My last two posts have been about managing performance through The Accountability Principle. It would be helpful - but not absolutely necessary - to read them before this post: Accountability - The Key to Performance Management posted April 29th and The Accountability Principle and Engagement posted April 30th.The antithesis of The Accountability Principle is The No-Nonsense School of Accountability. No-Nonsenseers have advocated performance management as it has been practiced at least since the 1960s. Managers give clear expectations up front, a thorough performance appraisal at the end, and regular feedback, maybe even some coaching, in between. If someone’s really off track, managers confront that right away. For top performers, there are rewards and recognition along the way. For poor performers, there is progressive discipline. For the rest, well, they have their pay checks and get to keep their jobs. What could be clearer and fairer and more motivating? The reality is that performance management is a fiction for the vast majority of people in the vast majority of businesses.
The beginning of the process - clear expectations or objectives and measures - often never happens except in general terms. When it does, it is seldom sustained because it is too difficult and time consuming to resolve all the questions that more systematic approaches call for:
Are these the right things to do to make the strategy successful? What’s actually being measured? Is that the right thing to measure? How accurate are the measures? How timely are the measures? Is the goal even achievable? What if unexpected forces make the goal either too easy or unattainable? What about all the things people do that are not measured but are critical to keeping everything running, how are these accounted for?
The middle of the process - performance feedback, and maybe coaching - seldom gets done because of the complexities of the business and the environment in which it operates.
Ambiguity delays judgment. Communication struggles with interpretation, completeness, and timeliness. Collaboration falters under the pressure of adversarial motives and contending views. New knowledge emerges that changes the playing field. Priorities change frequently and occasionally radically. Resources are reduced or diverted to meet new objectives. The measures chosen turn out not to achieve the real goal. Important aspects of the business are neglected to the detriment of the business in order to “make the numbers”.
The one piece of the process that eventually does get done is the performance review. But, this is usually viewed by both parties as an administrative requirement. There is very little accountability in this annual event because the beginning and middle parts of the process either have never happened or were pro forma or occasional at best.
Often expectations or objectives are written down for the first time when the performance review is due, and the past year is recollected from whatever reports or memory is available. Some organizations have feedback collected from people affected by an individual’s performance. But the biases of memory and the power of emotion and personal perspective make useful, accurate evaluation rare. Managers regularly pick the “rating” they “feel” is right and write the narrative to support the rating. In any case, the best that this process produces is a point-in-time judgement that usually has some marginal effect on the expected rewards.
The reality of managing a business is that there are no clear beginnings or endings. We estimate various measures and the forces that will impact them; but none of this is science, and all of it is affected by new knowledge that regularly is discovered about the past, present, and future. Priorities change, resources are redirected. We arbitrarily evaluate results quarterly and annually. But the goals we project, the measures we set, and the data we collect are very often not in one-to-one alignment and have only an approximate relationship to one another. While goals are essential to frame expectations, develop plans, and calibrate the actions we need to take, few, if any, bear a readily assessable relationship to the clear meting out of rewards and punishments the No-Nonsense School of accountability advocates as the driver of performance.
No-Nonsense performance management is a relic of industrial organization and a command-and-control system of management. No-Nonsense performance management should be replaced by The Accountability Principle.