Is The Appraisal System Dead?

If, as is reported, as many as one third of U.S. companies have abandoned the traditional appraisal system (ref:The Performance Management Revolution), and the signs are that more and more are joining the revolution, what is the future of performance management? How will companies ensure that people do what is expected of them in the future? How will managers know who’s good and who’s not? How will they advise on development, or decide who to sack and replace?

Major players such as Dell, Microsoft and IBM, as well as previous champions of the
forced ranking system such as GE, are at the vanguard of new approaches to retaining and developing talent.  These companies are responding to many issues and criticisms which have been levelled at traditional performance management systems. In some organisations they have become enormous consumers of people’s time. With  the move to
flatter organisational structures and virtual or globally dispersed teams, supervisors have had to contend with larger and larger teams. The answer to this problem in some companies has been to turn the job of performance management over to ‘specialist’ people creativitymanagers, who do little else other than manage the entire cycle, quarter after quarter. Ranking, levelling, forced distributions, identifying rising stars, identifying laggards, assessing delivery against stretch targets, calculating the distribution of the bonus pot, and starting the whole cycle again.  This has become an industry in its own right, and one that delivers no core benefit to the customer or the shareholder.

A number of factors have played a part in driving the shift we are now seeing.  Continue reading

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Chattering lizards

“The reason why so few people are agreeable in conversation is that each is thinking more about what he intends to say than others are saying”.
Francois de La Rochefoucauld

How many unproductive conversations do you hear people having on a daily basis?  How many of those do you get involved in?  What do you see going on that makes them unproductive?

I’m talking about situations where the parties involved in a dialogue actually do want the conversation to be effective, and the outcome to be productive. This is, after all, the primary way in which business, commerce, negotiation, consultation and relationships work.  

So why do so many conversations not work successfully?  Well, as you might expect, it is down to the way our brains work. When people raise issues, concerns or simply want to share a point of view with another person, they typically display a set of predictable behaviours which show up in a number of ways. The underlying motivations driving these behaviours can be summarised as:-

  • A need to maximise one’s own comfort / while minimising the other person’s discomfort
  • A desire to win / and not lose (i.e. to get your way)
  • A need to maintain control 

These needs ‘leak out’ into conversations in a variety of ways, but, most typically as:-

  • Leading Questions (designed to lead other people to get to the conclusions you have already arrived at)
  • Piling (loading points and/or questions on top of one another to emphasise your argument)
  • Over-advocacy (over-zealous control of the arguments without providing space for discussion)

When these strategies are being deployed by people, what is actually going on in their brains?   Continue reading

Don’t give me bad news

Nancy Kline in her superb book Time to Think describes a conversation with a senior civil servant whose department was going through wave after wave of changes to the way work was done and how things were structured. When asked how his managers were coping  with all of this, he responded, ‘I have no idea.  I don’t ask them.’  When asked ‘Why?’, he said, ‘They might tell me. We couldn’t have that.’  As Nancy goes on to explain, what he was really saying was thathe couldn’t handle that”.

How common is it for managers to shy away from facing up to the reality of what is going on around them, particularly when it might involve a face-to-face conversation with someone?  Very common, in my experience.   Confronting bad news, delivering home truths, providing feedback on performance, addressing inappropriate behaviour, or challenging resistance to change.  All of these scenarios present managers with situations which they either feel ill-equipped to handle effectively, or they ignore.

When managers fail to recognise an under-performing member of their team, there can be any number of underlying thinking errors or limiting beliefs at play.

For example:

  • They don’t want to admit they have someone under-performing as it may reflect badly on them
  • They don’t want to face the issue directly (it’s not in their nature), and they’re worried about handling any conflict that facing up to it might cause
  • The work is getting done to an ‘adequate enough’ level. Even though the individual is not adding as much as they potentially could, everyone’s reasonably happy – so why rock the boat?  (I dealt with this specific case in more detail in a previous post called Are you prepared to upset the Apple Cart?)
  • The individual is reasonably effective in some areas, so why not overlook or downplay issues in other areas where things could be better?
  • It is just a fact of life that some individuals are weak in certain skills or habits. We can’t change that.
  • The manager has been ‘friends’ with the individual and they’ve worked together a long time. They find it hard to confront them with hard messages.
  • The individual is a “nice” person, and it would hurt them to come down too hard on them
  • The individual is “slick” in that they always have a reason/response to issues raised with them, it’s just not worth the hassle of bringing up problems. After all, we’ve always managed to work round them in the past

Holding back, and not acting with complete honesty or sincerity does not create or encourage learning and improvement?  It does not prepare people for the future and help them adapt to change.

Fundamentally the approach to overcoming this type of ‘limiting thinking’ is simple….. Continue reading

Slow Down, you Move too Fast

“Slow Down, you Move too Fast”… so go the wise words of Simon & Garfunkel’s “59th Street Bridge Song” ……

Many people are inclined to jump to action rather quickly.  After all, isn’t this what people feel they are being paid for? To make decisions, to be decisive, to act !

Acting, in my experience, is rarely the biggest problem we face within our boardrooms, executive groups and operational teams. Our businesses and organisations are replete with people who plan, manage tasks, monitor activities, schedule, organise and control. I don’t sense that we need to build more skill in these areas.

The bigger challenges that face our business leaders are in the quality of conversations they undertake, their depth of problem analyses, and their ability to reach universal agreements on what actually needs to be done to bring about the major changes that will transform our businesses and organisations to turnaround their fortunes.

People tend to “over-analyse” the detail (or the parts we are most comfortable with) and avoid  tackling the real, hard, knotty issues. As teams, our conversations, seldom focus in on the major issues that would bring about significant and transformational change.

We tend not to bring sufficient attention to the most significant issues. After all, it is easier to focus on the trivia, or those issues that are most comfortable to discuss.  Bringing attention to significant issues is, after all, risky. We risk upsetting people, we risk our reputation, we risk being alienated if no-one else supports us, and we risk upsetting the status quo.

As a result, true agreement is rarely reached to the extent that it is clarified, confirmed and restated to everyone’s level of unambiguous satisfaction. How many meetings have you come away from where people start initiatives to resolve what they believe is the ‘agreed’ issue, but which is, in reality, subject to their own individual perspective?  This typically results in duplication of effort, conflicting initiatives, confusion and frustration.

Our organisations are action-generating machines,creating an illusion of efficiency, and productivity. Down the line, the most significant issues, which, if addressed and tackled, would result in radical change and improvement, remain untouched, lurking in the shadows in corners of meeting rooms around the globe (the proverbial elephant in the room?).

Here is a simple step by step guide – “The 4 As” –  to help leaders navigate Continue reading

From Conflict to Collaboration

Inter-personal or group conflict is an inevitable consequence of people working together in teams.  In fact, conflict can be a good thing, as it is a sign that people care and are passionate, and, if those energies are channelled correctly, they can be a great source of diverse ideas and solutions.

Too often however, conflict results in negative and damaging outcomes. It can hurt morale, suppress individual effectiveness, and, ultimately, destroy team productivity. Left untreated, it results in a downward spiral of negativity, emotions and blame.

A helpful starting point is to understand some of the theory, and to recognise that people have different (and preferred) styles of dealing with conflict.  There is no one style that will work best in every situation, but once you have an understanding of the different styles, you have the opportunity to step back and think about the most appropriate approach (or perhaps mix of approaches) that will suit the current situation. And, having a raised awareness of your own ‘natural’ style is a good first step to helping you learn and adapt when necessary, so that it does not remain your only style.  (For a deeper treatment of this area, see the work of Ralph H. Kilmann and Kenneth W. Thomas)

The list of styles identified through their work are:

  • Avoiding – Acting in a  way that does not address the conflict directly. This style is typified by delegating controversial decisions, accepting default decisions, and not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. It can be a viable style to adopt when the issue and the relationship are of very low importance, but it should be used with extreme caution.  Avoiding a serious issue may make the conflict intensify, possibly damaging relationships further.
  • Accommodating – Involves accepting the other party’s position or interest at the expense of your own.  People who naturally adopt this style are not assertive but highly cooperative. It may be appropriate when the issue matters more to the other party and when peace is more valuable than winning. It can, however, be counter-productive as you may be seen as weak, especially if used repeatedly. Furthermore, constant ‘accommodating’ may lead to increased stress.
  • Competing – Working to have your position or interests take priority over those of the other party.  People who tend towards a competitive style take a firm stand, and know what they want, usually operating from a position of power (whether position, rank, expertise, or persuasive ability). It can be useful in an emergency when a decision needs to be made fast; or when defending against someone who is trying to exploit the situation selfishly. However it can leave people feeling bruised, unsatisfied and resentful when used in less urgent situations.  It is also not a useful style when it is important to generate diverse ideas or multiple solutions.
  • Compromising – Involves each party giving and getting a little in terms of position and interests.  People adopting a compromising style seek solutions that will to some extent  satisfy everyone. This approach depends on everyone being prepared to give up something. It can be useful when the cost of conflict is higher than the cost of losing ground, when equal strength opponents are at a standstill and when there is a deadline looming. It is unlikely to work successfully for issues of principle and may cut off opportunities for collaborative problem solving.
  • Collaborating – Parties attempt to meet all or most of the interests underlying their respective positions.  Collaborators can be highly assertive, but unlike the competitor, they cooperate effectively and acknowledge that everyone’s input is important. This is the most useful style when it is important to bring together a variety of viewpoints to get the best solution; when there have been previous conflicts in the group; or when the situation is too critical  for a simple trade-off.  It is most effective for generating ‘high-quality solutions’ but requires a very high level of trust between parties, and relies on the use of  considerable interpersonal skills (e.g. it is vital  to confront issues directly without threatening the other party). For some situations it may not be appropriate due to the fact that it can take considerable time and effort to implement.

‘True’ Collaboration is an often misunderstood and overused term.  It has been fashionable for companies to Continue reading

What gets in your way and blows the conversation?

Because we are human we have a number of fairly predictable reactions and behaviours in given situations.

All people, regardless of culture, gender, experience, job or position in the hierarchy, operate according to the same set of principles when under even fairly mild levels of stress. [For a more detailed treatment of this area I refer you to Chris Argyris’ work on double-loop learning ] 

  1.  We seek to maximise comfort and minimise negative emotions that means both our own and also the other person with whom we may be interacting at the time. 
  2. We will, at the same time as aiming to maintain a position of comfort, still aim to maximise our chances of winning and avoid losingin other words, we typically want to get our point across, and let others see where the problem lies or solution should come from
  3. And third, we seek to maintain controlwe typically try to put out a feeling of rationality and self-control (even when it is lacking) and aim to maintain control of where the discussion or outcome is going so that we can ‘steer’ others to the outcome we want

All of this adds up to a heady mix of potential problems in our everyday dealings with people – especially when stakes are raised, when emotions rise and when threats start to emerge.  The ways in which these principles and values emerge in our behaviour can differ from person to person – sometimes overtly and sometimes beneath a veneer of control, respectability and respect.  The underlying purpose of these strategies is to avoid vulnerability, avoid risk, and avoid appearing incompetent.

But, before you go away with an overly pessimistic view of the human race, don’t worry. First of all, this is natural, and is, to a large extent, a strategy that has helped us survive as a species through our evolution.  These strategies were necessary in the primeval world our ancestors navigated, but they are deeply defensive strategies, and rooted in a desire for self-preservation.  When they show up in our everyday lives, in meetings, in performance reviews and in relationships, they undermine our effectiveness and get in the way of building productive relationships, they are “anti-learning”, and damage the chances of constructive outcomes.

The good news is that we know about these de-railers and how and when they show up, and we can do something about it.

Fundamentally the approach to overcoming these is simple….. Continue reading