The challenge of walking the tight rope for striking the right balance – between the soft and the hard, the proverbial Yin and Yang!

There is suddenly so much noise globally on performance management and how it needs to change. There is also talk on how the entire system is too process focused and hence it leaves out people with a very cut and dry feeling. Almost all big consulting companies have by now published a research report around the subject. These reports also talk about how some companies have taken the lead in bringing in the much needed changes to performance management.

Typical ills of traditional performance management are linked to almost every stage of the process. From goal setting (too rigid, inflexible, out of tune with reality), planning (non-existent, left completely to the individual, no managerial input, disjointed across the organization), feedback (non-existent, past focused, once in a year, negative, non-impactful, person focused), reviews (don’t happen, irregular, too formal, too informal, lack action planning), assessment (biased, non-data driven, just once in a year, impacted by recent events) to ratings (once a year, biased, unfair distribution, forced, no link to performance, demotivating).
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If one reflects on these (and any others that may be present), one can see that there is a mix of process and mindset related issues present here. While the noise in the industry is more around how the process is not delivering the goods in today’s time, the broader issue of mindsets towards managing performance is lost in the din. The question is that: what is the essence of performance management? Are systems and processes created in order to ensure that we as humans do what is required to be done or are the systems and processes an end unto themselves? Did this essence get lost in the rank and yank philosophy adopted and made popular by some of the corporate stalwarts? Is the bell curve driven system based on the Darwinian doctrine of survival of the fittest? Also, is it fine now to suddenly run away from this rank and yank policy that has been followed for a few decades?

What is the essence of performance management? To check, correct, eliminate, distribute or to learn, grow and get better? Yes, a business runs on being profitable and making profits. Hence, people need to be held accountable for how much they were able to achieve against a target, since in their minds, they are also ‘expecting’ a target reward for their efforts. But almost every system designed by human beings right from school level onwards tries to check how much we have been able to do against a given standard. This checking comes at the end of the cycle, is typically past oriented and hence holds no value for the future. Since there is no data or insight on what enabled or came in the way of performance (the means), there is limited learning from the evaluation (that depicts only the ends) and hence does not offer something of value to the individual that they could use for being able to do better.

Only one part of the need is hence addressed through such a past focused, Feed-Back based evaluation system. A rating for what has been achieved, a reward based on that rating and certain other outcomes such as promotions (based on policy), visibility as a part of the high performer group, inclusion in special programs and perhaps elimination for those who did not make it. But an end of the term assessment is just like a post-mortem. Operation successful but patient dead since, as per a traditional bell curve, only 20%-25% of the people at the top two ratings are seen to have contributed and get the lion’s share of the rewards! The past focused assessment has its own value but only to tell what was done and how much was achieved. It cannot go back and turn the situation around for the better, nor does it tell the person at the right time when the change is required as to what should change in the approach and how will that change happen.

The other part, which is difficult to be driven through a system or a process alone – that of learning, growth and becoming better as an individual takes a back seat. It is not enough to just have a development plan on paper, neither is it enough to just attend a few programs (classroom or digital), and it is also not enough to get a past focused feed-back from the manager. Running performance needs run time inputs or feed forward, where the inputs feed the performance as we move forward. All the development, programs and other inputs must support the performance to happen as the employee is moving ahead through the year.

What is hence required?

Every conversation between the manager and the team member holds potential as a development dialogue. Both, the manager and the team member must make use of it as such.

This ongoing conversation must focus on what are the best outcomes possible and how to make them happen. What is coming in the way, what are the solutions, what does the team member need to do differently and hence what are the new skills to be learnt and even things that the manager could do differently so that the team member feels supported and equipped.

Measurement of outcomes must happen periodically in order to know how much has been achieved, how well things are happening and this data is definitely important for bringing in the objective angle to the discussions. But human behavior needs to be discussed, tough questions need to be asked, what is not visible to oneself must be shown to us by the way of others acting as a mirror for us and, where required, whether for conceptual areas or for behavioral, the relevant inputs must be available for bringing about a change. Most of the times, people can and will find a solution to their own issues. What they need is an ear that is willing to listen and act as a sounding board. This heightens their involvement thereby making the likelihood of a successful outcome much higher.

Along with the above, performance support tools, both digital and non-digital (such as job-aids, checklists, cue-cards, list of critical questions, process steps etc.) must be handy for reinforcing what is to be done. These can in fact be created by the team members themselves making their usage more likely.

Delegating the above role to a system or a process is typical of a pill popping orientation of ours as human beings where we expect all troubles to go away by popping a pill into our mouths! Wish it were really that simple.

Between the giants who brought in rank and yank and the ones who moved first onto completely behavior based assessments, there is always a question of which extreme is correct. What we are experiencing around us is movement from one extreme to the other. Nature is about living the balance – between the Yin and the Yang. And the struggle is in getting this balance right. The end outcome needs to be measured, people need to be rewarded appropriately for how much they have achieved, yet the right behavior has to be encouraged, and learning and growth must happen for people and the organization to move ahead as living, thriving entities.

– Rahul Agarwal, Sr. Consultant, Learning Strategy at G-Cube

Rahul is a passionate Learning & Development professional and has spent 14 years of his experience (in the training and consulting field. He has stepped beyond training to organizational development and talent management and has done extensive work in the areas of Organizational Effectiveness & Workforce Transformation, Leadership Development, Talent Management and Functional Competence Enhancement.

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