By Mirjam Neelen

This blog is the first in a series on improving performance improvement. The idea is to explore various components, such as metrics or employee engagement that come into play when trying to achieve this. In this blog, I discuss some challenges for both organisations and individual employees with performance management processes (PMPs): Why don’t they support performance improvement as intended?
Many organisations say that they focus on fostering learning and professional development as part of their PMP because of the growing need for highly skilled employees with up-to-date competencies (Van der Rijt et al., 2012). Ideally, the primary purpose of a PMP is to document employee performance and provide feedback regarding task performance and how to improve it (Budworth et al., 2015).

Unfortunately, PMPs are frequently ineffective in that they don’t improve employee job performance and may even negatively affect job satisfaction (Budworth et al., 2015). For example, Buckingham and Goodall (2015) from Deloitte recently reported that, based on a public survey that they conducted, 58% of the executives questioned believe that their current performance management approach drives neither employee engagement[1] nor performance improvement.

So, why don’t PMPs do what they’re intended to do? Why don’t they support performance improvement?

It’s rather strange that there’s no literature expressing or acknowledging how difficult it is to explain what performance improvement actually means.

In general, performance improvement is about “impact”. Though there aren’t any set standards of metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure impact, some have to exist for each individual whose performance will be evaluated. A good starting point is to ask the right questions. In other words, an organisation needs to ask the right questionsthroughout the organisation so as to find its own metrics and then give them meaning. While it’s no easy task to give meaning to what impact really means for an organisation, that’s where the effort within the organisation should go (Kapros[2], personal communication, 14 December 2015).

Apart from asking the right questions and figuring out exactly what performance improvement and impact mean, there are more hurdles. One flaw in current PMPs is that performance reviews don’t take place often enough; usually only once or twice a year. Also, these (bi-)annual performance reviews are based on what the calendar says and not on the performance of a task. This makes them both ad-hoc (the right thing at the wrong time) and decontextualised (what’s the basis of the review?). Another issue is the, let’s call it friction between, ‘performance review’ and the actual improvement; that is ‘learning and professional development’. Telling someone where they stand – performance – is one thing, but how do they know what to do to get better? Will they be rewarded for efforts to improve? And how willing are people to learn – which sometimes involves FAILING – if they know their performance is going to determine their bonus?

In the same sense, performance reviews are usually performance appraisals. Your peers know that the feedback that they are going to give you is going to influence your future and your bonus, and therefore they probably won’t be as honest or blunt. Or, the other way around, they might be hesitant to be too positive about your performance; what if you get promoted and they don’t?

And it’s not only that. It’s also that employee performance appraisal data are commonly used to identify who is a key performer and who performs below average. These metrics are often inaccurate, for example, because of the fact that they are ad hoc and decontextualised or worse, if the interpretation of the metrics is completely subjective (for example, how I interpret “effective communication” might be different from your interpretation of its meaning), particularly in knowledge intensive environments since meaningful, tangible metrics are harder to identify (Whelan et al., 2011).

Accurately measuring performance, is an even more difficult nut to crack and so far there don’t seem to be any convincing nut-crackers out there. Maybe some ways exist, but we haven’t found them yet. It almost feels as if we’re only at the stage where we need to find the right questions to ask first, rather than look for answers. Big multinationals tend to use rigid competency models and frameworks and the question is if these are helpful.

Furthermore, while there are many performance management technologies to choose from on the market, we need to acknowledge that no technology is going to solve the current PMP challenges, ever. Of course technology can help solve bits and pieces, like competency assessment in immersive learning environments, self-reflection tools, electronic performance portfolios, or (peer) feedback tools. Of course, it’s worth exploring the extent to which technologies could support an effective PMP. However don’t get your hopes up too high—don’t ever expect they will solve all of the problems (Kapros, personal communication, December 14 2015).

It’s clear that it’s far from easy to improve performance improvement. But there’s hope and there are many components to explore, which I intend to do step-by-step in a series of blogs. Off we go, hopes up high.

Buckingham, M., & Goodall, A., (2015). Reinventing Performance Management. Harvard Business Review.

Budworth, M.H., Latham, G.P., & Manroop, L., (2015). Looking forward to performance improvement: A field test of the feedforward interview for performance management.Human Resource Management, 54, p. 45-54.

Kapros, E., personal communication.

Van der Rijt, J., Van de Wiel, M.W.J., Van den Bossche, P., Segers, M.S.R., & Gijselaers, W.H., (2012). Contextual Antecedents of Informal Feedback in the Workplace. Human Resource Development Quarterly, p. 233-257.

Whelan, E., (2011) It’s who you know not what you know: A social network analysis approach to talent management. European Journal Of International Management, 5 (5):484-500.

[1] It must be noted that there is no single and accepted definition for the term ‘employee engagement’ but it is about passion and commitment, and the “willingness to invest oneself and expand one’s discretionary effort to help the employer succeed” (Markos & Sridevi, 2010, p. 90).