Performance Programs – Rethink, Reframe, or Scrap

Many employers think they need a performance program to manage their staff. Yet, of those who have programs, many don’t hold their managers accountable to carry them out. And among those employers that do carry them out, many programs aren’t achieving what they’re meant to (and are often seen as timewasters).

So why are performance programs being done at all?

Despite this question having been asked for decades, employers are still putting in place iterations of the same ineffective performance programs. Further, whether or not an organization has a program in place, employees (even top performers) want more regular constructive and meaningful feedback and recognition.

Let’s unpack this.

Performance program effectiveness statistics

Over the years, countless studies have found that performance programs aren’t achieving what they’re intended to; to quote just a few recent findings:

  • Gallup research found that only 14% of employees feel performance reviews have inspired them to improve
  • People IQ indicated that 87% of managers and employees don’t find performance reviews effective or useful
  • SHRM found that 95% of employees are dissatisfied with the performance system and 90% feel the information is inaccurate
  • Author, Stanford Professor and Gallup Researcher, Robert Sutton, found that, one third of the time, performance reviews can actually make employee performance worse

We could go on and on. But, on the flipside, Gallup research also found that regular, ongoing feedback (i.e., weekly versus annual) leads to employees who are:

  • 5 times more likely to feel strongly that the feedback they get is meaningful
  • 3 times more likely to be highly motivated to do outstanding work
  • Nearly 3 times more likely to be engaged at work

Various performance approaches

There are several types of approaches to managing employee performance, and not all are created equal. Even if they were, what works for one organization may or may not work for another – and vice versa. It all comes down to what you want to achieve. There are four broad categories of performance approaches, some of which intersect and are/can be combined:

  • Performance appraisals and reviews: These are more traditional, ‘backward’ looking assessments that often include rating scales, checkboxes, and what an employee did well or needs to improve.
  • Performance management: This is a process or system of setting/achieving goals; providing feedback; focusing on improvement, correction, and development; and aligning with job descriptions.
  • Performance development: This is focused on an employee’s growth and learning and may be about progression in a particular job stream or overall career path within an organization.
  • Empowerment: Not a system or plan that you can benchmark or look up on the internet, this approach builds on the notion that employees leave managers, rather than jobs or organizations. It focuses on empowering employees to be innovative, autonomous, and facilitates mutually respectful communication and dialogue through coaching and effective leadership.

Why performance programs often fail

There are as many reasons for why performance programs fail to achieve what they’re intended to do, as there are different types of programs. Some of those reasons include the following:

  • Employees need regular, ongoing feedback that’s both constructive and positive
  • By the time review meetings occur, feedback is no longer meaningful or useful
  • Managers aren’t set up or trained to be effective performance managers
  • Managers aren’t held accountable to carrying out their performance management responsibilities 
  • People at all levels tend to avoid conflict, often because they don’t know how to manage it
  • They focus solely on the individual, rather than success of the team as a whole
  • The plan is attempting to achieve too much 
  • They’re often biased, subjective
  • They fail to take the diversity of teams, positions, and people into consideration
  • They often link compensation in subjective ways and/or that set unreasonable expectations
  • Ratings-based performance programs can be demotivating and demeaning
  • 360° feedback is often used as a weapon, rather than a tool
  • Lack of time, especially when managers have several reports

How employers can facilitate strong performance

Start first by asking yourself and your leaders/managers why you need a performance plan, what you want it to achieve, and how you’ll determine whether the approach is successful. Then, consider the cost of developing a plan, training and roll-out, tools and resources, and both management/employee time against the benefit of what it will achieve. If you currently have a program in place, ask whether it’s achieving what you intend it to at a reasonable cost/benefit ratio. From there, regardless of what kind of approach you take:

  • Set your managers up for success through ongoing training and hold them (and yourself!) accountable
  • Ensure effective coaching and regular 1-to-1 meetings
  • Facilitate two-way feedback so employees hear what they have to and can also be heard
  • Genuinely and actively listen to understand… not to answer
  • Conduct project debriefs with teams
  • Keep in mind that one style doesn’t fit all and work with your people to determine what they need
  • Rather than a once or twice per year program, consider a phased approach that aligns with your culture and business (e.g., each quarter is a different focus with associated coaching/training opportunities)
  • Share and celebrate wins and accomplishments often

There is no one right performance approach for any organization, but their effectiveness will often boil down to clarity, training, accountability, and empowerment. When you put your employees in a box and/or ignore them, they decline. When you empower them, they shine.

Jouta’s HR Consultants can work with you to define and develop a successful approach to managing employee performance for your organization.