Performance management works when done with care

By John Langhorne / Guest Column

Sometime ago I wrote an article on performance appraisal (PA) noting the process works best when the focus is on professional development, not work performance, remediation or compensation.

In summary, traditional PA is a good idea badly done. In the article I mentioned the optimal method to improve performance was one-on-one feedback. Coincidentally, in the Sept. 14 issue of the Wall Street Journal is an article about how to be a better manager in 30 minutes a week. Two consultants started a podcast in 2005 titled “Manager Tools” that routinely has more than a million downloads each week at They introduce the “management trinity” – open communication with employees; frequent feedback and continual coaching.

These are not new ideas. In 1982 Blanchard & Spencer published “The One-Minute Manager.” Translated into several languages it has sold more than eight million copies. The principles are two-fold: 1. Assure your employees have realistic goals and; 2. Provide lots of feedback – positive and negative. There is a ton of evidence that, in the hands of a competent manager, this process improves performance in almost all employees.

One of the problems with the management and leadership domain is people constantly feel the need to rename and re-position a tried-and-true concept. For example, when I began consulting, the term “participation” was in wide use. Later it became “involvement,” then “empowerment” (a term that refuses to die) and is now generally referred to as “engagement.”

This is proof that management and leadership are, like medicine, arts. Fortunately, both are based on evidence, not opinion. Performance management is the relabeling of the Blanchard principles and can spark many improvements.

However, there are some caveats. It is possible to teach/coach people into becoming people-focused managers. But not everyone can become an effective manager. Some, such as authoritarian or passive people, do not have the temperament. Thus, manager/coach selection should be rigorous and ongoing.

Implementing such a program needs to be well-planned and iterative – measure and fix it as you move. Sending people to seminars will not suffice; it must be carried out within the organization itself.

The key to success is at the top. If the CEO believes in and models the practice, this will convince most employees and managers that this is not just another one-shot “silver bullet” guaranteed to solve all the organization’s problems. Such practices often produce a “don’t worry, this will be gone in a bit” outlook in many people.

This cynicism is hard to reverse. In a set of interviews with long-term employees most noted the organization was “this way when they came.” Changing behavior can be easy or difficult, depending of the manner of implementation.

The organization’s managers should carry out the program. In one such successful program, senior managers worked down through the layers of the organization and required everyone to participate. If they missed, they needed to go to a make-up session. This approach produced significant performance improvements and identified high performance as well as problem people.

Another possibility is to identify people who are natural teachers and coaches. All organizations have such people and those who know them respect their attitudes. The program should be rolled out from the top-down in a manner that allows everyone to see what is happening. Using an internal blog can be very effective. This prepares people for what is coming and invites them to think about how they might participate.

The design of the program should include a coordinating group of no more than nine led by the CEO or their designated senior manager. The group should include a representative sample of people from throughout the organization. The time-to-time assessment of progress by an outside consultant can serve to keep the program on task and add new ideas to the mix.

When thoughtfully applied, these principles alter the work environment to produce a more productive, employee friendly culture. This process works big-time if you implement it with care.