Why Performance Management Has Nothing To Do With Performance

Over the last ten years, we’ve all come to suspect that conventional performance management doesn’t really have anything to do with performance. Over the last five years, we’ve started talking about it openly. Over the last three years, we’ve experimented with which parts of it—the annual review, the ratings themselves—we can get rid of. And now, finally, we are beginning to make proposals for what we should do instead.

So here’s a proposal to end all proposals: let’s just stop managing performance altogether and instead skip right to accelerating performance. After all, as Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall write in this month’s HBR,

At root, is performance management more about the “management” bit or about the “performance” bit? Said differently, while it might be great to be able to measure and reward the performance you have, wouldn’t it be even better to know how to get more of it in the first place?

Of course it would. Yet so many supposedly “new” proposals are still mired in the “management” bit. Take John Doerr’s fascination with Objectives and Key Results areas, the fabled “OKRs” used at Intel. Or take the recent spate of apps that allow people to post their SMART goals and then publish their completion percentages. Or even the supposedly foolproof method to gain organizational alignment using cascading goals. It all feels so retro. Who really thinks that publishing OKRs to the entire company will actually improve someone’s performance? If a team leader were to ask team members, “What can I do to help you excel?” who would answer, “Share my goals, my metrics and my progress with the whole company”? No one wants that sort of exposure. And we’re right not to want it. We’ve never heard of a superstar athlete, or musician, or mathematician doing anything remotely resembling that. None of these new goal-based approaches were made to help people excel. Instead, they are the organization’s tools, designed and built to give the organization more frequent means to “manage” performance. They add speed and efficiency to an activity that should never be done in the first place.

We—the real-world team leaders and members—don’t want to be managed. We want to grow, to get better, to get ahead, to speed up our ability to turn our talents into performance. That’s the problem that we want solved. How exactly do we do that?

I’ll tell you how. We coach. Not big coachy Coaching with a capital C, but everyday, real-world, in-the-work coaching. As team members we want someone to pay attention to us, to know what we do best, and to help us focus what we do best. We look at excellence outside the world of work and all we see are coaches—coaches who know their people, who get in their faces, challenging them each week, each meet, each game, each show, to step it up and perform. That’s what we see. That’s what we want.

And as team leaders, we want this too. We want this for ourselves, and on our most generous days we want to provide this kind of coaching attention to each of our people. We look at the very best team leaders and we see them doing it. We see them check in on a Monday with each of their people and ask, “What are your priorities this week, and how can I help?” And we see the small adjustments and tweaks and course corrections that they offer each of their people. And we know that to accelerate the performance of our people, we should be doing the same. We know this is the right ritual.

Our challenge, of course, is that we don’t have the time, or perhaps the insight, or the skill, to plug this ritual into our busy lives.

But what if we had help? What if we had a tool set designed to add speed and insight to this ritual that the best team leaders do instinctively?

Such a tool set would begin with a way for us to identify where we do our best work, to identify our “strengths.” It would give us a place to tell our own “best work story” and a way to share that story with our team. And even better, it would give our team leaders a cheat sheet on how to make the most of each team member’s unique strengths.

Then it would give us a place to check in, show us each team member’s priorities for the week, and give us in-the-moment coaching tips on how to focus, recognize, or challenge each person.

The tool set would also have to give us a really valid way to measure how engaged our team is right now, and what actions we can take right now—given our unique strengths as a leader—to fully engage the team.

This tool set isn’t—it can’t be—the organization’s tool. It’s my tool, about me and for me—to pinpoint my strengths, to focus my strengths to do more of my best work, and do the same with each of my people. That’s not managing performance. That’s accelerating performance.

In the recent past, I was part of a team that adopted this philosophy. Now I’m part of the one that’s building it. That’s right. I get to build a solution specifically to help team leaders accelerate performance. Let’s be clear: what we’ve built—we call it StandOut—isn’t just a piece of technology. Technology alone isn’t going to give us what we’re all searching for. StandOut is an integrated solution. It’s about coaching and education and technology working together to help all team leaders do what the best team leaders do. We’ve spent the last two years researching, validating and implementing this approach across thousands of teams. In the cover story of April’s HBR, we shared some of our work. Give it a read.

Goals, tasks, OKRs—it doesn’t make any difference what we call them—they aren’t actually the important part of the performance equation. Yes, we’ve been getting it wrong for a very long time. But that time is over. We’re smarter now. So let’s put those smarts to work. We know what the best team leaders do. The best team leaders give real-time coaching about the real-time work their team members are doing so that they can do more of their very best work every day. That’s how you fuel engagement. That’s how you accelerate performance. And that, in the end, is what we all want.