Shades of performance

by Iain Hopkins13 Jun 2013
Every company aspires to be high performance. Is this a realistic objective? Human Capital talks to Dave Jackson, executive director, Solterbeck, about navigating the performance process for optimum results
Human Capital: What does high performance mean to you?
Dave Jackson: In my opinion, the power of high performance is to see it as a process, not a destination. This means each individual is doing the best job they can, within an enabling environment, and then reflecting upon how to do even better. If you say we must be high performance and treat it as an objective, the reality is, not everyone can be high performance – then it becomes meaningless. If the norm becomes high performance, then high performance needs to be some increase above that. I think the helpful thing is to say that high performance is a management approach, a people approach. What we’re looking for is to optimise performance: how can we resource our people so they’re able to be their best, and how can we be a learning organisation both in aggregate and as individuals.
HC: How important is it to set clear benchmarks so employees can clearly see what high performance means?
DJ: I don’t think it’s as much about that historical banding approach – saying to someone your current performance is a three or sits here on the scale, and to be a high performer you need to quantitatively address these areas or increase your score from a 7.2 to a 7.4. It’s more about continual learning, having the dialogue with each employee about where their performance is at, and what they can learn from their experience, what feedback we can give them, how the organisation can enable them to improve their performance. At that level it’s a lot of shades of performance rather than labelling someone as a high performer, average performer, slightly below performer, etc. Putting people into bands does not necessarily lead to a high performance organisation. If that’s the basis of performance management for everyone, then whether that sits on a curve or whether that’s considered super high or average becomes less important. The only qualifier is that underperformance needs to be managed deliberately.
HC: What do high performers expect from their employers in terms of stretch assignments, learning and development, reward and recognition, etc?
DJ: It would be a mistake to assume all high performers want the same thing. But it is likely that they will expect work that challenges them, opportunities to develop, engaging relationships, and reward for their contribution. Also, there’s an interesting aspect to high performance, perhaps related to high potential, where you have high performers who have functional roles, who are very happy with those roles, and that’s what they want to achieve. But the way you manage that person is very different to how you manage someone who’s a high performer in your graduate program who has an ambition to be the CEO of the organisation one day. There’s high performance and high ambition, and not all high performers want a different job. They want stimulating work and purpose and mastery of their craft. And enabling those people to do their best in their chosen field is a crucial high performance strategy. 
HC: Can we assume a high performer will always be a high performer, even in different companies with different cultures? 
DJ: High performance is both internally and externally dependent, thus high performers will often succeed in different companies, but less so and perhaps not at all when values are not aligned.
In terms of moving from one organisation to another, it may be an incredibly entrepreneurial organisation and you are a high performer there, but then you move to another organisation where that’s not the culture and there is a greater likelihood of not succeeding as well in that scenario. Some of your high performers will be  incredibly adaptable and will be able to land on their feet; others will be suited to certain kinds of cultures. For example – the reverse of the other example – they might be terrific in a traditional hierarchical structure with strong political lens, high stakeholder management, yet in a flatter structure, where initiative is a success factor, they might not be as strong.
HC: Goal setting is obviously important, yet stats indicate that just 7% of employees understand their company’s business strategies and what’s expected of them in delivering on those strategies. How can this be improved?
DJ: Aligning individuals to the organisation’s strategy is a constant challenge. Some suggest it’s the number one challenge in business. At the heart of it, it’s about two things: firstly, communicating the organisation’s goals clearly and consistently; and secondly, ensuring goals set at an individual level support the broader goals of the organisation.
HC: Do you think managers set too many goals or targets?
DJ: A very rough rule of thumb is to start with three. There’s enough research indicating people can only focus on a limited number of things at once. One thing getting in the way is perhaps this confusion over the areas to concentrate on when goal setting. People hate shifting goalposts, or to focus on something then find it’s changed 12 months later.
HC: What does ‘empower the employee’ mean in terms of performance management?
DJ: It’s around letting the employee set the agenda. If we’ve got 500 employees, is it reasonable that all 500 are best suited to the best performance review/planning  process? The answer is no; they are from all different backgrounds, so to keep them to a set performance review process is going to work for some and not for others. Is it possible to develop a performance appraisal process and mechanism that offers some flexibility for employees to choose their own way? Is it possible to deliver a process into the organisation which says “this person would like to have high frequent, to the point, immediate feedback from the manager”. But this other person would rather sit down once a month and have a backwards-looking conversation with his/her manager. Everyone hates performance appraisals, so is the solution to empower people about the way they go about their own performance appraisal? In concept it’s exciting; in practice it’s a big challenge. 
HC: Everyone seems to hate performance appraisals as they currently stand (in most companies). How can this process be improved?
DJ: I believe it is certain attributes of performance appraisals that employees hate. They hate surprises. They hate being disempowered. They hate being treated  as data. And they hate spending time going through the motions, rather than hearing genuine feedback about how they could improve. The solution is to eliminate the negative attributes: empower the employee, focus on the future, and discuss regularly would be a great start. I’d love to ensure I was having a one-on-one in my team to talk specifically about performance once a month, but something comes up, I’m short-staffed, people are off sick; we’ll skip it because it’s seen as a nice-to-have rather than essential conversation. There are organisations doing this well who have entrenched these conversations as part of an ongoing manager/employee dialogue, but many others where it’s not on the agenda.