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Reimagining Performance Management as a Learning Experience

Monday, August 26, 2019

Traditional performance management is at best broken and ineffectual and at worst biased, meaningless, or counterproductive. Problems with performance management in many organizations include lack of relevance, inconsistent application, poor timing, and undesirable subjectivity. Even with the flaws inherent in most performance management systems, the weight the systems are given persists and is often significant—individuals are ranked and scored in ways that influence promotions, bonus eligibility, and even employment.

Internet searches show myriad complaints and concerns about traditional performance management processes. A similar search offers answers to these problems that range from a dramatic rethinking of performance management to the outright elimination of the practice. Even those willing to see the value in some form of performance management practice argue for making performance management more digital, agile, or more frequent, among other suggestions. These varied perspectives point to an underlying issue with traditional performance management: it has a skewed focus on evaluation rather than on development.

What does a performance management process focused on development look like? Although it most certainly can come in many forms, each one has at least three core components in common:

Consistency of Feedback

Feedback delivered once a year based on the evaluation of goals set 12 months earlier is a recipe for irrelevance. Instead, consider shortening the length of the goal-setting and feedback cycle to quarterly or monthly. Teach your management and employees that these cycles are an opportunity rather than an obligation. This may involve engaging the workforce in training or communication campaigns that focus on a streamlined process with an emphasis on impact. How can these touchpoints improve productivity and outcomes rather than check a box in some one-size-fits-all process?

Failure Tolerance

An organization that doesn’t embrace smart risk and the inevitable failures that occur as a result will find it easier to be punitive rather than educative in its performance management practices. It’s important to develop a culture that can be reinforced through performance management decisions and that accepts failure (as a result of a smart risk rather than as the result of ineptitude) as part of innovation and growth. In so doing, performance management can become more transparent and focus less on downplaying failures and attempting to overstate successes and more on honest discussions about what needs to be done going forward.

Developmental Objectives

The most successful performance management systems weigh developmental goals as heavily as performance ones. Developmental goals provide managers and employees the opportunity to discuss aspirations, skills gaps, and organizational needs. They provide opportunities for managers to support the development of their team members in ways that will lead to increased commitment and engagement. Further, they help keep an organization’s workforce up-to-date and competitive in a hypercompetitive environment.

While the challenges of performance management abound, real opportunities to reimagine your approach to performance management exist. Orienting performance management around learning and development across the cycle from goal setting to feedback to development planning will shift the purpose and the impact of a performance management process. This shift will take a time-consuming, process-heavy procedure with few tangible results and transform it into an investment in individuals and teams that will help sharpen organizational capability and drive increased employee engagement, productivity, and commitment.

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About the Author

Karen Hebert-Maccaro is presently chief learning experience officer of O’Reilly Media, responsible for leading and managing the organization’s learning strategy. In this capacity, she oversees the management and development of learning initiatives and programs for O’Reilly Online Learning, the company's learning and training platform and manages both creation and curation of content to innovate new learning experience products both on and off the platform.

Prior to joining O’Reilly she was in various talent management roles, including vice president of people development and chief learning officer for companies in both biotechnology and healthcare technology. Karen holds a PhD from Boston College, an EdM from Boston University, and a BA from the University of Massachusetts.

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