Continuous Performance Management? It might not be the way forward after all....

Marc Earnshaw
20th May 2020

Guest post from Marc Earnshaw, People and Performance Development Consultant

We know one size doesn't fit all so why should there just be one "best" way to manage performance?

Over recent years, the shift to a "Continuous Performance Management" approach to managing people has become the norm. Many people will have benefitted from more frequent check-ins and feedback when compared to a traditional approach where they give and receive it once or twice a year. But is it sensible to take this approach for everyone and are managers equipped to manage all their people like this?

For managers, giving feedback at every opportunity and "in the moment" to every member of their team, especially on aspects of their role they might not entirely understand is hard and takes a lot of time and effort. When managers speak openly, they're often not sure it's the best use of their time as they've got a lot of operational things to be doing too, and many of them are not professional feedback givers / development planners / coachesso they find it difficult to get it right.

Recent research by Gartner would seem to indicate that for busy managers with a million things to do, trying to manage performance continuously might not be the best way to do it anyway, and could even be negatively effecting the performance of their teams.

If they manage six people, they're expected to provide individualised coaching, feedback, personal development planning, performance management and more to all six of them, some of it on parts of a job they might never have done themselves and have a limited understanding of.

Gartner's recent multi-year study found that "always-on" managers - who provide continuous feedback - actually degrade employee performance by up to 8%[1], whereas "connector managers" – those that give targeted feedback on their own area of expertise and connect their team to managers who can help them where they are not strong - actually improve performance by up to 26%.

Managers often feel under pressure to do more people management as part of their roles and yet 45%[2] not confident in their ability to coach and develop employees. At the same time, extensive research from Gallup on Strengths-Based Development[3] highlights the beneficial impact on performance from focusing on employee strengths. If managers are being told they need to do something they aren't confident about and aren't equipped to do well, are these factors therefore at odds with each other? And if so, at what cost?

Management Myths

The Gartner report also highlights some myths related to the commonly held belief that an "always-on" approach is the best one in today's fast pace world of work:

Myth 1 - The more time managers spend coaching and providing feedback, the better

In their report, there was no correlation between time spent coaching and employee performance. It was suggested that this actually left employees feeling disempowered and caused them to second guess themselves.

Learning: It is the quality, not quantity of coaching that counts

Myth 2 - Managers are expected to know what's best for their employees

Their research found that only 18% of employees believe their managers understand their work. Therefore, how can managers be best placed to provide relevant guidance and feedback?

Learning: Managers should recalibrate their relationships with employees and enable them to drive their development agenda.

Myth 3 - Managers are the best source of coaching and feedback for their employees

Managers don't know everything and "always-on" managers can mistakenly believe that some feedback is better than none at all.

Learning: Make sure your managers know their own strengths and therefore areas they should directly coach on versus deferring to others.

The key takeaway from this is that connector managers prioritise their coaching time differently, playing to their own and others' strengths and making connection an employee, team and organisation wide activity that boosts engagement and retention across the organisation. This would seem to line up with the Gallup findings that a Strengths-Based approach is more effective - the best managers spend their time doing what they're good at and enjoy, and they find another way to address the things they're not so good at.

What does it all mean?

It appears from these two pieces of research that giving managers very specific guidance on exactly how to manage performance and expecting them all to do it the same way could be counterproductive. It might work for some of them, some will be good at that way of managing, but others will have different ways of working that deliver results with their teams. Some individuals will benefit from frequent check-in's and guidance, others will perform better with a "light touch" approach and when encouraged to work it out for themselves.

Designing your approach to performance management to account for the "lowest common denominator" of manager ability won't get the best from the majority of managers or their teams. If specific managers need help, give them the support they need, but don't force all managers to do things a particular way just because you're worried some of them won’t do it at all.

Self-awareness is important - help people understand what their strengths are and let them get on with it. Give them tools and support that help them, not get in their way. Design your processes to allow managers and their teams to operate in a way that works for them.

Don't rob managers (or their teams) of the chance to learn from their mistakes. Help them feel safe enough to try new things without fear of failure. Don't expect them to know everything or always get it right - you'll make it harder for them to ask for help or point people in a different direction (i.e. towards a better placed person or resource that will actually help).

The best managers might not be the "always-on" ones, but they are the ones who manage intentionally. The ones who know their team members and what works for each one.Not being "always-on" isn't the same as not managing performance - actively and intentionally encourage people to solve problems and develop themselves rather than just leave them to it.

Managing people is still challenging and doing it well takes effort, even if the best managers might make it look effortless. Put the work in at the right time and play to your strengths as a manager and it won't feel as difficult. Your team will appreciate it.

Help people find the right way to develop themselves. Rather than telling them what to do it or how to do it, let them know what good looks like and then help them find the best way to get there. That could be through someone else internally but could also mean they'll need to look externally for the expertise, advice or resources. Letting them work out how to develop themselves sets them up for long term success whilst helping them feel empowered, challenged and engaged.

I suspect that the best performing teams in your business aren't always the ones that do things by the book....

Marc Earnshaw is founder of PeopleDev which offers consultancy on learning and performance, OD, HR technology and talent management.