is a top rating, 100%, or should be.

Indicators

This spectrum of attributes is one that reflects a rounded employee, their Situation and Wellbeing may be impacted by so many things, often unrelated to work, that it has to be a manager’s imperative to make sure their staff are okay. If they’re not, it can have implications for the other attributes that might be difficult to understand, let alone treat, without knowing this. Not everyone will share but if they trust you they generally will and that is a good thing.

Engagement and Behaviours are also key indicators, even a secure, skilled person can become disaffected sometimes and this will often show in how they work with others, communicate and blend with their colleagues, let alone perform.

Learning and Development are also important, especially if you prioritise this in your management policies as it helps keep you and them focused on ensuring they are being kept up to date and best able to contribute. A cultural focus on this really helps drive progression, not just of your people but also of your ability to execute.

These three sets of attributes are what I refer to as “indicators”, they inform a managers opinion of the person, their professional context and ability to contribute in many ways that are difficult to measure but essential to understanding. Ratings on these are to inform, not necessarily to rank. If your business has solid learning processes and an improvement culture alongside well-articulated values and expected behaviours, then they could become contributors too.

Contributors

Standing and Teamwork are the next attributes. The way people work with others is hugely important, even if assigned to a lone task, the instinct to share the knowledge, engage their peers and cultivate trust in themselves is a core ingredient of a successful team. Specialists are an anathema to this and should be avoided. Toxic and egotistical people will also probably score badly here, and so they should.

Goals and Objectives. These need to be kept up to date and it is a manager’s role to ensure this happens, pruning out the irrelevant or prioritising the urgent no matter how wedded they are to their original plan. Dynamic and reactive businesses that can adapt will do this, always reviewing priorities and setting an appropriate level of tenacity to those goals. For the employee, it is how they execute against these and focus on delivery and execution that is what needs to be measured.

Skills and Competencies are the final pair of attributes. These really cut to the foundation of any employees ability to contribute. Are they able to competently wield their skills to the maximal effect and use them appropriately at all times? Here lies the insight to individual potential, training needs and attention to detail; mastery. Obviously, these need to be assessed in light of their role, people new to a new role may not excel immediately, and that’s expected, and okay. Ranking needs to be based on context at every level.

Practise Makes Practice

So how do these rankings get captured? At every single 1:1 meeting, as a manager, snapshot rank your people on these attributes, provide a short summary of why you have ranked them this way and store it somewhere you can see it all at a glance, I suggest a spreadsheet, a sample template is available at the end of this document.

In possession of this data, recorded over time, you can look back and see your thinking about each person in your team, visualize their performance in a biorhythm style graph and calculate a grade based on average scores to help satisfy your business’ legitimate need to rank their people. Furthermore, you can satisfy your directs themselves about the level to which they are contributing but more importantly, they will know they are being managed well.

Words of caution.

No process or mechanism is immune to the human factor. Remember that however you rank your directs, they are still people, with complex lives, motivations, problems and potentials.

Don’t rely on this data as the full story, it’s only your side.  If you and your business have the maturity to expose this process to your teams it can be an effective way to ensure an engaged management model develops. Otherwise, make sure you do speak to your team members before declaring a unilaterally determined grade at the end of your performance review cycle.

This approach is one that will develop a broad management style amongst your managers and will rapidly become second nature to them.

Tools

An example spreadsheet with dummy data can be downloaded here.  Instructions are included but it should be pretty self-explanatory.  This should be used alongside your handwritten or softcopy notes as an index to meetings and a summary of your perceptions and material discussion points.

Use this template as you see fit and without the need for attribution but be warned that rolling this kind of process out over a business unit will require some extensive foreshadowing, associated process and mindset alignment and most of all buy-in from your managers and ultimately all your staff.