Conformance Management: All Act, No Action
by Karen Sella of FutureSense, Inc.
con•form•ance \kon-‘for-man(t)s \ n 1 : correspondence in form, manner, or character : AGREEMENT 2 : an act or instance of conforming 3 : action in accordance with some specified standard or authority : OBEDIENCE <~ to social custom>
per•form•ance \pe(r)-‘for-man(t)s\ n 1 a : the execution of an action b: something accomplished: DEED, FEAT 2 : the fulfillment of a claim, promise, or request: IMPLEMENTATION 3 a : the action of representing a character in a play b : a public presentation or exhibition 4 : the ability to perform : EFFICIENCY.
Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary,Merriam-Webster, 1985
What is performance management? What approach makes the most sense for your company? When it comes to successfully managing performance, there are several questions to consider. However, the most critical question to ask is what kind of performance is worth managing?
Do you want meaningful action or merely an act? Think about it. Performance, depending on one’s definition, is both an action and an act, both substance and pretense. Too often, when it comes to managing performance, companies manage only the act without any meaningful action, conducting annual pro-forma appraisals that cover everyone’s you-know-whats without ever realizing anyone’s potential. Performance Management without meaningful action is nothing more than “Conformance Management.”
Conformance Management: Act I, Scene 1
Short on time and short on trust, the two main characters, Supervisor and Subordinate meet to review the Subordinate’s annual performance appraisal. Both ill conceived and overdue, this once a year meeting takes place during some inconvenient and inadequate time between other meetings. It has probably been re-scheduled at least once due to feigned illness, overbooking, procrastination, or any other “legitimate” excuse. However, last year, Human Resources implemented a policy that precludes the provision of annual bonuses prior to the completion of annual performance appraisals; and there’s only one week left.
During the meeting, Supervisor and Subordinate sit at the Supervisor’s desk across from one another. The chair behind the desk is slightly higher than the chair in front of the desk. The Supervisor begins the meeting with his/her appraisal of the Subordinate’s performance, and notifies the Subordinate about any resulting compensation or advancement decisions, making sure to leave at least ten minutes for the Subordinate to respond. The Subordinate listens, nods encouragingly, and responds as requested with appropriately accommodating remarks. This exchange takes place amidst ringing phones, beeping pagers, and other, most unfortunate (although sometimes welcome) distractions that make it next to impossible for either to concentrate on the task at hand. However, both perform admirably, managing to act as if this is a meaningful exchange that will lead to meaningful action while simultaneously fulfilling their meaningless obligation.
The characters: The Supervisor and The Subordinate.
The Supervisor: Generally overextended and exasperated with the amount of requisite paperwork generated by the performance appraisal process, the Supervisor is a reluctant participant in the process. (S)he views performance appraisals as a compulsory interruption from more significant work. In this scene, the Supervisor’s primary goal is to get the Subordinate to conform to company expectations with as little discomfort as possible. (S)he:
• Shows an interest in the Subordinate’s development without revealing that there are at least a dozen, higher priorities to accomplish by the end of the day—not to mention, the five other appraisals to be completed by week end.
• Delivers his or her evaluation of the Subordinate’s performance, informing the Subordinate about strengths and “opportunities for improvement” (a.k.a. politically correct term for “weaknesses”; it seems that these characters are of such weak character that they lack the integrity to simply speak the truth, thus conforming to what is deemed to be more appropriate, less threatening language developed by well-intending egalitarians).
• Notifies the Subordinate about any advancement and compensation decisions, making sure to justify these with appropriate information and documentation.
• Ensures that the Subordinate understands and conforms to cultural and positional performance expectations — particularly those that reflect on the Supervisor’s performance within the company.
The Subordinate: Usually overworked and undervalued, although frequently well paid, the Subordinate is equally unenthused by the annual performance appraisal process. (S)he thinks that performance appraisals are just the company’s attempt to hold employees accountable for unreasonable and unclear expectations that bear little resemblance to the actual job anyway. The Subordinate’s main goal is to preserve his or her employment while optimizing opportunities with as little discomfort as possible. (S)he:
• Presents information, as requested by the Supervisor.
• Appears interested and open while avoiding or minimizing as much as possible any mention of weakness (ahem, opportunity for improvement).
• Demonstrates initiative while carefully following the Supervisor’s lead.
• Creates performance objectives that won’t interfere with any real work that needs to get done (ideally, these please the Supervisor, look good on paper, imply great effort, but are easily achieved, so the next appraisal clearly demonstrates outstanding performance).
Granted, I exaggerate—just slightly. But even caricatures resemble reality. What leads otherwise honest and caring individuals to engage in such an unproductive and apathetic exchange? Ignorance? Exhaustion? Distrust? Symptoms. Often, the underlying reason is a purely administrative approach to performance that amounts to little more than compulsory conformance.
Despite the rhetoric about valuing employees—the “greatest company asset”—when it comes to allocating resources, companies frequently fail to make any investment in performance beyond competitive compensation, mandatory training (sexual discrimination, for example), and the annual performance appraisal. This approach may lead to material wealth, but does little to encourage actions that support more meaningful success.
How do you manage performance instead of conformance? Create a culture that values performance and a structure that actually supports it: adopt a developmental approach.
Administrative versus Developmental Approaches
Let’s start with the basics. There are two fundamental aspects that govern companies’ approaches to performance: administrative and developmental. The administrative, conformance-focused aspect includes all those event-based, transactional tasks associated with assigning employee compensation and advancement, such as bonuses or promotions. The developmental, performance-focused aspect refers to a cyclical, results-oriented process—continuous efforts designed to motivate and develop employees—including performance planning, formal and informal feedback, and coaching. As any good manager can attest, it is challenging to achieve an effective balance between the administrative and developmental aspects of managing performance. Most companies lean toward one aspect or the other.
An Administrative Approach: Appraise & Awards
Those companies that rely on a more administrative or appraise & awards approach primarily assess performance—usually on an annual basis—to determine salary increases, bonuses, promotions, layoffs, demotions, transfers, etc. In this approach, the main function of the performance appraisal is to decide individual compensation and advancement awards. Professional growth and planning are secondary to this primary aim. Payoffs and promotions are assumed to be the primary motivators for employee success.
A purely administrative approach is burdensome on supervisors and subordinates alike because each is aware that comments related to performance appraisals will directly impact the financial and career success of those being evaluated. Since compensation and advancement are often addressed during the appraisal session, supervisors are more likely to provide “safe” feedback or rely on carefully constructed remarks designed to explain compensation and advancement decisions. Genuine disclosure that could encourage greater professional development is sadly neglected in favor of “nice” conversation or “sound” explanation. When forced to play the conflicting roles of judge (administrative conformance) and coach (developmental performance)—supervisors frequently find themselves caught in the bureaucratic middle—going through the motions, completing the paperwork, and justifying the numbers rather than initiating any more meaningful action. However, the administrative value of employees—the total compensation awards—cannot compensate for not valuing employees enough to invest in their development.
Likewise, in a conformance environment, subordinates also play it safe, recognizing that their financial and job security is dependent on positive performance appraisals. They work hard to conform, performing the role of a “top performer,” whatever that may be (team-players with positive attitudes who anticipate problems and offer solutions, arrive early, stay late, and get along with their superiors are popular descriptions). It is hardly surprising. What incentive is there to explore “opportunities for improvement” in perhaps the only conversation devoted to performance during the entire year?
Most are prepared to highlight achievements and defend any shortcomings, if they are even asked to speak. Unfortunately, it is common for subordinates to leave their performance reviews having barely said a word, victims or co-conspirators in Conformance Management. When anything they say “could, though won’t necessarily, be used against them,” is it any wonder that they opt to preserve and defend? If the choice is between possible self-incrimination and self-discovery, they elect to do both in private.
A Developmental Approach: Review & Results
In contrast, more forward-thinking companies are adopting a developmental philosophy for performance where employees are encouraged and expected to guide their careers with the support of management (not to be mistaken with another current trend—expecting employees to guide their careers with little or no support from management). Given competitive compensation, intrinsic rewards—such as recognition of individual performance contributions and professional development opportunities—are assumed to be the primary motivators for employee success.
These companies that subscribe to a more developmental or review & results approach regularly review performance—usually every one to two months—with an emphasis on improving individual abilities for better performance results. Subordinate views are actively sought and respected, so both parties’ perspectives guide the review process. A formal annual review is conducted to discuss the individual’s ongoing professional development within, and contributions to, the company, as well as to plan for the following year. Professional development and performance planning are the primary purpose of the review. Issues of compensation and advancement are discussed separate from the performance review, which albeit a somewhat contrived solution, seems to help people focus on the issues at hand.
Because supervisors and subordinates communicate about performance in regular review sessions, and compensation and advancement issues are discussed separately, they are more likely to speak candidly about performance. Supervisors are likely to provide more balanced and timely feedback in environments that support such efforts. Likewise, subordinates are less inclined to be defensive when participating in ongoing, constructive conversations about their performance.
Consistent communication also allows employees to be more proactive in taking any needed corrective actions. Thus, they can feel more confident about their formal annual reviews—which despite the separation from compensation and promotion discussions, inevitably impact compensation and promotion decisions. Since supervisors and subordinates work together to evaluate and improve performance throughout the year, the end-of-year review is just that—a review.
Performance Management Essentials
Words to the wise: if you must err toward either an administrative or developmental approach, err on the side of development. But only do so if your company is prepared to do it right. Any effective Performance Management initiative includes:
A developmental perspective – recognize that performance management is an ongoing, cyclical process with planning, feedback, coaching and reviews throughout the year.
Planning session – engage in collaborative planning (between supervisor and subordinate) to mutually agree upon position responsibilities, goals, and measures.
Regular performance reviews – meet together every one to two months to track progress against the goals, and discuss any professional development issues.
Ongoing coaching for improvement – work together to identify areas for improvement and provide (supervisor) additional coaching and resources.
Annual performance review – engage in a more formal two-way, collaborative, future-focused discussion designed to review or re-examine feedback given to the employee throughout the year, as well as plan for the upcoming year.
Adequate performance documentation – sacrifice brevity rather than quality when it comes to performance documentation and expect clarifying comments from reviewers.
Furthermore, it is important to recognize that for Performance Management to be effective, a company must provide training in such critical skills as performance planning, constructive feedback, and coaching. For example, participants must know how to write good work objectives—those that clearly communicate expected performance (remember SMART? Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based). Without skillful performance objectives, you may succeed in creating a more communicative workplace—not a bad result in and of itself—but fall short of overall performance improvement. Similarly, employees must be able to give and receive constructive feedback. After all, it does little good—and more than a little damage—to initiate regular feedback that results in a series of disappointing experiences because the people involved don’t know how to communicate effectively. This can be counterproductive, leading to conflict and destructive working relationships. To initiate a developmental approach without investing in the necessary training is to initiate disaster.
In summary, to move from Conformance Management to Performance Management, you must not only create a culture that really values performance, but also invest in a structure that truly supports it. The only structure that supports performance is one that provides both the resources and processes to continually improve performance over time. Otherwise, all you really have is conformance masquerading as performance—pretense without substance—all act, no action.