Turning disengaged compliance into transformation

Managers may not be particularly engaged by monitoring performance but many still need help to do their 'managing' well

I recently chaired a lively roundtable discussion where 20 senior HR professionals from organisations such as John Lewis, ZSL London Zoo, BA, St Paul’s Cathedral and TfL debated some of the key issues they were facing regarding performance management. One thing was obvious: it’s time for the profession to take a stand for a new approach to managing business and employee performance.

We all know what happens when there has been a legacy of weak management and when poor performance has been allowed to continue untempered. For a healthy culture of learning and results, employees need to feel acknowledged, fairly rewarded and clear about priorities. Managers need to be comfortable in their authority. Discussions about long-term career goals can be life-changing, manager/employee relations can be sealed or broken. The structures that have been used to support and encourage these processes over the last 20 to 25 years are being questioned, and in some cases abandoned. But there is uncertainty regarding what should come next.

Managers may not be particularly engaged or inspired by monitoring current performance, but many still need significant help to do their 'managing' well. My view is that this is too important a job to leave managers totally to their own devices. They need structures to remind and encourage them whatever their skill levels.

Performance management is a background, every-minute phenomenon that needs monitoring, management, contribution and coaching. We expect our tools to be constantly evolving and updating and we expect to be able to make them work for us as individuals. So it should be with performance management tools. It is time to demand easy-to-use technology with the facility for managers to personalise the experience. At the same time, it is an opportunity to stand up for having the HR metrics needed for strategic talent management.

But the focus of the process also needs to change. Now is the time to move away from ratings and SMART objectives and towards an agile, team-based approach that will drive growth and learning. Applying the IT world's Agile methodology makes sense. This will allow us to emphasise the importance of frequent performance-focused conversations, of inquiry and experimentation, and of continual feedback. Additionally, we need to ensure there is a safe and responsible space for this learning to occur. One that encourages team-based performance discussions and enables an honest and open approach to handling breakdowns and barriers. It should allow fast responses to changing priorities and recognise the value of every individual. It is inclusive and generates a culture of learning.

Not everyone will be ready for this level of organisational learning but it can be something to aim for. Having this vision will allow you to work out how to change your performance management process to match your current position on the 'growth spectrum', at the same time as nudging it towards growth. HR's commitment to employee growth and engagement will be key to this, but using a process of co-creation with your managers is also part of the answer. Radical redesign is then the obvious and powerful next step.

This is a chance to take the initiative and drive a new way of operating.

Elva Ainsworth is founder of Talent Innovations