Once more with feeling – how overheating our passion on performance management gets us stuck 

The passion I’ve heard from both managers and HR leaders about what’s needed to get it right on performance management is inspiring. People are committed to doing the right thing for their people. Managers want to offer coaching, development and support, to be fair and transparent, to build high performing, engaged teams. HR leaders are committed to providing managers with the skills to coach, to listen, and provide feedback constructively, to create an environment where people are engaged and delivering on high performance.

And I feel inside, haven’t I heard this before, in other meetings, in other conversations, where the same or similar points are made, once more with feeling! As if making the same point again but more passionately, will make it right.

I’m reminded of my school lessons about the enzyme lock and key theory. Enzymes are protein that speed up chemical reactions in the body, and work best at an optimum temperature. They are the key to open the lock on the molecule that is exactly the right shape for that key. Too hot and the enzyme is denatured, does not fit the lock, and the chemical reaction stops working.

Image: Lock and key model, Jcliang, licensed under Creative Commons, Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unreported license

Have we overheated our passion about how performance management should work? Have we bent our own key out of shape, so it no longer fits the lock that would open the door?

Exactly as enzymes work in a living system, and that system needs to work at an optimum level, with the right temperature, and pH level (acidity or alkalinity), so, I believe, we must understand and find the optimum level for performance management.

Performance management has become a “wicked problem”

Originally formulated by Rittel and Webber¹ for social policy planning, the characteristics of wicked problems can be recognised in complex situations such as how performance management works in organisations today. There is no definitive formulation of the problem of “performance management”. The challenge is persistent, and does not have a clear end, as witnessed by the continuing debates. There is no true or false solution to how we manage performance management, only good or bad solutions. Rittel and Webber also note that every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem – something we can recognise with performance management, where the failings can be attributed to other problem areas with e.g. leadership skills, management culture, or alignment of objectives.

Performance management is a challenge that despite many well resourced, well intentioned, and passionate, efforts, remains unresolved.

Keeping our cool to open the door to higher performance

It’s time now to keep our cool, so that we can match the right keys to the right locks, and open the door to higher performance. It’s time to stop talking about the performance management system, and to start inquiring about the living system of performance management. It’s time to take a systemic perspective.

Here I am inspired by the Theory U concepts authored by Otto Scharmer² . The quality of awareness or attention that we bring to how we think about performance management will matter to the quality of the result that we generate.

It’s about coming with an open mind, and an open heart. We can start with deep listening, attending to what is being said, building our awareness of the beliefs, fears and hopes that lie behind. What beliefs do senior leaders, middle managers, and front line managers, hold about the people they are leading, about what engages them, what values they hold, why they come to work? What beliefs do employees hold about themselves? And are these beliefs aligned?

What are the practices that leaders, managers and employees employ individually? What do people do in the system, to manage performance in a way that engages? And are these the practices that unlock the door to effective performance?

And let’s not forget the voices or impacts of other parts in the organisational system – the customers, the business strategy, the processes, and of course the performance management “system” itself. What part do they play in the system, and what re-alignment is needed?

From theory to action

My contention is that we must learn to attend more deeply, to all parts of the system. Just as enzymes are specific, and only fit with molecules with the correct shape, so a systemic inquiry, attending to all parts of the system, will help us to find the right keys to the right locks.

We need a plan to run the experiment in the laboratory, get the right conditions, and set up the apparatus we need.

Step 1:
This is about “observe, observe, observe”, what Scharmer describes as the totally immersing yourself in the places that matter most to the situation you are dealing with. For me, this is about dialogues and interviews, focus groups, feedback sessions, but held with an open mind, and an open heart that brings true empathy. It’s listening and learning from the experience of employees, and their perspectives on the practices that make the difference. It’s hearing from middle managers and front line managers on the challenges they face, and how they can be overcome. It creates the conditions for voices to be heard.

Step 2:
This is getting the right apparatus, to enable us to sense and allow these insights to land. Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory can provide a framework for us to understand what is going on. Building on integral theory, our exploration with performance management can attend to the four quadrants of individual beliefs, individual behaviour, collective culture, and the formal systems and practices.

Interventions that are only focused on behaviour, such as giving managers a “sheep dip” in coaching behaviours and styles, can fail without complementary action on shifting their beliefs and mindsets.

Step 3:
This is about allowing the insights to emerge, and taking action. This is when we learn from attending with greater empathy and systemic awareness. Then we can get ourselves unstuck, and use the passion and heat in our debates about performance management to start speeding up the reactions that will actually drive performance in our work.

About the author: Willson Hau is a facilitator of change, leadership coach, and organisational development consultant. He has an active interest in authentic and embodied leadership, and is inspired by the possibility to unlock change through deeper listening, embodied awareness, and systemic thinking. He is a member of the Performance Management sub-group in Engage For Success. Engage For Success is a movement committed to the belief that employee engagement is a better way to work, arising from the Prime Minister’s Employee Engagement Task Force, launched in March 2011, and building on the Macleod Report, ‘Engaging for Success’.

Email: willson@tryple3-consulting.co.uk

¹Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, Rittel and Webber, 1973
²Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer, 2013

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