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 entirely 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 and other variable compensation. 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, and 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 wasted time and effort while managers and staff lobby for personal agendas and favourites.

I’ve been complicit in generating the data needed for this kind of review too many times in my career, and it has always been a wasteful exercise, often poorly conceived and poorly executed, especially for the employees. But the root of this kind of efficiency failure is not in the measurement but in the way some businesses assess people; too late, often with no data (or none readily to hand), often 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 while looking at their watch, what you have and haven’t achieved based on scant consideration. The annual (or more regular) performance review should be the most engaged and personally important meeting of your year as an employee.

I have fostered and observed more progressive management approaches in recent years. It is clear to me that there is another way to gather and assess these performance metrics, while still attending to your responsibilities as a manager and the needs of your staff. As with many emerging management ideas, it is about assessing staff performance as a continuous process, part of your business’ overall management practice.

A 1:1 meeting is the critical aspect of any real manager’s toolkit; crucially it is about gathering an understanding of the day to day activities of staff and getting the inside track on them. 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 much 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? 

While 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 work with them effectively?

But you can, and should go further.

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

All these things are essential 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’s 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 (100%) on the rating range. The midpoint is the “happy path” for most people, with one or two under and over-achieving 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.

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 is 100%, it is “As Expected”, sustainable, 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 where an employees contribution is fairly balanced with their compensation.

Indicators

This spectrum of attributes enables the manager to reflect on a more rounded view of the person. Someone’s 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 they know what is going on in the lives of their staff and that they 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 the broader context. Not everyone will share, but if they trust you, they generally will, and that is a good thing.

Engagement and Behaviours are also useful 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 individually.

Learning and Development are essential attributes too, especially if you prioritise this in your management policies, as it helps keep you and them focused on ensuring they are keeping up to date with their skills and are best able to contribute. A cultural focus on learning and self-improvement helps drive progression, not just of your people but also of your teams and overall ability to execute.

These three sets of attributes are what I refer to as “indicators”; they inform a manager’s opinion of the person, their professional context and ability to contribute in many ways that are difficult to measure but essential to understand. Ratings on these attributes are to inform, not necessarily to rank. If your business has robust learning processes and an improvement culture alongside well-articulated values and expected behaviours, then they could become contributors too. That would be the ideal direction of travel for any maturing team.

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 teammate. Specialists (knowledge hogs) are anathema to this, and they should not be allowed to entrench. Toxic and egotistical people will also probably score poorly 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, how they execute and deliver according to agreed goals is what needs to be measured.

Skills and Competencies are the final pair of attributes. These do cut to the foundation of any employee’s 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 the context of their actual role. People in a new position should not expect to excel immediately, and that’s okay. Rankings need to be context-based 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 this collection of attributes. Provide a summary of why you have ranked them this way and store it somewhere so you can see it all at a glance. I suggest a spreadsheet. (a free sample template is available by request 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. You can visualise their performance in a biorhythm style graph and calculate a real-time grade based on average scores to help fulfil 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 managed well.

Words of caution.

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

Please don’t rely on the data you collect 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 and people-focused management style amongst your managers and will rapidly become second nature to everyone.

Tools

I have an example spreadsheet with dummy data available. If you’d like a copy get in touch using the button below. It’s free, all I ask is you tell me a bit about why or how you might use it.

Do you want the tools?