The latest trend in performance management is to ask our managers to have ongoing performance conversations instead of waiting for a nightmarish once-a-year discussion. What could possibly go wrong?
I'd love to hear your answers, but since this is a blog, let me kick things off with my own thoughts on potential problems:
- Some managers may refuse to do it.
- Some managers will do just enough to appear to comply.
- Some managers will do it so badly that it creates conflict.
- Some managers start out enthusiastically, but then find the process gets stale and gets pushed aside due to "urgent" work.
And now the big question: What should HR do if these things happen?
Ongoing performance advice and assistance
Before I answer that, remember that ultimately performance is not HR's responsibility: it's the duty of the line manager. If the CEO decides that ongoing performance conversations are important, then a manager who doesn't do it well should be answering to the CEO, not HR.
HR's real responsibility is to provide expert advice and assistance to help the CEO - and line managers - achieve the goal of conducting effective conversations about performance.
With that said, here is some advice for handling some of the problems that can arise when you shift your approach to ongoing performance management.
1. What to do if managers refuse to have ongoing performance conversations:
Managers who refuse to comply likely have reasons. You need to take the time to understand those reasons and then help the manager find their own way to a solution that suits both their needs and the CEO's decision.
Remember that you don't necessarily need 100% of managers having ongoing performance appraisal conversations, so pick your battles. Just keep moving the organization in the right direction and remember that if this becomes a compliance exercise it won't achieve its goals.
2. What to do if managers do just enough to comply:
Again, pick your battles and find out the reasons for their reluctance or inability to have effective performance conversations.
If you want to escalate the issue, you'll need data to illustrate that the manager isn't handling performance conversations competently. If it's not too heavy handed, ask the manager's boss to have "skip level" meetings with the manager's subordinates to get insights on the quality and frequency of performance conversations. You can then work with the manager and their boss to find solutions.
3. What to do if managers are so bad at conversations that it creates conflict:
It's always nice to believe that with the right coaching someone can develop the necessary conversational skills to have effective performance discussions. However, that may not always be realistic.
If an activity is doing more harm than good, no matter how much we like it in theory, it's better to ask the manager to stop. In this case, it may be possible to shift the task of ongoing performance conversations downwards to the most senior person in the team or potentially upwards to manager's boss.
4. What to do if managers start out enthusiastically, but the process gets stale:
There is a good chance that the first three problems will be isolated cases that won't undermine the fundamental effectiveness of the re-invented performance management process. This last problem is also likely, and a much more serious threat since it can happen to even your most supportive managers. The solution to this challenge is a two-step process.
First, you must build robust tracking and reporting systems so that if the process is losing steam a red flag is raised. Second, you need to continually inject energy into the process. You might consider appointing a new champion (from within or outside HR) each year to see what they can bring to the process to keep it fresh.
The final word on performance conversations
Everyone is excited about changing the old routine around annual performance appraisals. We often don't want to dwell on what could go wrong, because we don't want to dampen enthusiasm for the new approach. However, spending a lunch hour with your HR colleagues or some senior managers to discuss likely problems and possible responses is a good use of time.
Scout out the landmines, and you'll be able to avoid them. That means HR and managers can concentrate on engaging and developing employees - which in turn enriches your business.