Here’s a great example of what “ongoing performance management” looks like: Imagine a regional manager of a retail chain visiting one of her stores. If she offers effective feedback, it will go a long way towards correcting the common complaint that the once-a-year performance appraisal isn’t enough. If the feedback is handled badly, it will just make everyone feel worse.
Luckily, there’s a better way to give effective feedback that depends on a subtle mind trick grounded in decades of learning research.
A tale of two stores
Back to our regional manager’s visit, consider how the evaluation might unfold. The regional manager will have a checklist of things she wants from each location. She’ll go through the store, compare their performance against the checklist, and then, traditionally, she’ll give the store manager a score, pointing out all the things they’ve done wrong.
Put yourself in the shoes of the store manager being evaluated. How does that process feel? Are you looking forward to the next ongoing performance management intervention from your regional boss?
Now, let’s consider a small variation in the approach.
The regional manager has a checklist. She goes through the store, comparing their performance against the checklist. And then, she happily discusses how the store can move forward in its work of continuously getting better.
How does this feel? Done with some grace, this experience would be inspiring. She wants you to achieve your potential. You want to be the best you can be. Together, you find ways to improve performance.
The amazing feature of these two scenarios is that almost everything is the same; it’s the same process, the same checklist, the same manager—the difference is in the mindset. In the first scenario, the manager is doing an audit to rate the store; in the second, she’s providing data to help the store improve.
Change your mindset, change the world
These two mindsets are described in Dr. Carol Dweck’s classic book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.” The audit approach leans towards what Dweck calls a “Fixed Mindset,” you are rated as a good store or a bad store and rewarded or punished accordingly. The improvement approach leans towards a “Growth Mindset” where the sense is that you can always get better and mistakes are just signals to guide our learning.
The most important finding in Dweck’s research is that the growth mindset leads to better performance. A regional manager may argue that they need to be tough and take the audit approach; they’ll say bad stores need to be rated as “bad.” Not so fast! Those managers are in for a surprise. If they approach the store visit with a growth mindset, they will get better performance than if they stick with the tough approach.
The subtle trick to the growth mindset is the belief that it’s not about being good or bad, it’s always about how you can get better. Some stores may have many shortcomings, others just a few; but in each case the regional manager has the same thing in mind: “How can I help this store get even better?” If you want successful ongoing performance management, then you must teach managers this way of thinking.
But what about my year-end-bonus?
There is one final point that needs to be raised — the oft-dreaded year-end appraisal. It’s quite likely that the business will want to reward store managers based on how well they’ve scored on the checklist either in absolute terms or in terms of how much they’ve improved. There is no getting around the fact that in a final year-end meeting the regional manager will tell some managers that, based on the checklist, they have performed well and will be rewarded, while telling others they have performed poorly and will face the consequences. How do we reconcile this with a growth mindset?
In this case, we don’t have to do any special reconciliation. Store managers get it. They know that in the end they will be held accountable for performance. If the ongoing performance management hasn’t led to better scores on the checklist, then everyone knows what that means. However, if the regional manager has spent the year doing everything she can to help, then the store managers will be more inclined to accept the final score.
Be in it to win it
One last note: ongoing performance management won’t be successful if managers are plodding through a set of activities. Managers can have frequent performance feedback conversations, but it will only add value if they do it well. This means you need to guide them in the tactics and mindset of performance improvement. This won’t come naturally to many managers, but it is HR’s role to help them get better.