Setting expectations rather than managing performance

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It’s been some time since many organisations revisited the value of performance management processes and experimented with different solutions to try to move away from the process and create a more meaningful discussion between manager and employee. 

Thank goodness in a large majority of organisations the comparison of individual performance as a zero-sum game is no more. However, the performance management process is still firmly embedded in many organisational cultures, despite the evidence that rarely does this result in a high performing culture.

We have to go back to the fundamental question: What is at the heart of a thriving and high performing culture


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This has to be everyone pointing in the same direction and feeling motivated and inspired to deliver (and go beyond the bounds of what seems possible). 

For leaders looking to create high performance, they have two jobs: to ensure there is clarity and to get out of the way to create space for individuals and teams to deliver and to grow. 

The problem with traditional performance management is that it is far too downstream and often uninspiring. At times it can be too over-complicated and focused on justifying delivery.

We need to completely re-frame this. To achieve high performance it is less effective to focus on evaluating individual performance, and more effective to engage and inspire growth and action.

The value of the feedback loop is only realised when there is a trusted and shared ambition.

You may think that I’m only talking about setting objectives, indeed they can be SMART and therefore the benchmark to compare performance, but shared ambition and shared expectations is much more powerful. 

If we focus our energy on really achieving this, high performance will happen.

Here are some ways managers and leaders can focus on building a culture of shared expectations to build high performance upstream:

  1. Start with clarity about your shared endeavour. This is a genuinely two-way discussion seeking complete understanding about what high performance looks like. Ask four questions: Where are we going? Why? What does it look like when we get there? What is the work that needs to get done? Sharing collaboratively is enhanced with each person summarising their understanding to ensure no misunderstandings or different perceptions.

  2. Share what each of you bring to the endeavour. This might be skills and experience, and it can be a different perspective or enthusiasm.

  3. Share what each of you needs to complete the work. This is an important question and can include resources or prioritisation of other workload. However, it might be what you need in terms of information exchange and communication, or the way you like to work. How will you resolve to work together so all your needs are met?   

  4. Build belief and trust. We know that when someone believes in us, and tells us, we perform to a higher standard.

Placing energy towards this human interaction and creating clarity enables leaders not to have to performance manage, but to get out of the way and create space for their employees and teams to thrive, in the knowledge that their expectations are aligned.

Paula Leach is former chief people officer at The Home Office and global chief people Officer at FDM Group. She now runs Vantage Points Consulting and is author of Vantage Points: How to create a culture where employees thrive.