Performance Management: It’s Not a Product, It’s a Partnership

For winter, here’s a cold-weather metaphor any homeowner can relate to. But it’s a model that, as you’ll see, has to do with any major shift in a big system. Imagine you’ve finally made the plunge and opted to spend a whole lot to invest in a brand new heating system for your house. It’s super high tech: state of the art, energy efficient, entirely customized to your needs, with digital thermostats and a cognitive design that will not only remember your heating needs but anticipate them. You can control it from your smartphone and, theoretically, coach family and guests on how to use it. The installer walks you through it all, and it seems incredibly simple. And then the installer leaves.

And you realize you haven’t a clue how to use it.

What do you do?

You call the installer. Come back and show me again. Or my family will be furious with me, because I made them give up the old furnace that may have clunked and roared, but it worked.

Workforces are not heating systems. But as with any other essential part of the infrastructure, you can’t make a massive, systemic change to how you manage the workforce and then let it run itself. What we’ve also found is that in terms of performance management, 88% of companies want to rethink how they do it, according to a 2015 study by Deloitte. But of those, only 8–12% stopped relying on performance reviews.

Here’s one simple reason: they don’t get enough help. To revise one of the very foundations of an organization — one that blends culture with process and strategy with system, and has an impact on the single most valuable asset, people —  there should be a partnership guiding the change. Just as we set expectations for our employees, it’s time to set them for our consultants as well. What do we need to drive successful change? Here are five key behaviors companies can ask for:

  1. Don’t just hold our hand. Inspire us. This is one instance where handholding is not just appropriate, it’s necessary. No matter how sophisticated an organization’s knowledge of the software, or how savvy the HR team is, there are going to be gaps in that intelligence. It’s not just about software and tech issues, either. It’s about the very role performance management can take as a driver of organizational success. You want a consultant who sees the role of performance management as a catalyst, not a punishment, to enable employers to grow and thrive. It’s part technician, part coach.
  2. Don’t make it too complicated.  There are too many instances of plug and play applications that are not fully utilized due to poor support and overcomplicated mechanics — yes, and that can adversely affect both successful ROI and next steps. A badly conceived change could cancel out the value of future initiatives. Innovation only drives innovation when it works. Not only do we need dedicated human beings as well as chatbots to help troubleshoot, there should also be a point when a complicated problem is handled back on the consulting end, freeing HR to go back to its other tasks.
  3. Craft alignment with the customer. I recently wrote about the need to revise the foundational culture underpinning how companies manage performance: “Without the engagement and alignment of our workforce, all the big plans in the world won’t amount to much.”  The same can be said of a support system. If a company has committed to changing its performance management, it’s made the cultural shift. But without the engagement and alignment of the provider / consultant from which it’s sourcing its new performance management system, that cultural shift won’t amount to much. The new system may not function smoothly or seam into the existing organizational culture, and may drive disengagement and resentment among the workforce.
  4. Partner, don’t just provide. The tremendous shifts transforming the world of work point back to the same need again and again for teamwork not just within organizations, but outside of them. Success depends on positive collaboration — working together to facilitate the change, initiate the change, train the change, and then maintain the change. Innovative companies will not only customize the software and elements like the dashboard or the portal, they also tailor the entire process, managing not just the moment of change, but the continuum from initial adoption to fully integrated use.
  5. Act a bit like a startup. There’s a recent, compelling article on organizational change by friend and colleague Josh Levine. He breaks organizational culture into 5 Ps: package, potential, people, purpose, andperception. It’s also an apt way to look at how an organization handles a profound change such as a new performance management system. Just how the system works — what’s in the package has to be clear: its platforms, check-ins, surveys, self-assessments, and more — so employees know what to expect. But they also should see the merits and potential — for instance, if management is going to be based on motivation instead of separation (as happens in stack rankings and badly designed peer reviews), or performance reviews are going to happen more often and with less stress involved and more flexibility.

Presenting the potential is up to the people involved, and may be more effective when it’s conveyed by those who created the system. They don’t need to sell it anymore, whereas the organization may feel compelled to pitch it to the workforce to facilitate a smoother adoption. And is the workforce given the chance to really see the purpose of this new model from their own point of view? It’s as critical to manage perceptions as it is to carefully manage change — but to do that transparently and authentically. That needs to come from both provider and purchaser.

We talk a whole lot about the need to change our performance management systems, and how they’re already changing for the better. We focus on how best to engage rather than evaluate, how to use feedback to empower, how to stop treating employees like numbers whose performance simply checks off desired boxes. The specifics of a system can vary widely. But the bottom line should be a sustained, agile, responsive and scalable partnership.

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