By Dr. Alice Waagen
Founder and President
I have been teaching management skills for most of my professional career, and I consider it the most difficult job any professional can undertake. Here’s why:
1. Half a century ago, most of the work being done inside a corporation or government organization was routine and predictable. Peter Drucker’s 1954 hit, The Practice of Management, was the seminal book of the era, and in it he coined the term management by objectives (MBO). Despite considerable change in the workforce, nearly six decades later, we are still creating performance management systems that are based on MBO philosophy.
Why is this problematic? Because we are using a process designed to track transaction-based work performed by a single individual to govern constantly changing work assignments, which today are performed by collaborative teams. No wonder the annual event called the performance appraisal is such an onerous task.
2. Top-down management processes are another dinosaur of the 1950’s that we still adopt in managing performance. The trouble here is that many bosses today don’t understand the detailed work being performed by their subordinates. The notion that a manager can define performance objectives for staff — without their input or collaboration — is flawed logic. Not only that, it results in a disconnect between what really is being done and what is being recorded in the performance management system.
Work does not begin and end in neat annual timeframes. Project work can span weeks, months, or even years. Performance reviews need to be tied to a work schedule and not to some fixed point in the year. And yet, we continue to promote annual feedback sessions with occasional mid-year reviews.
3. One-on-one reporting structures have also gone the way of the finned Cadillac. Many organizations today complete work by creating collaborative teams of experts. One individual may serve on six teams simultaneously. So who writes the performance review? A single boss? Only if you want a performance review to be a work of fiction.
How do you upgrade a 1950’s performance tool to work in today’s hard-charging work environments?
Consider implementing the following more appropriate management strategies:
1. Turn the process upside down. Make every employee responsible for managing their own performance. Stop training managers on how to develop performance objectives, and start training employees on how to document and measure their own work. When you empower employees to self-manage their performance, everyone feels more in control of their destiny and that helps create a happier and more effective team.
2. Throw out the concept of annual reviews. Performance management should be tracked on a short-term basis — weekly, if not daily. Successful management occurs through ongoing dialogues between the staff and the person responsible for signing off on the completed work. To be most effective, teach everyone how to monitor, measure, and document their progress. Then once a year, request a summary of the dialogues for the records.
3. Teach everyone, not just managers, the skills needed to conduct difficult and challenging conversations. In the ideal workplace, everyone should feel comfortable in conveying both positive and constructive feedback upward, downward, and laterally.
The bottom line
Good performance management is so much more than an annual form completion exercise. It is the backbone of a decision support and time management system. Every individual should be using their performance plan as criteria for determining how to spend their time and prioritize their work.
Most importantly, a sound performance management system forms the foundation for building strong interpersonal relationships at work. If staff and management conduct frequent open and honest conversations about work accomplishments and areas for improvement, they create a climate of mutual trust and support that is required for any high performing organization.