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Nobody likes to have their efforts and accomplishments reduced to a number, their contributions boiled down to mere metrics that have little bearing on what they may have achieved or contributed in any given timeframe.
Similarly, goals set early in planning cycles often drift, become irrelevant, or sometimes become entirely replaced over time, whether that is a month, a quarter, a year, or more. If unattended, goals can be totally out of whack come review time.
Often, when businesses want to evaluate their staff, they will expect those responsible for managing them to provide metrics to help determine eligibility for pay reviews, bonuses, and other variable compensation. Some, dangerously, will mandate a "bell curve" target to stretch these metrics over to meet a perception of a "normal" spread of performance. To my thinking, this assumes poor performance, and possibly even tolerates it.
Generally, this kind of situation inflicts the enervating "performance review" process upon the managers and their staff. Often an overhead on top of ongoing work and an initiative that is costly in terms of wasted time and effort while managers and staff lobby for personal agendas and favourites.
I have been complicit in generating the data needed for this kind of review too many times in my career, and it has always been a wasteful exercise, often poorly conceived and poorly executed, especially for the employees. But the root of this kind of efficiency failure is not in the measurement but in the way some businesses assess people; too late, often with no data (or none readily at hand), often against old goals, and without enough time to do the staff justice.
It is no fun to sit opposite your manager and have them tell you while looking at their watch what you have and haven't achieved based on scant consideration. The annual (or more regular) performance review should be the most engaged and personally important meeting of your year as an employee.
I have fostered and observed more progressive management approaches in recent years. It is clear to me that there is another way to gather and assess these performance metrics while still attending to your responsibilities as a manager and the needs of your staff. As with many emerging management ideas, it is about assessing staff performance as a continuous process, part of your business' overall management practice.
A 1:1 meeting is a critical aspect of any real manager's toolkit. Crucially, it is about gathering an understanding of the day-to-day activities of staff and getting the inside track on them. If executed well, these meetings are reinforcing, collaborative sessions where a manager and direct report can openly engage in dialogue about their respective roles, the obstacles they meet, and often their lives. We spend much time with the people we work with, understanding, and getting along is a necessity. These meetings are a fertile situation in which to assess staff.
Not every business has established processes, policies, or management acumen (let alone the opportunity) to navigate the multithreaded challenges of managing people as individuals on a large scale. Across a spectrum of attributes, it is quite clear how the "bell curve" advocates want to assess people in terms of competencies and goals. However, while I do believe these attributes are hugely important, they are only part of what rounds out a whole person when it comes to them contributing at work.
Let's extend the attributes to:
All these things are essential for leaders to gain a good understanding and rounded view of a person's general performance at work.
A layered model using these attributes provides the underlying framework for the PaaP continuous assessment model. Considering these indicators during regular 1:1s and ranking staff on an odd 5-point scale provides a simple model for maintaining a more holistic perception of performance that much more richly educates a rolled-up performance review, if one is even necessary.
I recommend an odd scale to provide a center point (100%) on the rating range. The midpoint is the "happy path" for most people, with two under and two over-achieving levels to add enough scope for the range of performance you will inevitably see in any team or organization over the course of a review cycle.
On a scale of 1-5, 3 would be where you expect people to operate generally, with accepted over and underachievement variances into 2 and 4 and significant diversions from the happy path to 1 and 5. I refer to this as the "happy path" as it is where you should expect people to perform, and not erosive to their overall well-being and "happiness." If 3 is 100%, it is "As Expected," sustainable, repeatable, and exactly what any business would want long-term from their staff. Absolutely, actual performance will ebb and flow, but at or around 3 is where an employee's contribution is fairly balanced with their compensation and long-term effectiveness.
These are indicators that any leader will have limited control over, they are internal to the person and are sometimes guarded or removed from the workplace altogether. Competence is one that overlaps, as it is a foundation of a person’s suitability for the role but it is still internal to them. Whilst these indicators are important to know, they should carry less weight when it comes to grading as the ratings given here can indicate problems that the leader cannot resolve.
Situation is a context indicator, one where if a leader has a good relationship with the person, they will know what is happening in their lives that might have an impact on their performance. People’s lives are so variable that uniform performance is not a reasonable expectation. What this indicator will tell us if the leader has the trust of the person, is what to be aware of before making any judgement about performance.
Learning is an essential indicator too, especially if you prioritise this in your management policies, as it helps keep you and them focused on ensuring they are keeping up to date with their skills and are best able to contribute. A cultural focus on learning and self-improvement helps drive progression, not just of your people but also of your teams and overall ability to execute. Arguably, people who learn intrinsically will be able to adapt and move with the business, so a learning mindset is something to look out for and for leaders to try to promote, through time, support and genuine interest.
Competencies are what makes the person right for the job they have. Assessment of skills does cut to the foundation of any employee’s ability to contribute, so it is essential they have the skills for the job. Questions to consider when reviewing competencies include whether they able to wield their skills to the maximal effect and use them appropriately at all times, or are their skills up to date and current? Here lies the insight to individual potential, training needs and attention to detail; mastery. Obviously, these need to be assessed in the context of their actual role. People in a new position should not be expected to excel immediately, and that’s okay. Rankings need to be context-based at every level.
The next three indicators are the core three; they inform a leader’s understanding of the person’s professional context and ability to contribute. People that don’t work well with others are rarely tolerable, unless they have a pure individual contributor role. Characteristics of the ratings given here will inform overall performance.
Teamwork is the way people work with others, and it is hugely important, the instinct to share the knowledge, engage their peers and cultivate trust in themselves is a core ingredient of a successful teammate. Specialists (knowledge hogs) are anathema to this, and they should not be allowed to entrench. Toxic and egotistical people will also probably score poorly here, and so they should.
Behaviours is also a useful indicator. Even a secure, skilled person can become disaffected sometimes, and this will often show in how they work with others, communicate and blend with their colleagues, let alone perform individually. A set of clear values can help foster discussion about behaviours and also allow people the opportunity to explain why their behaviour may be an issue, when coupled with other factors, like stress of a deadline, or someone struggling with acquiring a new skill.
Goals. These need to be kept up to date and it is a leader’s role to ensure this happens, pruning out the irrelevant or prioritising the urgent no matter how wedded they are to their original plan. Dynamic and reactive businesses that can adapt will do this, always reviewing priorities and setting an appropriate level of tenacity to those goals. For the employee, how they execute and deliver according to agreed goals is what needs to be measured but understanding that measurement in the context of all the other indicators is what PaaP is all about.
So how do these rankings get captured? At every single 1:1 meeting, as a leader, snapshot rank your people using this collection of indicators every time you meet and record the data. Provide a summary of why you have ranked them this way and store it somewhere so you can see it all at a glance. I suggest a spreadsheet. (a free sample template is available by request at the end of this document) If you write detailed meeting notes ( which I recommend) this summary data, with the date of the meeting, provides a good index of those notes, however you record them
With this data, you can look back and see your thinking about each person in your team. You can visualise their performance in a trend graph, and calculate a real-time grade based on average scores to help fulfil your business’ legitimate need to rank people. Furthermore, you can satisfy your direct reports themselves about the level to which they are contributing but more importantly, they will know they are being managed as individuals and managed well.
No process or mechanism is immune to human biases. Remember, however you rank your direct reports, they are people, with complicated lives, motivations, problems and potentials. Remember also that you will have judgements to make that may be based on the foundations of your own Situation. Sense check over time, make sure you were fair and reasonable when assessing performance.
Please don’t rely on the data you collect as the full story; it’s only your side. If you and your business have the maturity to open up this process to your people, it can be an effective way to ensure an engaged management model develops. Otherwise, make sure you do speak to your team members before declaring a unilaterally determined grade at the end of your performance review cycle.
This approach is one that will develop a broad and people-focused management style amongst your leaders and will rapidly become second nature to everyone and useful in driving clarity, honesty and accountability between all your people.
I have an example tracking spreadsheet with dummy data available. If you’d like a copy get in touch using the CONTACT link below and we can talk about how you might approach launching an approach like this.
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