Upgrade your performance management process: setting expectations the strengths way

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Performance management processes – you know, what many people still call appraisals – are having a bit of facelift, an overhaul, a loving boot in many organisations that we’re working with at Strengthscope. Why? Because traditional appraisals don’t work so well, or even at all, with today’s employees. In this podcast, I want to talk about how the performance management process is getting an upgrade the strength way and what that means in practice.

I’m Dr Paul Brewerton, the strength guy, and my podcasts are published mainly on Mondays in time for your first commute of the week.  What I talk about varies from week to week but I always bring a strengths flavour with me, to keep a focus on what energises you, what you’re great at or have the potential to become great at…that’s my definition of a strength by the way.

Performance management and appraisal, in particular, as core people processes in most organisations, have good intentions (like providing performance feedback, keeping people focused on objectives, providing an overall score at the end of the year to help decisions around salary, bonus, etc.). But…the way in which performance management has been done in the past, and continues to be done in many organisations today, has some major drawbacks with it:

1. It encourages people to bottle up feedback to a particular point in the year- that means that the feedback is often ineffective because it’s too late to have an impact, it’s often partial or mis-remembered because examples are being recalled from too long ago and it creates fear because both parties (manager and direct report) know that they are going to be getting, or giving, feedback and people don’t generally enjoy feedback in either direction. So both people arrive anxious into what is supposed to a constructive conversation. BTW, I have some tips on great feedback, giving and receiving in my podcast at Season 1, episode 4 – Great feedback in 3 steps, check it out.

2. By tying pay to an end of year appraisal review, a sense of confrontation is created for the manager and the employee because (a) the manager may not have full control over any remuneration decision and that makes them feel guilty, embarrassed and/or defensive and (b) even if they do have control, they’re going to come armed with evidence to justify whatever decision they’ve made. And on the other side of that situation, the employee will come armed with reams and reams of proof as to how they are basically a superhero, single handedly keeping the team afloat and ensuring that the organisation stays in business.  So there’s an antagonistic, anxious feel to the whole thing. Again, not the greatest starter for a constructive conversation.

3. Because all humans are wired towards the negativity bias (more on that in my podcast at Season 1, episode 2), appraisals and performance management more often than they should focus on criticism and negative feedback rather than on the appreciation of someone’s positive contribution. And some 13 years ago now, a little-known research organisation…the Corporate Leadership Council…presented good evidence that appraisals focusing on negative feedback and personality weaknesses could lead to a 27% reduction in performance after the appraisal, exactly the opposite effect to what was intended.

We can see that while the idea of appraisal and performance management is good, it’s not working. About 10 years ago, the strengths approach started to be tested by some forward-thinking organisations as an alternative to what had been in place for many years before.  Bringing us more into the present there are now companies like Deloitte recommending to their clients to use the strengths approach and strengths-based coaching to drive performance and appraisal conversations.

So how can you do that practically? Well for the last 13 years, me and my company have been road-testing (so you don’t have to) the best ways of getting more out of performance management, setting goals and expectations and running appraisals using the strengths approach. And here’s what we recommend:

1. Have performance conversations more often – feedback works best when it’s close in time to something you’ve observed…in the moment or the next day ideally. So as a manager, or as a colleague, give the feedback, but do it soon. We recommend weekly check-ins between a line manager and their direct reports to keep the conversation fresh and relevant.

2. Link performance conversations to strengths – you need to have a strengths assessment to do this well, of course we recommend Strengthscope because we built it and it works, but anyway, having a strengths language that is consistent and understood by everyone is essential because then you’re speaking the same language. Once you have that common language, you can link conversations around someone’s performance to strengths that may be in play or even to some risk areas like strengths in overdrive, when maybe a strength is going too far and unintended things happen as a result, but the person in overdrive doesn’t know it because to them, it still feels good.

3. Forget tying the end of year performance rating to pay – when it’s possible, we recommend trying to separate appraisal or performance conversation ratings from pay because linking the two creates an antagonistic, confrontational and defensive interaction when what you really want is an honest conversation about whether a pay increase is going to be possible or justifiable this year or whether the person needs to show more progress to get there.

4. Have a smaller number of objectives – at Strengthscope, we have a maximum of three objectives per person per three months and sometimes it’s less. This helps people focus on the essentials of what we need them to do in their roles as well as making it easier to assess progress, give feedback and for the employee to get a sense of accomplishment when they’ve nailed delivering a particular objective.

5. Supercharge objectives with a strengths focus – whatever the objectives are, if you can create a plan around how they can be better met by using strengths and by limiting risks, we’ve found this to be really empowering for both parties because is makes objective-setting more individual-shaped and because it makes achieving objectives more possible, even more enjoyable. Remember the Corporate Leadership Council study I mentioned that found by focusing performance conversations on weaknesses and negative feedback, they saw an average 27% reduction in performance? Well the same study found a 36% improvement in performance when the conversation was focused on strengths.

Now I’m not going to tell you that you do those five things and suddenly everything in the world is going to become rainbow-coloured and beautiful – giving tough feedback messages is always going to be tough, people are messy and unpredictable and aren’t always going to do what you expect, the strengths approach will work better for some than others and you need to know how to pick the right approach for the right person and situation and that takes skill and experience.

But as a start, try following the steps above and you’ll be guaranteed to get more from your performance management and appraisal processes. And if you need more detail, call us.

Okay, that’s enough for this week, enjoy your week and see you next time.

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(this podcast was originally published Sept 13th 2019)

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