Why employers shouldn’t treat performance management like a fad diet

Two colleagues having a conversation

Is tick-and-flick performance management like going on a diet? A group of academics thinks so, and they’re prescribing sustainable, healthy lifestyle change.

Dieting is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions performance management, but a group of academics insist the struggle to lose weight and keep it off is a good metaphor for the problems of implementing effective employee performance management.

Viewing performance management as a once-a-year tick and flick compliance exercise on top of one’s regular workload is akin to approaching weight loss with a fad diet instead of changing habitual practices, argue Deborah Blackman, Fiona Buick and Michael O’Donnell of UNSW Canberra in a paper for the Australian Journal of Public Administration.

“Effective, long-term weight loss and maintenance is, in fact, achieved through goal setting and associated habitual lifestyle changes that involve frequent exercise, healthy and regular eating, self-monitoring and regulation, and social support (i.e. friends, family, counseling),” they write.

“The goal becomes sustainable healthy living, enabling weight loss to be achieved and maintained over time, rather than temporarily lost through dieting. Applying this argument to employee performance management suggests that high performance emerges when sustainable performance practices are implemented, rather than by the adoption of a compliance-based approach that emphasises the completion of performance agreements.”

‘Extra burden in an already busy work life’

The once-annual approach “where managers and supervisors superficially assess their subordinates’ performance” by ticking off performance management paperwork and then filing it until the next annual cycle “was prevalent” in all organisations they examined.

“Framed in this way, performance management is often perceived as an extra burden in an already busy work life, with supervisors and subordinates alike talking about need to ‘get it done’, with little consideration as to why it might be important or how it could enable high performance,” the authors write.

The result is performance management is not taken seriously by managers or employees — agreements are established in haste, “usually involving copying and pasting content across different agreements, with no real clarification of performance expectations or what was required to meet those expectations.”

Tacking an extra process on top of business as usual cannot make a significant difference — as with dieting, only incorporating systemic change into daily work practices can.

Keep it regular

Despite general dissatisfaction with the common tick and flick approach, the researchers identified that employees who were satisfied with their performance management system were those for whom the compliance aspect was only one point in an ongoing discourse throughout the year.

“Managers who were perceived to be effective tended to hold ongoing performance conversations with their employees to ensure role and goal clarity, organisational alignment, and agreement on future development or support needs,” they explain. Even here the forms and scheduled meetings were still seen as overly bureaucratic and unhelpful, but because managers and employees held regular conversations throughout the year, adopting this approach was not seen as problematic.

In such cases, compliance “simply acted as a confirmatory process whereby managers summarised and formally confirmed the feedback provided over the performance cycle and, where necessary, allocated a formal performance rating.”

This meant employees already knew how they were performing before the annual meeting, reducing the stress of anticipation.

Keep it simple

Designing performance management systems to be too complicated can also lead to managers getting bogged down in detail and process, adding to the perception of it being a waste of time.

Regular conversations with employees were the key priority for managers who saw ongoing performance management as core business. This led to more positive perceptions of performance management, with employees more likely to see it as a useful way of managing staff.

So rather than becoming hung up on organisational calorie counting, public sector agencies should consider how to make sustainable, healthy lifestyle changes to how they performance manage employees.

This article was first published by The Mandarin.

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