stand out


Too remedial.
Too retrospective.
Too static.
Too irrelevant to the team leader.
Too time-consuming.
Too boring.

Such are the complaints I hear over and over about Performance Management systems.

And these don’t even touch on the biggest problem of all: our current PM systems produce a tidal wave of unreliable data. All of their ratings are based on the notion that, with enough time and training, managers (and peers) can become reliable raters of other people’s skills and competencies. Sadly, that’s not true. A large body of research reveals that 61% of your manager’s rating of you is a reflection of the manager, not of you. Your organization, apparently unaware of this, then persists on paying you, training you, and promoting you—and everyone else in the organization—based on this flawed rating.

So how do we make it better? A few years ago, my team and I set out to build an agile, future-focused system to accelerate performance and engagement, and, at the same time, generate reliable, real-time data. The result is StandOut, our integrated approach to fueling performance and engagement.

Here are the five design principles that helped us break through the barriers of legacy systems:

1) It’s All About the Team Leader
This system must be built for team leaders. We know that performance and engagement happen (or fail to happen) on a team. The organization can encourage the right climate and provide the right tools, but it’s up to every team leader to create a micro-climate on their team, which then drives both performance and engagement. We all know this. Work for a rotten boss inside a great company, and the experience of the boss trumps the experience of the company.

And yet our current systems are not built for the team leader at all—they are built for the organization and for HR. Engagement surveys are infrequent, and the data goes first to HR, then to senior leadership, and only months later to the team leader—late, and irrelevant. Our PM systems require our team leaders to do a host of things that the best team leaders don’t actually do. The best leaders don’t set goals and then ask people to track their “completion percentage” on each goal. They don’t rate people on prescribed lists of competencies. Nor do they write detailed performance reviews once or twice a year.

It’s as if our performance and engagement systems live in a parallel universe, cut off from the real world where actual team leaders grapple with the challenge of helping actual team members get actual work done.

StandOut was built expressly to add speed and insight to the practices that the best team leaders do naturally.

2) Radically Frequent Check-Ins
We actually know a great deal about what the best team leaders do naturally. Their most powerful ritual is a radically frequent check-in about near-term future work.

These aren’t team meetings. And they aren’t laborious, preparation-filled conversations about feedback or to-do lists. No, these are 1-to-1 meetings about the work that the team member is about to do right now, and how the team leader can help. In fact, the two questions they ask in these check-ins are simply “What are your priorities this week?” and “How can I help?” And they do this because they know the goals set at the beginning of the year are irrelevant by the third week of the year, and so every week they know they’ve got to check in with each team member to tweak and adjust and course-correct, in real time.

The weekly cadence is very important. For the high-performing team leaders we study, a year is not a marathon, but is instead 52 weekly sprints. They don’t check in once every six weeks, or once a quarter, because if you change the cadence, then you have to change what the check-in is about. At once every six weeks, it becomes simultaneously backward-looking and vague about the future. At once a week, it can stay future-focused and specific to the work at hand.

StandOut gives team leaders a light-touch yet insightful way to check in with each team member about next week’s sprint.

3) Coaching, Not Feedback
In these check-ins, the team leader isn’t giving the team member feedback on her personality or performance. These days, I’m always hearing that managers should learn how to give feedback, that they should be better at receiving it, and specifically that “Millennials love feedback.” None of this is true. Millennials don’t love feedback. No one does. Indeed, a growing body of research shows that the brains of people receiving feedback interpret it as a threat—feedback sends us into “fight or flight” mode. Even when the feedback is delivered with great skill and caring, our hackles go up.

The best team leaders know that what people want more than feedback is attention—in particular, coaching attention. They don’t tell a team member where she stands—no one wants to be on the receiving end of that. Instead, they help her know how to get better.

They give strengths-based coaching. Instinctively they know that the best way to help a person grow is to challenge him to identify and then leverage his strengths intelligently. His strengths—not his weaknesses—are his “areas for improvement,” those areas where he will learn the most, grow the fastest and be most resilient.

StandOut helps team leaders to deliver coaching focused on the strengths of each team member, and relevant to the work actually being done.

4) An Engagement Pulse, Locally Triggered
In the real world, one of the most pressing questions for leaders is “How are my people feeling, right now?” Current systems offer leaders no help: their employee survey tools are launched from the center and are expressly designed to generate organizational-level data (which is odd because, since engagement happens at the team level, there’s precious little an organization can do to build engagement from the center). Only months later does the organization “cascade” the data down through the ranks.

Even then, it doesn’t help the team leader much. What team leaders want to know when they see their scores is “What can I personally do to make my team more engaged in and excited by their work?” They want practical ideas customized to their unique strengths as a leader, and to the engagement scores of their actual team.

And they’re right to want this. After all, we don’t measure engagement for the sake of gathering data. We measure engagement so we can get more of it.

StandOut gives the team leader immediate results from a locally triggered engagement pulse, backed by engagement strategies customized to that team leader’s unique strengths.

5) Reliable Performance Ratings
Finally, the big bad data problem. We described this in detail in our HBR article, but it boils down to this: if we are all unreliable raters of other people’s skills and performance, how can the organization ever have line-of-sight to the actual performance of each team member?

The answer, it turns out, is surprisingly simple: since we will never be able to make people reliable raters of other people, we should stop trying. Instead, we should collect, reliably and frequently, the (admittedly subjective) feelings of each team leader about each team member.

This we can do, because we are all very reliable raters of our own feelings. So, to see the performance of each team member, all an organization needs is a short survey that asks team leaders (at least four times a year) a few carefully worded questions about how they feel about each of their team members. (You can see our survey below).

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Aggregate the data from these questions and you will see, quarter by quarter, what the performance of each team member is, based on the person best qualified to judge it—the team leader.

No laborious reviews, no lists of competencies, no all-day calibration sessions. Just reliable data, collected locally at least four times a year, and aggregated centrally. The organization can then use this data directly to pay people, promote people, or train people—or it can use the data as the starting point for more involved conversations about what to do with each person.

StandOut collects performance data reliably, and as close to the action as possible, to provide raw material for talent decisions.

So, these are the five principles we used to craft our approach, StandOut. It combines 1-on-1 coaching, strengths-based education, and an agile technology platform to give team leaders all they need to build extraordinarily productive teams. Clearly, the team leader is our focus. But with frequent, ongoing use by the team leader, this approach gives the organization direct line-of-sight into the performance and engagement of its most important unit: the team itself.