14th August 2015

An Uneasy Look at Performance Management

Ok wait. That’s not the title of my post! That’s the title of an article by Douglas Macgregor in the May-June 1957 issue of Harvard Business Review. Yep, that’s right, Douglas Macgregor identified issues in the practice of performance management nearly sixty years ago.

While we as consultants have some beliefs about the fundamentals needed for effective performance management (and more about that in an upcoming post), given recent announcements by high profile organisations about ditching or dramatically changing their performance management practices it’s worth a quick reflection on Macgregor’s seminal work to see what is still relevant today.

Macgregor wrote “Performance appraisal within management ranks has become standard practice in many companies . . . often as an important feature of management development programs. The more the method is used, the more uneasy I grow over the unstated assumptions which lie behind it.”

Ask yourself if any of these excerpts ring true . . .

On the resistance of managers to fully engaging in the appraisal process Macgregor said “resistance is usually attributed to the following causes: A normal dislike of criticising a subordinate (and perhaps having to argue about it); a lack of skill in handling the discussion; a dislike of a new procedure with its accompanying changes in ways of operating, and a mistrust of the validity of the appraisal instrument

On ensuring compliance to the process: “To meet this problem, formal controls – scheduling reminders, and so on – are often instituted.  It is common experience that without them fewer than half the appraisals are actually held.”

On management skill: “The approach (by managers to appraisal), unless handled with consummate skill and delicacy, constitutes something dangerously close to a violation of the personality.  Managers are uncomfortable when they are put in the position of ‘playing God’.”

On providing training support to overcome resistance: “Training programs designed to teach the skills of appraising do help, but they seldom eliminate managerial resistance entirely . . . . there is always some discomfort in telling a subordinate he (it was 1957) is not doing well”

And so the paradox of performance management was born. 

And it goes like this . . . While managers and employees alike see the logic and necessity of having performance management processes, those processes run into resistance by those same managers and employees supposed to apply them.

It’s clear from those recent announcements by high profile organisations and from our own client discussions that there is still widespread disenchantment with performance management processes along the same lines Douglas Macgregor identified nearly sixty years ago.  HR leaders still feel they have to champion the process, cajole people into participation and use whatever positional power they have to ensure compliance.  Many organisations it seems, are still looking for a silver bullet.

What do you think?

Where is your organisation at on the current performance management debate?

Are you making changes now or waiting to see what other organisations do?

We welcome your ideas and insights.

And be sure to look out for our upcoming post on what we know to be the fundamentals necessary for effective performance management.

Justin Miles, Partner & Managing Director The Talent Workshop


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