What We Learned at the Unlocking High Performance Workshops

by Anita Bowness | Posted | Industry Buzz

What We Learned at the Unlocking High Performance Workshops

What an amazing couple of weeks we've had. We just wrapped up three amazing workshops with industry-renowned employee engagement thought leader, Jason Lauritsen. The half-day workshops were part of our Unlocking High Performance series (named for Jason's new book ), and took place in San Diego, Chicago and New York City. During these workshops, we had vibrant discussion about all things performance management, employee experience and everything else around unlocking employee potential.

Workshop attendees were welcomed with a "do not disturb" door hanger to use during future 1:1 meetings, some Saba gear and a copy of Jason's new book, "Unlocking High Performance: How to use performance management to engage and empower employees to reach their full potential."

If you weren't able to make it to one of our three stops, don't fret. Not only are there tons of other great resources like webinars and blog posts that elaborate on these great ideas, but we're also giving you a peek behind the curtain of these workshops - the topics that came up, the insights that were delivered and our key takeaways. Enjoy!

The key performance management concepts discussed

Jason's book is built around a foundational concept: that work is a relationship, not a contract. Shifting to this perspective leads to a better employee experience, more engaged participants and a better overall working environment.

The three elements that make this relationship possible (and successful!):

  • Planning
  • Cultivation
  • Accountability

Planning is all about providing clarity around performance expectations and what success looks like

It's the what, why and how of performance. i.e. What are our expectations (goals)? Why do they matter? How do they align to the needs of the business? And how do we need to behave to get the job done?

Cultivation refers to all the things we do to keep the relationship healthy

Jason provided a great example of cultivation from his youth. As a kid in rural Idaho, his job was to "walk the beans," which encompassed wielding a very sharp weapon tool to cut out weeds at the root so they wouldn't choke the growth of the soybean crop. Seeds are hardwired in their DNA to grow - aka to perform - so farmers don't worry about "motivating" the seeds to grow, or whether or not seeds will "perform." Instead, farmers focus their cultivation efforts on those things they can control to create optimal growing conditions. Cut out the weeds and then just let nature take its course.

In this way, people are no different than those seeds. If we're honest, everyone has a desire to perform and to be great at their jobs. In this perspective, cultivating performance is really about all things we can do in the workplace to set the optimal conditions for high performance and to get any obstacles out of the way.

Honest communication and feedback are critical here. Habit formation around communication is particularly important - ensuring that people are given kudos and constructive feedback often enough that it never catches them off guard, but instead is used to set those optimal conditions for performance.

Accountability is all about making the relationship a two-way street

It's about confronting issues as they happen, giving honest criticisms when they're due and being willing to take the rap when things don't go according to plan (one of Jason's insights that I loved is that leaders and their people need to be accountable to one another's success.)

The planning phase actually sets the foundation for mutual commitment by fostering a clear understanding of expectations and purpose.

Most of the processes of accountability in the work relationship focus on the conversation about how things are going. What's working and what's not. This happens primarily through different kinds of feedback including measurement and ratings.

Together, the manager and employee need clarity about how they are doing in a way that includes reflection in order to thoughtfully take action to move forward.

This approach to accountability includes intentionally creating mechanisms to address and overcome any issues or failures in a way that is helpful and preserves the relationship.

Common employee experience strengths we heard from workshop attendees

As with any good workshop, Jason and I made sure to not be two talking heads speaking at attendees. We wanted to have great discussions with people and get to the bottom of what is and isn't working when it comes to performance management and the employee experience of it.

Our main discussion prompt was:

Consider your own organization's performance management systems and/or activities.

  • What's working well today?
  • What's not working well or not working yet?
  • What's missing?

Our attendees looked at their own performance processes through the lens of Planning, Cultivation and Accountability and expressed the things they were doing that yielded successful outcomes. Here are four common strengths that surfaced across the workshops:

1. Fostering the right culture. There's a lot to be said for building positive talent experiences right into an organization's DNA.

2. An emphasis on communication. Having open and honest team-based environments really helped some of our attendees cultivate great relationships and mutual accountability within their organizations.

3. Support of the manager-employee relationship. This topic surfaced in workshop conversation as not just an HR-driven goal but something employees and leaders alike have expressed interest in. People at all levels of the organization want to be doing more to build great work relationships that drive performance.

4. Goal-setting as an intentional practice. On the planning front, we heard a lot about goal-setting. Specifically, goal-setting that is agile and not bogged down by infrequent processes or rigidity. It's a concept I've written about on this blog before and that I believe in strongly.

Common performance management strengths cited by our San Diego workshop attendees.

Where attendees could improve performance management practices

So where did our attendees find that they had room for improvement?

1. Adoption and participation in the performance management process. Attendees are all at various stages in their journeys away from traditional annual review processes to more ongoing performance management. Regardless of the stage of their journey, what was missing for many of these organizations is high levels of adoption and participation in talent processes and activities.

For instance, there were a number of attendees who shared their experiences creating feedback cultures, yet this feedback still takes a rear-view mirror approach. Jason spoke of implementing a feed-forward approach where manager and employee focus on what can be done better in the future, instead of dwelling on a past mistake.

Jason explained that this future-focused mindset not only makes feedback more effective in terms of moving the needle on performance, it also makes constructive feedback more...well...constructive!


2. The struggle with rating bias is a real issue. We heard from a number of attendees who stated their organizations are struggling with rating bias. For instance, we heard about situations where leaders feared delivering negative performance ratings because they knew it would impact their employees' (or friends') compensation. This type of bias negatively impacts communication and performance.

When leaders don't feel enabled to engage in tough performance conversations and take proactive measures to address a performance gap, it's impossible to cultivate positive work relationships. It's why adopting the planning, cultivation, accountability approach to performance makes it a lot easier to get in front of performance issues.

3. Executive and organizational buy-in still a challenge. While we discussed this challenge in the workshops, including pitching a new approach to performance management to finding the right proof points, the resource below provide a great deep-dive on the subject of securing buy-in for your talent initiatives:

HR Metrics That Speak the Language of Business

The Secret Sauce Behind the ROI of Talent Management

How to Pitch Talent Management Investment to Everyone

Expert insights on unlocking high performance

Jason shared insights and go-forward recommendations to address a number of these strengths and challenges - here are a few key takeaways...

HR's overreliance on documentation needs to change

"If it matters, write it down." HR pros know that recording things is important, but Jason stressed not to become overly reliant on documentation.

See, making documentation onerous on managers and employees can lead to all sorts of problems. It turns your performance processes into a list of chores that your people need to check off, instead of a structure around how they go about their day-to-day. This can lead to inaccurate performance reviews, false documentation, and even managers drafting their employee's self-appraisals for them to avoid conflicts!

When organizations engage in more frequent and ongoing dialogue about performance, it sets the foundation in the relationship where manager and employee can discuss and address performance issues in the moment. They can identify their root cause and move forward to correct it - and hopefully remove or reduce our over-reliance on "documentation" and PIPs.

He also made the argument for removing ratings altogether, but that's a whole other blog post.

Reinforcing "work is a relationship"

So many of our conversations led us back to this core "work is a relationship" concept that Jason's book is built all around. And like any good relationship, it needs to be cared for.

Approaching work as a relationship will help you create a high-performance culture but it requires the openness and honesty that you might expect from a marriage (an analogy Jason himself used). There needs to be a mutual commitment to one another and ongoing communication, and when things don't go as planned or an obstacle arises, both parties need to be able to work together to resolve the issue and keep the relationship intact.

There's also a need for clear definitions and a shared understanding of what we're even doing here.

How can organizations support the "work as a relationship concept?

There's no single answer - it's too personal for that. But I loved one piece of advice Jason gave when we were in Chicago. He said that it was best to separate the day-to-day evaluative processes from the annual or compensation-driven ones. Make the day-to-day a dialogue, and save the harder, black-and-white conversations for the file cabinet.

Get what you need to unlock high performance in your organization

We loved spending this time with Jason. We learned a ton and enjoyed the great discussions with attendees. Thank you to Jason, and to all of you who joined us for these workshops. But the learning doesn't stop now!

Whether you were able to join us for the workshops or not, you can find an overview of the Unlocking High Performance series here, including on-demand access to Jason's webinars, blogs and more.

Also, if you're interested in learning more about tools that can help make unlocking high performance a reality in your organization, join us for product tours of Saba Cloud (ideal for organizations over 750 employees) on March 20th and Saba TalentSpace (ideal for organizations under 750 employees) on March 21st.

A huge thank you to Jason, our Saba events team and most importantly, our workshop guests. We loved hearing from you all and had amazing discussions, and can't wait to see you all again.

The Unlocking High Performance Series

Learn more about what it takes to unlock high performance with webinars, blogs and more.


Learn More
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The Unlocking High Performance Series

Learn more about what it takes to unlock high performance with webinars, blogs and more.


Learn More


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