Management author Bob Lewis once said, “Based on what I’ve seen, over the past few decades the performance appraisal process (really, practice) has become increasingly bulky and time-consuming for both managers and those they manage. The payoff for the additional time and energy diverted to this activity? So far as I can tell, managers hate it, few employees find it valuable, and there’s no evidence that better employee performance correlates with more extensive and intensive performance appraisals.”

From case studies I recall in graduate school, such is too often true.

In fact, the company (GE) where Jack Welch implemented his famous “rank and yank” method of performance management, is abolishing performance management altogether.

I don’t have sufficient data to comment on the latter, but I can speak to why performance management often yields no notable return.

Performance Management

Performance management is often viewed as a process, a procedure that a manager can follow. It is an art within the milieu of building relationships, so few follow it well.

Too often, managers see the appraisal as the performance management process, a task in a long list of unpleasant tasks they have to complete. It’s no wonder they hate it.

Effective leaders see performance management as much more, even as an art. They understand the necessity of building the relationship and giving regular feedback throughout the year. The appraisal just sums up the year.

It works best when managers have sufficient training and understanding and when the manager builds sufficient rapport and trust.

Micromanagement and control, especially when the supervisor encroaches on direct reports with a parent ego, erodes rapport and trust.

In the process of building a relationship of trust and rapport, opening that two-way street of direct reports sharing what they think their supervisor can improve as well as the reverse, has high efficacy in performance management.

Anything that needs to be corrected should have been before appraisal time comes around.

And it should ensue as a manager-report team effort. Then the end of reporting period can focus on professional development.

As a sidebar, consider the popular clique: “CFO asks CEO, “What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave us? The CEO responds, what happens if we don’t and they stay?”

Direct Reports

Supervisors should welcome direct reports challenging them. This has multiple purposes. First thing to realize is that the supervisor has been hired into the position of authority. Organizations today don’t have a “keep what you kill” culture.

There is seldom sufficient rationale to demonstrate the power differential, or to demonstrate one is all-knowing or infallible. Welcoming complaints and challenges allows supervisors to show they are human.

But mostly, in the discussions that follow, direct reports achieve understanding and grow to want to please their supervisor. And doing such well sets the stage of training replacement candidates as well as building a high performance team.

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Some argue about “what if” scenarios where reports might abuse privileges or taking advantage of supervisors. Such a perspective should be avoided at all costs. It’s a slippery slope and leads to a sort of “mass psychosis” that kills trust.

There is a whole discussion one could have about psychological evidence showing the ineffective and ill-effects of such insecurity.

What I found is even the least performing will rise to the occasion, with exceptions being extremely rare. Those exceptions, if a supervisor is unlucky enough to have one, are easy to discern early on and supervisors would do well to replace them, barring cases of supervisor incompetence.

Along this vein, trouble in an organization rarely finds culpability outside of management.

This approach works the best at building high performance teams, whether blue collar, or white collar with advanced degrees.

I’ve personally implemented this with expected results for both. And in so doing, have achieved the respect of C-levels along the way.

Expectations

Regarding supervisor expectations, consider the following experiment.

The gist of the experiment is in a real-world welding class, 5 names on the class roster were chosen at random. The instructor was told those 5 students had a high aptitude for welding. In reality, those names were simply the output of a randomizing tool.

During the 6 months of the course, those 5 students changed their performance significantly. They were absent fewer times than the control group, learned the fundamentals of welding in little more than half the time, and they scored 10 points higher on the comprehensive welding test.

At the end of the class, the students were asked to rate themselves, and without exception, each student singled out these 5 students as those they most preferred to work and be with.

The only independent variable was the instructor’s expectation. When the instructor was told the nature of the experiment, he was shocked. He truly believed he had acted the same to all the students. But somehow his expectation transferred to the entire class.

Similar experiments have been conducted in numerous contexts and age groups going back to the middle of last century revealing the same phenomenon.

Simply put, we are “wired” with this tendency. When we think about how susceptible we are to performing or behaving in accordance with expectations of others (such as how we are treated), especially those in positions of power over us, we can understand how true the adage, the hand that rocks the cradle (and corollary teachers and supervisors), rule the world.

How Can Leaders Work on Performance Management?

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Mark Graybill
Mark has a Master’s in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and is a management consultant, a leadership instructor for the Air Force Reserves, and a Ph.D. student of Psychology specializing in Social Cognition and Instruction.