Performance Management

Its compensation season in many companies. Performance evaluations are either complete or in process, managers are deciding who will get more and who will get less. It can be a sore point for some employees, especially if their evaluation comes as a surprise. Its worse, when the employee does not have a way to fix it, or cannot understand what is required. Which gets to the basis of performance management – how does the manager add value to the performance of their staff?

dilbert - evaluation

Performance Management is Not…

…just filling out the review document and deciding who to reward and who not to reward. That is the least important part, and often the only part that a manager gets graded on. I have friends who work as managers for companies where performance management is boiled down to simply discriminating numerically between high performing and low performing staff members on their annual evaluation.

The Goal of Performance Management

The goal of performance management is not to reward the winners and punish the losers, it is to add value to the performance of all. How do I do that (all the managers ask)? Here are ways that we can add value to the performance of all of our staff members:

1) Provide balanced and timely feedback.

 Balanced feedback means that our gratitude and praise for success are delivered with the same frequency and amplitude as our disappointment and exhortation for failure. This is a conscious choice, as there is an overwhelming tendency to focus on the negative. Expressing gratitude for a meeting expectations level performance is such a rare thing that most employees would be shocked if their boss responded in this way. Timely feedback is delivered so as to allow immediate improvement and redemption for failure. If your team member is in the dog house, he should know it, and he should know how he can get out of it.  One way to ensure that feedback is timely is to have a regular one-on-one meeting with each of your reports.

2) Observe and discuss areas of strength and areas of weakness.

 Every team member has strengths and weaknesses. The most successful people have weaknesses, but have learned how to leverage their strengths, and how to either improve or work around their weaknesses. Using an instrument like a DISC profile or a Strengths Finder can help team members recognize their own (and each others) strengths and work together as a team. Most people get energized when working from their personal strengths and experience varying degrees of anxiety and “stuck-ness” when working against their weaknesses. Pairing team members with complementary strengths and weakness profiles is not an “accommodation” – it is pure performance management. I’m not suggesting that everyone cannot or should not improve their areas of weakness – merely that we should acknowledge them as part of our performance management.

3) Provide a way for the employee to redeem themselves (restore status in the team) after a failure.

Failure comes often as a result of staff using bad judgment. All of us have used bad judgment, so this aphorism rings true:

 “Good Judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment”- The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce.

 In order to learn and improve, staff need to be free to fail. That is, in order for our team members to develop, they have to learn by making mistakes. We need to create an environment in which it is relatively safe for them do to this. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to make sure that team members who make mistakes a) recognize their error so that they learn from it. and b) have to work to fix it themselves – or otherwise “pay it back”. Once they have redeemed themselves, there is no “stigma” from the mistake, only their own performance (it takes longer to fix it than to do it right the first time) – and your gratitude for them working harder not smarter.

4) Make sure that assignments are aligned with capacity – know when you are asking someone to stretch.

 One of the most difficult assessments that managers must perform is the “capacity” of their staff members. The hard part is that of determining the units of capacity. Its easy for “unskilled” labor. How many bushels of apples per hour can be picked? However, even unskilled jobs require making some decisions or determinations. Which apples are ripe? Which are spoiled? We often think of work in terms of tasks, results, outputs, deliverables. When we think of work in terms of decisions – we then get to capacity. How well can my staff member make decisions independently, and will they get input from others without being prodded? Capacity can be measured time span of discretion – how long can I let my team member go without a checkpoint to ensure that he is staying on track? How far into the future can this team member think in terms of sequencing his activities, recognizing risks, understanding risk mitigation and dependencies? When we assign work to our staff which requires them to think beyond their demonstrated time span, we should consider checkpoints close to their proven time span, to ensure they are staying on track.

5) Help staff grow through safe failure modes.

 Safe failure modes may sound like an oxymoronic phrase, but it is really a risk management practice. The idea is to timebox staff contribution to goals or work process, with checkpoints that prevent individual failure from having a real impact on success. When working with unfamiliar people, or with people on assignments that are beyond proven (not assumed) capacity, creating a safe failure mode is nothing more than setting short checkpoint for partial work, to determine if adequate progress is made, if additional direction is required, or if correction is necessary. It is not about micromanagement, but about “catching” a failure before it compromises the work or imperils the goal. It also provides opportunity to give meaningful feedback without emotion driven from a material failure that you (the manager) are responsible for. When you know that a team member is capable, the safe failure mode checkpoints can be removed so that the work can proceed more independently.

Other Performance Management Ideas

I’m sure that you also have many other performance management practices. How we evaluate our staff, and conduct performance reviews should be nothing more than the summary of feedback that has already been given many times over. The scoring of individuals is really about management deciding how to administer rewards and promotions. It would often be better if the numerical scoring were not shared with individuals, but simply what attitudes, behaviors and capabilities that individuals need to demonstrate to “level up”.

The other activities around staff management – development and succession planning – need the evaluation process as an information source. How do managers recognize the innate capacity of an individual that can be developed? When planning to promote a team member, who is already in the development pipeline with the capacity to assume a position of greater responsibility?

In order to do these activities, you have to involve yourself in the activities of your team. You have to be close enough to observe and to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of team members. You cannot do performance management at a distance, or without some hands on coaching. New managers must be coached into this, because management and leadership are mostly learned by example. Bad examples usually produce bad behavior.

Performance management doesn’t start or end with performance evaluations, they are merely a formalism for normalizing performance ranking within a team or organization.


  • Forrest Christian

    March 8, 2014 at 1:08 pm Reply

    You may want to explicitly point out that Performance Appraisal is not something done once a year but on a regular, on-going basis by a manager. It’s one of the basic activities of management — not just in Agile environments! I think it’s implicit in your first point but so many people are stuck on Annual Performance Reviews that it’s probably important.

    I’d also add something about timeliness being relative, once you have proven capability. (Great point on that!) This ties into the issue of time span of discretion: If my longest task won’t be done for 18 months (as some EA work) reviewing every day is nuts. I’ve seen this happen, usually because the manager doesn’t have the time horizon to think out as far as his direct reports.

    • Rich

      March 9, 2014 at 2:10 pm Reply

      Thanks for the comment. All really good points. I think in many companies, the policies that have developed around HR management activities like performance measurement often are hypergeneralized and managers are rewarded as much for following policy as they are for doing the activities that get results. Sometimes it is hard for managers to apply the principles behind the policies, either because they don’t understand the principles themselves, or because they struggle to see how they apply to their employees or the work that they are responsible for.

      Managers who want to apply time span of discretion will need to think of work in terms of decisions rather than tasks or results.

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