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Performance management — not appraisal

Pythonesque angle: John Cleese has come up with his own take on management in a training video entitled The Dreaded Appraisal

Those of you who read my articles know I attend a number of conferences on human resources and talent development each year. I also review the literature both hard copy and on line. When I attend talks or read articles on the topic I can’t help thinking “here we go again”. Someone is giving an example of one of the worst possible systems to make their point.

Having worked in this area for over 20 years; spoken at international conferences; and had articles published in international magazines and journals I’ve seen many changes. Yet, there are people who say performance appraisal hasn’t changed in the last 30 years. I don’t know what they’ve been doing but they certainly haven’t been keeping up with what’s happening.

Many years ago performance appraisal evolved into performance management. Whereas performance appraisal was often a one-time-a-year phenomenon consisting merely of a meeting at the end of the year, performance management is a 12-month cycle. It consists of performance planning, performance monitoring and performance reviewing.

Performance planning occurs at the beginning of the cycle and, depending on the system used, involves jointly set and agreed-to objectives, expectations, criteria, competencies, etc. Employees need to know what’s expected from them during the year. They need to know on what they are being appraised.

Performance monitoring lasts throughout the entire year and involves coaching, mentoring, communicating, problem solving and providing continuous feedback on performance. Performance reviewing at the end of the year just makes it official. If the monitoring has been done effectively then there will be no surprises in the review. The employee will know where he or she stands. In fact, the secret to success in performance management is “no surprises”.

I was amazed when I read in a recent article that employees were not informed until “months after the fact they should have done something differently or better”. Where was their manager? It reminds me of something out of the British comedy series Monty Python. One of the members of that group, John Cleese, starred in a DVD on performance appraisal called The Dreaded Appraisal. At the end of the appraisal interview John Cleese, who acted as the manager, ended the meeting by saying ‘see you next year” to his employee. This was meant to reflect the dreaded once-a-year feedback manager.

Forced ranking or the bell curve is one of the many errors that occur in bad performance management systems. Human behaviour is much too complicated for such a simplified system. An example of such a system is where five per cent of employees are rated as superior, ten per cent very good, 70 per cent competent, ten per cent fair and five per cent poor. There are many other ineffective systems but space limitations do not allow me to cover them. Also, a good system does not compare employees to each other but to standards, objectives or criteria.

For any system to be effective in an organisation it has to support the organisation’s vision, mission and strategic plan. A performance management system is no different.

Further, any system needs maintenance to make sure it is still meeting the objectives for which it was instituted. Organisations need to ask themselves: “Why do we have a performance management system?” Or: “What are we trying to achieve with our performance management system?”

They then need to ask “Is it still meeting the purpose for which it was set up?” If it isn’t, then the organisation needs to make the necessary changes. A good way to do that is to have the system’s users involved. This can be done through the use of focus groups, questionnaires or surveys.

One of the biggest mistakes organisations make is not training their managers in the skills of performance management. It is human nature to avoid something for which we lack the skills to do it properly. We don’t like being shown up as being inefficient or worse still being ineffective. Therefore, managers will procrastinate or avoid completely their performance management duties if they have not had the necessary training.

Yet many organisations appear to think that through a process of osmosis as soon as an employee takes on management responsibilities he or she will be able to do performance management effectively.

Critics say performance management is “backward-looking” but a good system looks at the future as well as the past. We all realise that we cannot change the past, but we can learn from it.

Continuous improvement should be a goal for all of us no matter what our job entails. Further, if there’s continuous feedback throughout the year, as I’ve suggested, it can be acted on immediately when it’s given.

The review meeting is not a time to deal with performance problems. These should be dealt with when they occur during the year. Can you imagine a sports coach providing feedback to his or her players only once during a game?

Paul Loftus is a Montreal-based industrial/organisational psychologist, intercultural consultant and freelance journalist. He is a frequent business visitor to the island to conduct in-company and public seminars. He will be here on March 1 to conduct his seminar “Performance Management/Appraisal for the Chartered Professional Accountants Bermuda.” You can register for this seminar by contacting Gail Raynor at 292-7479; www.cpabermuda.bm.

Paul can be contacted directly at (514) 282-9111; ploftus@colba.net; www.paulloftus.ca