Managing performance: what really works?

Managing performance: what really works?

The notion that ‘Appraisals are over’ has been around for a couple of years now. They were ‘axed’, ‘scrapped’ (even ‘killed’), and employees would be ‘free’ thanks to Accenture’s announcement of their overhaul of performance reviews. After Accenture ditched appraisals, countless others followed and continue to do so. Very radical. The wonderfully acerbic response by the FT’s Lucy Kellaway is a piece I highly recommend as a counterweight to the consultancy giant’s press release.

Some scepticism was justified: wouldn’t scrapping annual reviews be throwing out the performance management baby with the appraisal bathwater? What would happen instead? Well, that’s where managers come in – which is why I felt inspired to write The Feedback Book. As the book nears its first birthday, I thought an update might be appropriate.

So how’s it working out there?

There’s a clue from CIPD, whose impressive research report entitled ‘Could do better?’ set out to assess the evidence of what’s working in performance management – and what isn’t. Recently, I heard the report’s author, Jonny Gifford, Organisational Behaviour Adviser at CIPD, present the key findings and take questions.

Combing through and evaluating hundreds of research studies, ‘Could do better?’ pays particular attention to two ‘core components’ of performance management: goal setting and appraisals. There’s still an important role for feedback (phew!), particularly when it comes to monitoring progress towards goals. But digging deeper, things aren’t quite as simple as we might have thought.

Here are my big take-aways:

Goal setting

Goal setting has been linked to unethical behaviour in some instances. For example, setting high sales targets when accompanied by financial incentives. Gifford advises the nature of the goal needs to adapt to the task (and, I’d suggest, the nature of the person). Specific, outcome-driven goals can push performance – when the work is more routine and tasks are clearly defined. But where work is more complex and less predictable, goals that are behavioural encourage adaptable responses rather than referring to the procedures manual. I’m willing to bet that most roles combine both elements, so this means that managers need to be able to analyse the tasks the job involves and craft goals accordingly. Should people set their own goals? Not necessarily, it seems – the most significant factor is our boss’s expectations, which Gifford says “may seem a cold line to take”, but people need to know what is expected of them. It’s time for managers to step up and set goals with ‘distal and proximal’ deadlines – which means long-term goals with short-term progress points.


The report questions the assumption that one appraisal format can deliver both the administrative and people development needs of employers and employees.

This one really struck me: surely employers have been separating performance and pay discussions for some time? Seems not. Gifford makes a strong case – primarily based on employees’ need for fairness as well as feedback on progress – for not trying to do too many things with one annual ‘box-ticking exercise’. Yes, employers need to take decisions about reward within a business cycle; but they must also recognise that people need to know how they’re doing. It’s time to include ‘having frequent performance conversations’ in managers’ role requirements. 

Refreshingly, in this video Jonny Gifford recommends basing performance conversations on employees’ strengths, rather than simply focusing on fixing weaknesses. Shameless plug alert: I’m a Strengthscope practitioner, and am seeing first-hand how motivating this approach can be. Get in touch if you’d like to find out more.

By | 2017-09-01T14:25:04+01:00 September 1st, 2017|Blog|0 Comments

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