Reimagining Performance Management With Zendesk’s VP of People Operations

Quick: Think about the time in your career when you felt you were performing at your peak. What were the circumstances driving that? Good boss? Great team? Maybe the role was perfectly suited for what you were good at, or wanted to be doing? What was going on that spurred you to perform at a peak level?

WATCH: “Reimagining Performance Management” webinar with David Hanrahan

You were motivated! Whatever was important to you at the time, the likelihood was that those motivators were largely being met. It seems intuitive, but thanks to research by the BI Norwegian School of Management, we know for certain that motivation drives higher performance.

The Importance of Motivation

Understanding motivation is key to spurring higher levels of performance. There are various trains of thought around what motivates employees. Daniel Pink talks about autonomy, mastery and purpose as the three big things that motivate people. Pink is strongly in the camp that says people are not primarily motivated by pay (at least in settings where cognitive skill, vs. manual skill, is required). If you Googled “what are employees motivated by,” you’ll get a dizzying list of articles suggesting various things. In any case, it will depend on the individual, and it’s down to this level that we must understand motivation.

“People in xyz department are concerned with their career development,we need a career path for that team!”

In corporate HR, understanding motivation is typically relegated to an engagement survey. Once or twice a year, employees may do a survey that tells us whether employees are engaged, and in the survey tool, the HR team and managers can slice and dice that data by location, team or demographic. That data is typically limited to aggregate understanding only. We don’t drill down to the individual level because the employee may be uncomfortable with their individual sentiment being known by their manager. So instead, we have outcomes like “people in xyz department are concerned with their career development” and actions that are derived from insights like this are “we need a career path for that team! That will help us address the career development concern that 65 percent of the staff stated!”

BONUS: Learn How To Uncover What Motivates Your Employees

Now, with some other completely different tool and process, that same HR team will have a performance management approach. The traditional performance management approach is for your manager, maybe once or twice a year, to summarize feedback for you, give you a rating and maybe apply that rating to your pay increase. With the ghost of early management consultant Frederick Winslow Taylor ringing in our subconscious, managers go into those performance conversations with an intent of making sure the employee knows how we think they are doing so they can either keep doing it or get better — and often ending those conversations with, “Here is your rating and raise.”

Innovating Performance Management

Is it any wonder why that feels like such a futile approach? We largely ignore what motivates someone in the conversation where it’s most important. We disregard the fact that those are the very levers to address whatever strengths and opportunities we summarize in the feedback conversation. Not surprisingly: 95 percent of managers are dissatisfied with the performance management approach at their company and 90 percent of HR practitioners think the information that comes from the process is bogus (!!!). And in many cases, the performance review itself decreases performance! We need to change this and thus “reverse the destructive effects of conventional performance management” (David Rock).

Engagement and performance insights must be understood alongside each other. To help unlock someone’s potential, we need to understand what currently motivates them and how well those motivators are being met. This is the first step to ensuring the subsequent performance conversation has any chance of positive effect. We also need to have performance conversations with our staff in order for them to better see the outcomes of their motivation. We need to hold the mirror up for them — but not draw their portrait. Bg bold statement: Coupling engagement and performance is the key to making performance management work. Tools and teams that embrace this will be better equipped to foster high performance cultures.