Thursday, April 8, 2010

Bad Company, No Banana

I was driving into work this morning and my monkey mind merrily leapt onto something it knew would trouble me.  At work there is one thing that, when I contemplate it, it will pretty rapidly spin me into a black mood. That subject is performance management - specifically the formal process of performance management. Several years ago the company I work for adopted a performance management strategy that I think is rather seriously disconnected from reality. The results of following the corporate guidelines result in outcome that are fundamentally unfair - it forces people into neat little boxes and by using a relative ranking system (comparing one employee to another) sets up a "favorite children" scenario.  The end result of this scenario are some employee's who "shine" and others who become disenfranchised and de-motivated. Employee's rapidly figure out that the perception of quality outshines actual quality, that the appearance of being good becomes more important that actually being good.


Now, here is a dark secret about me - well, okay, it is not really a dark secret. I read Machiavelli's "The Prince" years ago. I understand what he is talking about. I am pretty good at it. I won't say I am a true Machiavellian, however I freely admit to being a rather ruthless pragmatist. I am quite capable of "doing what needs to be done", whatever that may be.  That means in a system that rewards the appearance of quality over actual quality, I am quite capable of thriving by structuring my activities to insure that I am presenting the proper appearance. In fact, I am pretty naked and open about it (which tends to through people off).  However, because I can thrive in an environment doesn't mean I like the environment.  I often find myself in the lonely role of "speaking truth to power" - that is, when asked or presented with the opportunity, I point out to my corporation and my upper management and the various groups I can touch that, as far as performance management is concerned, under the current system, the Emperor has no clothes. I've been fighting that battle, which seems like a quest worthy of Don Quixote, for several years now. I've made quite a few members of the executive staff uncomfortable by repeated pointing out the nakedness of the emperor.

So, that is an ongoing struggle here in the work environment.  For the record, in my opinion as a leader and manager, the best performance systems have certain traits that are necessary for success.  First, they have many layers for ranking employees (personally, I think a minimum of 9). Second, rather than relative rankings which set up competition and are subject to manipulation, they focus on absolute measurements of success - i.e. "did you get the task done", and third, they focus the power regarding the ranking process in the hands of line management (who is then ranked by their management, etc.). Now, don't think that this rules out the crucial human element of management and leadership, because among those absolute tasks being measured can be and should be "are your employees happy" and "do your employees perceive the decision making processes as fair", and similar items.  I am also a huge advocate of true 360 degree performance reviews - as a leader, what do the people you lead think of you? What do your customers think of you? What do your business partners think of you?  What do your peers think of you?  What does your upper management think of you?  Finally, the best of performance management systems are openly explicit - that is not only do you know what you are ranked on (and how and why), but you know what your fellow employees are ranked on (and how and why).


Now, I don't know that we will ever get there as a corporation, though I see some excellent signs that we may be moving in the right direction and that other voices have risen up to join mine (and believe me, I sure felt like a lonely voice in the wilderness). so, after a morning drive of my monkey mind dancing around the subject, I thought at the end of the drive that I would turn that potentially negative bit of interior dialogue into a potentially positive bit of interior dialogue. I decided to spend some time today to think about how, in spite of the system I feel is fundamentally flawed, I can keep my employees in a state of high professional motivation.  (And just as a little self-serving glimpse into my world, let me share with you a conversation I had with my director a few months back.  Following one of his routine skip-level meetings, he commented to me that in all his years of being in upper management he never encountered a group of employees who seem as happy as mine - they only had two things to complain about - they wanted me to buy the a new refrigerator, and the office area was too cold.).


So, with that dance hopping around in my monkey mind - I hope you're having a grand day and I hope that your monkey mind is contemplating interesting things!

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