Getting real about performance management

Quite often, a misleading record in relation to performance levels can have an undesirable legal significance, writes Conor Hannaway.

It is a fact of life that most managers do not like doing performance reviews.  Some of the stories heard about these discussions would be funny if they did not have such a serious side to them. Time taken is the simplest measure of how seriously a manager takes these discussions.  There are ‘the chat in the car’ type of discussions. There are the ‘Sign here, I won’t tell if you don’t tell’ type of reviews. There are also the ‘You write it up and I’ll sign it’ sort. None of these demonstrate the sort of commitment required.

Managers who operate in this way will tell you that they only have these meetings because they have to.  The health service is not the only place where cursory reviews are held.  There must have been totally phony reviews in the financial services organisations over the years. It would be interesting to see what is written in the pre-crash reviews which were the basis for many a fantastic bonus.

Perhaps the biggest problem relates to the notion of performance review itself.  Assessing performance is highly problematic.  There is extensive research which indicates that people believe that their performance is better than it actually is.  Even when they recognise that their performance has not reached acceptable standards, they attribute their failures to the context in which they operate which may include you, their manager.

It would be better if these discussions were called performance management meetings rather than performance reviews.  Their objective is simple. You are trying to help the staff member to perform effectively in the future.  If there are lessons to be learned from the past, then let’s learn them.  If that means being frank about the staff member’s own performance, so be it.  One of the rules about performance discussions is that there should be no surprises.  That part is right.  However, it does not mean that you should overlook some major failing of the reviewee simply because you or somebody else did not mention it in the past.

Assessing performance is highly problematic and there is extensive research which indicates that people believe that their performance is better than it actually is

When you refer to a performance problem which was not mentioned before, you have a number of options.  One of the most appealing is to say that if they fix it, then you will redo the review and let them have a clean slate.  Working in this way, you are addressing a performance problem in a progressive manner and maintaining the relationship without fudging the issue.  The problem with fudging is that the staff member may get the wrong impression of their current level of performance and have no incentive to do anything about it.  Quite often, a misleading record in relation to performance levels can have an undesirable legal significance.

Tackling performance issues is one of the reasons why managers should invest time in conducting performance management meetings.  There are other reasons.  These include giving recognition for performance, pointing staff in the right direction and looking for ways in which you can help staff perform better are the other reasons. Staff development is another reason but it should not be seen as an end in itself.  Training and development should be linked to performance outcomes. Missing this point is the reason why some organisations invested huge sums in staff development but were still left with groups of staff who can barely use a computer or tackle a thorny performance issue.

CONOR HANNAWAY, BCL, BL, MSc (Mgt)