Written by SEWI-ATD Guest Blogger, Mark Brewer, Senior Organizational Development Manager at Milwaukee Tool, and SEWI-ATD VP of Special Projects.
This is generally a good time of year to talk about Performance Management. More specifically, performance reviews/appraisals. Often we are called upon in our profession to develop the training and/or communications for an organization's performance management process, a process traditionally conducted once annually like a Polar Bear Plunge, but with all the anticipation of a trip to the dentist. Our focus – whether training or communication or both – can sometimes be heavy on process, policy and system: how and when to complete the necessary steps to be in compliance with the organization's expectations. In others words: how to fill out that d@#$%d form, and when.
When we try to quantify something that is inherently subjective we are only being human, but we all know it's a flawed exercise. Assigning a numerical value to measure the relative value of human activity? Don’t think for a minute there’s anyone who doesn’t see the folly in that. But for most organizations it is a "necessary evil."
In spite of this we hold in our hands the power to influence a constructive mindset about performance management. We can help managers and employees rise above perceptions of the administrative nature of the beast they see and not let that drag them down into a sense of meaninglessness. We can influence them to think bigger, to view this annual event as punctuation on a year-long continuous conversation about development and performance.
And it isn’t necessary to change or get rid of a cumbersome system in order to help managers and employees think differently about what they are doing and why. The once-a-year performance management process and an everyday performance management mindset are not incompatible. (Anyone who says “I can’t because the system doesn’t allow…” is just making excuses.) There’s always room for introducing and reinforcing the behaviors that make the difference between the dread of a long-deferred visit to the dentist and a happy healthy smile.
Consider three simple practices:
1. Everyday conversation
2. Focus on future
3. Modeling feedback
Everyday conversation. Label it “everyday coaching” if you wish but let’s help managers and employees alike recognize that there is an organic interaction taking place with others every minute of every day. No one operates in isolation. Often, performance is a part of that interaction whether it is deliberate or not. Deformalize performance discussions and feedback by persuading employees to see that it is already a part of everyday conversation.
I hear you: "they aren’t having those conversations." But they are! In subtle, nuanced and completely unintentional ways performance is being discussed every day on the job. We can help people see it. We don’t need to design a training program to help managers have conversations with their employees! (We do, of course, because that’s what we do. How’s that working out for you so far?)
Show them how to recognize those conversations where they live already, and to “leverage” them. Talking about performance with an employee – positively and constructively – should NOT be a planned event! It can be, sure. But if that’s the only way we view it, it will never become the meaningful continuous performance discussion we all dream of.
Focus on future. In every conversation, in all feedback, in every performance review, stop focusing on what cannot be changed (the past) and start focusing on what CAN be changed – the future. Yes, it’s intuitive. But performance management processes often force us to look back because the organization must evaluate performance. Past performance.
We can shift the balance. The only reason for examining the past is to inform the future, to change behaviors that haven’t happened yet. Is it not the goal of every manager, every leader, to
IMPROVE performance? You can’t improve yesterday, only tomorrow. We can cultivate this thinking in just about every sort of training and communication we create. We have the power to influence this.
Modeling feedback. We’ve all heard it by now: the phrase “I have some feedback for you” seems to trigger the same primitive fight or flight response in our brains that we experienced when the Sabre-Toothed Tiger roared outside our ancestors’ caves. Why? Because we’re trained to assume feedback is bad. Why? Because we seem to get “feedback” only when we’ve screwed up. Instead of training mangers to give better feedback, lets help managers (and employees) MODEL good feedback. Not just in the giving of it, but in the receiving.
Giving feedback becomes easier and more natural when the receiver encourages it, asks for it, looks forward to it. Managers can create that environment by modeling a positive, constructive attitude about soliciting and receiving feedback themselves. Picture a hypothetical manager saying “See? That wasn’t so bad was it? Now you do it.”
There’s much we can do from our talent development platform that can call out and reinforce these sorts of behaviors in the workplace, and it doesn’t always have to be in the form of formal training or process. That it bubbles up most often during the annual performance review spectacle isn’t a bad thing. Think of it not as a reminder of what we haven’t been able to do, but as a reminder of what we can do.
About the Author
Mark Brewer is a Talent Development professional with over 25 years of corporate experience. After a short career as a high school English teacher Mark earned a master’s degree in Instructional Design at Florida State University and began his corporate career at Arthur Andersen designing operational and interpersonal skills training for the Audit practice. By the time he moved to Motorola University his focus had turned primarily to Management and Leadership development. With Kohl’s Department Stores Mark was engaged in management training, performance management process, talent management and succession planning strategy, and executive coaching and development.
Currently Mark serves as an adjunct instructor for UW’s Center for Professional and Executive Development and a Senior Organizational Development Manager with Milwaukee Tool. His professional passion is helping business leaders become more confident and more proficient in developing their organizations’ talent.