A good performance
Wright, N. & Marshall, R. (2006) ‘A Good Performance - Creating a Performance Development System’, Training & Learning, Institute of Training & Occupational Learning, January, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp13-14.
This article is the first in a new bi-monthly case study-based series focusing on performance management as an effective vehicle for learning and development. It describes how to create and implement a performance development system with a conscious orientation towards personal and organisational capacity building. Future articles will focus on coaching spirit, setting goals, managing development, conducting reviews and handling difficult conversations.
Good performance Performance is one of those interesting words that evokes very mixed reactions. For some with positive experience it may symbolise healthy productivity, achieving results, improving the bottom line. For others it may represent pressure to impress, need to conform, job insecurity. In light of this, we need to create performance systems that stimulate genuine vision and progress whilst reducing the risk of performance-as-theatre, i.e. outward compliance with little heartfelt commitment.
At World Vision, the organisation on which this case example is based, we started out with lively conversation about what constitutes ‘good performance’ and sought input from a variety of leaders and staff in different parts of the organisation. This type of consultation symbolised something important about organisational culture. Rather than defining and directing performance hierarchically, we set out to find convergence and agreement on personal and organisational aspirations from various stakeholders and see how they could be realised collectively.
The approach presents its own challenges too, however, e.g. how to avoid raising unrealistic expectations that cannot be harmonised or met. The converse is also true. If stakeholders are not consulted on what good performance should look like in practice, the organisation misses an opportunity to review and refresh shared vision and risks creating a system that feels bureaucratic or irrelevant. Without buy-in, designers will inevitably waste time later trying to cajole people into using a system that feels alien or imposed on them.
Cultural factors We believe cultural alignment is a critical first step. An organisation needs to consider its own cultural identity and vision and ensure its performance system is consistent with it. Feedback informed us that we would need to balance emphases on mission and values. As an international development and relief agency, the organisation is consciously mission-orientated and tends to attract employees who are motivated by alignment between its heart purpose and their own. As a Christian agency in the charity sector, the organisation is equally values-orientated in areas such as relationship, participation and shared learning.
Within this cultural context, it became apparent we would need to define performance in broad holistic terms, incorporating three principal areas within a strategic goal-orientated framework. (Goal-orientation provides a sense of vision, direction and appropriate boundary space). We have noticed that good performance in each of the following areas contributes to personal and organisational capacity and effectiveness:
The organisation has defined its core capabilities at an international level. These are descriptors of critical abilities or behaviours associated with high performance. When applied, they enable the organisation to reach its goals, reinforce desired cultural values and can be applied to virtually any role. They are used increasingly at recruitment as well as development stages and differentiated at staff, leadership and organisational levels. We noticed that stakeholders sometimes need help to apply generic capabilities to specific contexts and so we have provided training in this area.
Development focus We used development in the system’s title to embed and reinforce its capacity building orientation. Performance management sometimes conjures up an impression that someone else is managing one’s performance, rather than encouraging a sense of responsibility in the performer. Awareness of development priorities and taking steps to address them is validated explicitly in World Vision’s system as an indicator of good performance. This approach enables and encourages staff to seek honest feedback from diverse stakeholders on progress and development needs and, at the same time, reduces anxiety about revealed weakness as an indicator of failure.
We also built into the system space to discuss what specific factors impact on performance in practice. This has helped raise awareness of important issues in leadership, management, team processes and physical resources. By allowing staff to raise concerns about constraints on performance outside of their control, the system highlights the need for realistic goal setting and support from the outset. We have found that airing issues in this way acts as a valuable reality check and increases confidence and user buy-in.
Leaders scan reviews systematically to note themes, trends or other significant issues arising that may warrant organisational attention. In this way, a performance system that operates principally at an individual level is able to feed into organisational learning, strategy and policy development processes. We work alongside leaders as internal consultants in this area in diagnostic and sense-making mode. In organisations that do not employ internal OD specialists, we suggest that leaders offer one-another peer critique or contract independent consultants for this purpose.
System structure The structure we adopted is a fairly traditional annual cyclical model based on three main phases:
Each of these phases uses the task-capability-development matrix described above and is interspersed with on-going coaching conversations. The system as a whole has been benchmarked against Investors in People standards and the OD team has produced guidance notes, preparatory forms and summary forms and invited feedback from stakeholder on draft versions as a basis for subsequent improvement.
We launched the system with training for managers and staff, emphasising a coaching spirit as the underlying ethos and provided opportunities for practice and feedback. During training, some managers questioned how to balance empowerment with accountability and control. If, for instance, staff ask stakeholders directly for feedback on performance and development matters, how will managers know if reported feedback is reliable? Furthermore, are peers likely to give critical feedback in a pressured working environment where mutual support is paramount?
These questions raise cultural issues common to organisations in all sectors. We seek to manage the tensions in our own system by promoting the following principles:
The OD team remains involved in management of performance development in a consulting, coaching and quality capacity but the system overall is now owned and managed by the organisation as a whole.
Key recommendations On the basis of our experience of development and implementation in World Vision, we would offer the following practical advice to others reviewing or creating their own performance development system:
The next article in this series in March 06 will focus on ‘coaching spirit’ as a foundation for development.