When I train managers from different kinds of organisations in leadership and management, I’m astonished to find out how many companies don’t actively manage performance.
When we do exercises around what makes for engaging leadership behaviours, assessing their own self-awareness and emotional intelligence, or practising feedback skills, most participants work on these very happily indeed. Also, after a little more extensive elaboration around the notion of core competencies, most participants get this and take to the idea of using these for recruitment, performance management and development like ducks to water. Those that don't already set 'balanced scorecard' type measures of success for company performance at least 'get' the idea and generally think it a very good one.
But invariably when we get on to the vexed topic of setting SMART performance objectives for individuals, or breaking down routine aspects of jobs into clearly measurable output and quality standards, a pea souper of a fog descends upon the room. Despite being given concrete examples and an assurance that they can adapt these to be as long or short as they like for the context of their enterprise, they struggle. When asked to experiment by drafting a couple of objectives and standards for somebody they manage, it's like watching a room full of five-year olds labouring to write their first full sentence.
It's at this point, when it dawns on them that a key element of any effective performance management scheme means having to describe in objective terms what the good performance that they have a right to expect actually looks like, so that it can be properly evidenced, pockets of rebellion break out in the room. "We won't have time to do all this management stuff in the way you describe. You don't understand the special circumstances of our type of business/ /charity/hospital or local authority department. The day to day work pressures are too much".
Intellectually, they accept that there's at least a degree of plausibility in the proposition that if you are investing in the expensive piece of kit that is an employee who might be costing you, let's say, £25,000 a year, it's wise to ensure your return on investment by setting a crystal clear specification of what you want them to deliver in terms of speed and quality of outputs and outcomes. But they simply find it devilishly difficult to do in practice.
I believe that it's the ability and discipline of doing this, and properly evidencing that expectations have been achieved, that sets consistently great organisations apart from the patchy or poor performers. Yes, employee engagement is important, but I also believe that rigour in the performance management process lies at the very heart of any organisation that is both highly engaged and high performing. From my exposure to data from not-for-profit organisations, I know that it is perfectly possible to command a very respectable employee engagement measure in a poorly performing organisation where the mission of that organisation is about making a difference to people's lives.
So I'd like to be hearing a little less about employee engagement in HR debates and guidance and more about good old fashioned performance management.
And can anyone point me to any written guide to '1001 ways to draw up objectives without even trying', with easy to crib examples?
Helen Giles (pictured) is HR director at Broadway Homelessness and Support
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