Enable, empower, then manage performance

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There many authors, columnists and human capital management thought leaders who have penned tonnes of pages about the need to have performance management systems in place to foster productivity in organisations.

Systems Think
By Sam Hlabati

The benefits of performance management systems are often chronicled as, among others; increased sense of responsibility among employees, increased equitable treatment of employees (note that equitable means “each according to their respective output” and not necessarily an egalitarian approach; thus equal treatment just for being there irrespective of output), and the identification of employees’ development needs whose rectification bears a benefit for both the employer and the employee.

For a performance management system to be effective, it should be supported by top management and should be aligned to the organisation’s culture. Performance management can be frustrating to both the employer, as represented by the respective line manager responsible for evaluation of an employee’s performance and the employee being evaluated.

Over the time that I have spent in the human capital community, I have noticed that performance management starts with “hugs and kisses” at the beginning of the performance period. However, at the tail-end; thus at the point of reviewing performance when the period ends, the hugs turn to shoving and pushing and the kisses turn into insults. This comic cycle of bliss in the beginning and fighting in the end continues over time.

Over the years, human capital thought leaders have tried to explain the reason why performance management reviews become acrimonious. . They usually point to facts such as the objectives not being SMART enough, thus Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time bound.

However, I believe that problems arise when the one being reviewed attempts to explain the reason they would not have met the agreed performance targets. Let us be more at home with this discussion.

I want you to go back into your memory bunker and pull out that particular incident when a performance review meeting did not go well. You can pick that incident when you were the line manager reviewing the performance of one of your team members, and somewhere in the discussion the person whose performance you were reviewing could have tried to tell you why they did not meet particular targets.

The reason the person could table for not meeting the targets could have been something along these lines, “I could have met the target if only So-and-So was cooperative” or “Department X did not give me y input in time for most of the time”.

As a tough, no nonsense leader you could have responded with words similar to these, “… please spare me the excuses, why did you not say that in time. This is an unacceptable excuse, you should …”. On the other hand, the person on the receiving end, thus the one being reviewed could have been yourself. According to traditional African wisdom “What forgets is the axe, but the tree that has been axed will never forget”.

I believe that you may remember more of the instances when you were the one whose performance was being reviewed and being at pains explaining what stopped you from achieving the set objectives.

For the individual who is labelled as “looking for an excuse” when they try to explain what went wrong, the feelings of being unappreciated and trapped into perpetual failure cannot be avoided.

In organisations where performance management is taken seriously, targets are well planned at the beginning of the performance period, the job descriptions are perused to get the key performance areas that will be focused on when setting the objectives.

The objectives are set with precise accuracy, stating what needs to be achieved, when it should be achieved. The element of the “quality criteria” is added to indicate how the actual output should look like to be acceptable.

Promotion and the reviewing internal candidates’ suitability for advertised posts are some of the various instances when performance reviews results are taken into consideration in an organisation. On the harsh side, performance management review results can be used in performance related disciplinary action, which may lead to dismissal. When an organisation concludes after conducting a performance review that an employee exhibits poor performance, the main argument would be that the employee would have failed to comply with reasonable standards.

The former CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, advocated that organisations should get rid of their bottom 10% in a performance distribution, as they are “poor performers”. Are “poor performers” always truly poor performers.

It is important to realise that performance happens in an organisational context of systems that involve interaction with other people. The excuses that come up during performance reviews should be investigated to establish their verity.

Better still, it would be prudent to ensure that the very problems are mitigated at the outset of setting performance objectives. The line manager and the individual whose performance targets are being set should discuss the support from third parties such as external service provider other team members that is required by the individual for successful execution of the required tasks.

Once the support is identified, the next step would be to ensure that such support would be guaranteed during the performance period. One of the tried and tested ways of ensuring that one gets external third parties to do what is required, according to set quality criteria and within appropriate time frames would be to put a Service Level Agreement (SLA) in place.

Ensuring the support structures will deliver when called upon to do so would be better than waiting for someone to fail in executing their duty and then eventually try to verify the “excuses”.

While putting an SLA in place with an internal third party such as another team member or another department may be cumbersome, the ‘SLA’ should be internalised in the performance management system.

The parties who are supposed to provide support to other roles should have the specific tasks linked to such support clearly detailed as their own performance targets.

This will ensure that the incumbents in roles on whom other roles depend on for success will perform according to expectation lest they are marked down on their own performance.

Hlabati is a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP®) and a Global Remuneration Professional (GRP®). — samhlabati@gmail.com; Twitter handle: @samhlabati

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