"Performance management" by any other name—please! | Mike Cook

By Mike Cook
Contributing Writer 

“Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.” —Peter Drucker

Last Thursday, I sat in my evening Organizational Behavior class as several groups of students made their final presentations.

The students were using material they had gathered after perusing many entries to something called a “hackathon,” sponsored by ‘the MIX’ during fall 2012. (If you haven’t discovered ‘the MIX’ and you are serious about engagement and performance, do yourself a favor and head over there soon.)

These students, who know the world of work—and are currently working, some managing, but most not—shared with me early in the quarter some of their horror stories about what had passed for performance reviews. Mostly they complained about the “drive-by” feel of these events and how it left them feeling used more as props in a process than resources that were appreciated. They had expectations of being groomed and developed for even greater opportunities.

Oh to be young and idealistic.

I sent them to ‘the MIX’ for their own education. But also to have them get a sense of how pervasive the displeasure is around a common workplace experience that for the most part has come to be characterized as really painful and not looked forward to in any rational way.

I hoped they would see there was an opportunity being missed in many places of work, and that they could do something about it. I was gratified to find this was exactly what they saw and shared during the presentation. Mainly what they saw was that the problem often begins with the names we give to these processes ostensibly designed to improve performance.

Case in point: progressive discipline.

If you look at the way the term is defined, you will see that poor performance is fundamentally considered a punishable offense, within certain bounds. The assumption being that if employees fail to perform, it is in some way their choice.

Even the seemingly innocent-sounding term, “performance management,” carries with it the implicit understanding that this is about what’s good for the business, not necessarily any individual who may be involved, employees sniff this out and adjust their expectations accordingly.

There are many reasons to start the re-invention of the workplace with the notions, assumptions and beliefs surrounding performance management. The full scope of wrong headed ideas is too vast to get into here, but suffice to say that the prevailing mindset is what makes this comment so ironically funny: “I am really looking forward to my first performance review tomorrow!” Said no one, ever.

Whatever we do must take in to account that performance is a systemic outcome  and a much richer phenomenon than we have yet to fully appreciated, especially systemically.

Standing in this perspective, the students that evening recognized from their own experiences that the practice of separating people from process created the illusion that there is one without the other. That simply is not the case. In much the same way as we realize there is no front of the hand without a back, there is no process without the people.

Thinking of people as units of production (FTE’s) is another problematic mindset inherited by developing management practices in the minds of engineers and accountants.

People never have been uniform-performance units, except that as the Industrial Revolution unfolded, for many years the work itself forced workers into mechanistic roles. Certainly there is still some of this type of work around. But in many instances, value creation today is a function of passion, creativity and initiative, being able to master operating effectively in dynamic and unpredictable environments. Thus far no machine has ever been able to bring forth these qualities.

Let’s see if we can get off on a new and more inclusive approach to management, one that fosters engagement and implies development. Maybe something like: Performance Facilitation. Doesn’t that sound better?

I know it will make the control-oriented among us grind their teeth, but that’s OK. Now they will know how the rest of us have felt for years.

Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He also publishes a weekly blog at www.heartofengagement.com.

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