Almost 30 years ago, I wrote a comprehensive book titled Performance Management (now in its fourth edition). I used the term to include everything an organization does to bring out the best in people from management to systems. Performance appraisal was only a small part of the process. However, the term became a new name for the annual performance appraisal because the appraisal process had too much negative baggage. No one liked performance appraisals, not those who received them or those who gave them. So over the years various names have been used to give the process a new image, or makeover. However, no change in the name will make an onerous process any less onerous. That said, when you see the term “performance management” these days, it is difficult to know exactly what it implies. Is it performance appraisal? Is it an organizational system for managing employees below the leadership ranks? Does it include compensation? Does it include all organizational initiatives to motivate the workforce to improve productivity, quality, cost and safety? Is it all of those or none of them? Who knows?
While I have written extensively about why the performance appraisal or performance assessment should be banished altogether, companies still hang onto it for reasons that don’t stand up to close scrutiny. The ostensible purpose of performance appraisal is to improve performance. Most articles written about its effectiveness on this outcome give the process a solid “F.” Efforts made over many years to tweak the system receive a similar grade. How can you improve performance when you appraise it once, four or even 12 times a year? I can write much more about the problems with the form and the process, but let me take a more constructive approach.
First, I suggest that we scrap the old process. Don’t tweak it but give it a dirt nap – R.I.P. Then introduce a new one. I have written that the mission of a manager or supervisor is to create successful employees. How do you do that? You coach! Therefore, let’s name the new process “performance coaching.”
When I use the word “coach,” I am not using it in the way many athletic coaches coach. The word coach conjures up visions of Bobby Knight, Woody Hayes and many others who think helping athletes do better requires yelling, screaming and public embarrassment. No, I am talking about a coach in the mold of a coach for professional golfers. I am referring to one whose livelihood depends on how successful his/her “coachee” becomes. If the athlete does well, the coach does extremely well. If he doesn’t, he is replaced. An important distinction here is that the golfer hires the coach. The coach is not his/her boss but someone whose primary job is to provide information that can be translated into a change in how the golfer swings a club.
To be a successful coach one needs to be well-versed in human behavior. The primary skill in effective coaching involves behavior shaping. Shaping is defined as the positive reinforcement of successive approximations toward a goal. Performance coaching involves being able to specify outcomes and the behaviors to impact them and then be able to see and reinforce small changes in the important behaviors. Coaching plans consist of identifying all the specific behaviors necessary for success, identifying positive reinforcers for the person coached and goals and sub-goals along the way.
By the way, HR should have no role in the process. HR’s role is to be the talent scout. That is, to find people from whom the supervisor or manager can select someone who he or she thinks can do the job with the right coaching. From that point on it is the responsibility of the supervisor and his or her manager to help the employee be successful.
I really believe this will work. HR will love it because performance appraisals are a headache. Supervisors and managers don’t want to do them, don’t do them well and often cause problems because of the way they do them. Supervisors will like it because they don’t have to do the appraisal – the most un-reinforcing task in the job - and because coaching is a much more reinforcing activity. Employees will like it because someone will have the specific task of helping them increase their value to the organization. While this may seem like a small change, for most organizations it is a sea change in that it will eliminate a century-old process no one likes and that most agree has outlived its usefulness.