Photo by Brandon Mowinkel on Unsplash

Performance management is still swinging and missing

Three ways to improve the dreaded annual event.

Let me start by noting that I am not a huge fan of baseball. The game is played too slowly. The players make too much money. And attending a game in person is too expensive. Plus, I spent too many years growing up in Chicago listening to “This is the Cubbies’ year!” It never was.

Nevertheless, a fascinating baseball statistic caught my eye as I was about to toss the New York Times sports section onto the recycle pile, something called “secondary batting average.”

A players traditional batting average is the number of at bats divided by the number of hits. The resulting calculation is one of the de facto industry standards for judging a player’s ongoing value to the team.

“Secondary batting average,” however, is a more comprehensive look at a batter’s offensive skills. It divides the number at bats by the number of doubles, triples, home runs, base on balls, and stolen bases a player accrues over the season. In effect, a player’s worth is a calculation of the bases he achieves versus the hits he achieves.

These statistics are part of a player’s minute-to-minute performance appraisal. Get a hit, and your average will increase incrementally. Make an out, and your average will decrease.

It’s a performance appraisal in real time.

This got me thinking.

Google “What’s wrong with performance appraisals?” and you’ll be met with a plethora of articles noting everything from 5 to 50 problems.

These problems standout:

  • Most PAs are still task-focused. They attempt to measure how well an employee has accomplished certain goals. These goals are rarely structured to roll up to see how they impact overall company results. They are, in effect, myopic. They keep the employee focused on a narrow range of activities.
  • Most PAs are still conducted as one-sided lectures where the manager tells the employee what they did right, and especially where they can improve. There is often little dialogue. And, let’s face it, most managers act cowardly: they don’t want to really confront any major performance issues because it’s uncomfortable to do so. Underlying this issue is that managers are rarely trained on how to conduct effective performance appraisals. They are simply following a script as outlined in an HR template.
  • PAs / performance management systems are still seen by almost everyone as an intrusion into the “real work.” They’re not routinely integrated into the broader scope of PM, e.g. where training could be linked to support personal or organizational improvement.
  • Teams are rarely assessed, which is surprising in that much of the work done in organizations today is through teams, and the team is accountable for work.
  • Most PAs are still conducted once a year. They may not take into account until that moment where goals and activities shifted during the year. And worse, employees can literally be ambushed with a host of “faults” that the manager failed to discuss during the year.

What if we applied the idea of a “secondary batting average” to performance appraisals whereby we look at practices that give a more comprehensive view of the employee’s worth? What would the doubles, triples, home runs etc. of performance appraisals look like? I offer three ideas:

1. Focus the appraisal on the who and the how. Instead of seeing what was accomplished as the major metric for evaluation, the tasks-focused story, performance appraisals need to be as or more weighted to who is doing the work and how they are going about accomplishing it.

It’s people that get the work done either as sole contributors, or as members of formal or informal teams. After all, it’s how people behave relative to one another that determines what gets accomplished on or near schedule. Teamwork is on the rise even as organizations move to virtual work arrangements. And there is some evidence that teams are more productive than individuals.

Such evaluations would look more at interpersonal skills than they do at technical skills. For example, what if PAs and associated conversations dug in and examined evidence of such critical skills as flexibility, self-awareness, collaborative, active listening, resourcefulness, and conflict management?

Similarly, what if PAs and associated conversations emphasized strengths and diminished the focus on “areas for improvement” unless they were significant barriers to achieving desired organizational results and impact – and not just a box on the appraisal template that had to be completed?

Sarah Elkins, a Gallup StrengthFinders coach, points out the benefits of such an approach:

“When we try to be good at everything, and struggle with delegating tasks, we limit the time we can spend doing what we’re really good at, and improving those skills. When we find those who complement our strengths, we open opportunities to focus on our strengths, and to recognize and acknowledge the strengths of the people around us. And who doesn’t like to be recognized for the things they’re good at?”

2. Make performance an on-going discussion. Unlike the evaluation of baseball players, which is constant, most individuals are still evaluated once a year with little if any coaching in between.

My friend, Steve Paul, implemented a much more meaningful system through something he called “Acceleration Meetings.” These were weekly, 10 to 15 minute touch points with each of his 25 employees that followed a semi-flexible format (see at left). The goals of the meeting were to find out how the employee was doing and how management could support them over the short or long-term. (You can listen here to the interview my cohost and I conducted with Steve on our “Getting Unstuck” podcast.)

Performance and Career Coach, Mary Schaefer, champions this practice:

“Expected and ongoing discussions create space for increased understanding and trust versus waiting on that nerve-wracking, once-a-year conversation. Employees come to appreciate that you want to spend time with them regularly because you take seriously their performance, their aspirations, and their well being. The regularity allows for easy course corrections whether through the employee’s brilliance, or some gentle guidance from the manager.”

Since much of the Steve’s time in these meetings was spent asking open-ended questions and listening, it was not uncommon for an employee to volunteer an idea that they thought might benefit the organization. Steve called this coaching session an opportunity to “listen for brilliance.” Shouldn’t such ideas be part of an employee’s performance review?

3. Measure the human impact of the work performed. Many organizations still focus on traditional and often internal numerics, e.g., “We sold X number of____”; “We achieved an operating income of ___%.” These are important measures for external stakeholders, e.g., stockholders, but internal stakeholders are more often motivated by mission and the impact the organization is having on those it serves.

I had an epiphany around this point many years ago when I was delivering sales news to the editorial department I managed. When I first talked about the revenue from the number of textbooks we had sold, I looked out on a sea of blank faces. But when I shifted the message to explain “Now X hundred thousand students will be using the books you made,” the group beamed with collective pride. These editors weren’t motivated by sales numbers, the were motivated by the impact they were having on students, teachers and education.

Discussions here would get into the quality of whatever is created — software code, marketing collateral, a product, a service — because it’s quality that benefits those the organization attempts to serve.

Most organizations will probably stay with their traditional performance appraisal process because they haven’t made the shift away from seeing the appraisal as a perfunctory exercise – part of the annual compensation review – as opposed to something that can contribute to real talent development and organizational impact.

The latter approach can be more qualitative, and for managers who are uncomfortable with performance discussions to begin with, or who see their job as focusing on the work and not on the people doing the work, the traditional path is the safe path.

But it’s the “secondary batting average” approach, which is more people-focused and richer in what it reviews that increases the likelihood of supporting an organization’s sustainability over the long term.

Stay with the current process, and you’re more likely to be just counting hits – or swinging and missing altogether.

I am a certified executive coach and principal at Quetico Leadership & Career Coaching. I partner with individuals to remove the obstacles that stand in their way of being truly engaged in their work and achieving their desired impact.

Check out “Getting Unstuck,” the podcast I co-host with my buddy Kirsten Richert.

Personal career & leadership coach, fly fisher, space nut, writer, teacher - a river runs through it