21st Century Performance Improvement (Without Appraisals)

Christopher Lee

Chief Human Resources Officer at William and Mary

Learning Objectives

The world has changed, so should our approach to management. Outdated ways of working are no longer suitable for a dynamic world with a 24/7/365 pace, remote work, Millennials, advancing technologies, diversity, and uncertainty. The goal of today's leader should be to coach employees to help them get better, guide employees to perform better, and encourage and counsel them so that they feel better about their work and the organization. Old fashioned performance appraisals demoralize employees, ruin engagement, and cause turnover. Learn about the Performance Conversations method, a novel performance improvement methodology that unlocks the fullness of employee potential.

Key Takeaways:

  • Shift ones mindset, methods, and tools for managing

  • Learn to coach, counsel, and cheer on employees to increasingly higher levels of performance

  • Develop positive rapport and relationships with employees to enhance results by using the Performance Conversations method

"If everything is changed, then why are we using tools that were made for the industrial world, 20th-century thinking? "

Christopher Lee

Chief Human Resources Officer at William and Mary


Hello, my name is Chris Lee. It’s my pleasure today to talk to you about 21st century management, about using modern tools and ideas, and letting go of outdated bygone ways of working in the 20th century sort of manner. Today, we’re going to talk about performance improvement without appraisals in 21st century way of thinking about things. 

Now, I have some well-earned gray hair. I have been a Chief HR Officer for four different organizations over the past 25 years, I have studied in Research Design and Performance Improvement for quite a while. I’ve written four books on HR-related topics, consulted with many organizations in the US, Canada, Australia, South Africa, have taught a lot on HR subjects. I was also a Question Writer for the PHR and SPHR examinations. Most notably, my most recent publication called Performance Conversations, it talks about how to improve productivity, it talks about how to help people get better, and it also talks about how to boost their confidence. Today, we’re going to put those ideas to work. 

Now, if you stop for a moment, everything has changed. It’s kind of like a news alert. The big idea that the workplace is fundamentally different than it was a few years ago. Whole lot more diversity, and all facets of that word, that idea. Technology is all over the place. We’re all equipped with smartphones and different technologies—we’re mobile. We’re working 24/7. We’re working in a distributed way—mobile, global, remote, from home, all over the place. 

Work itself is different. The gig economy is taking over. We’re outsourcing. We’re working in fundamentally different ways 24/7, 365, everything has fundamentally changed and things are moving rapidly. You’ve heard of the the acronym VUCA, volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. A lot has changed. Economy, the pandemic, etc. The question becomes, if everything is changed, then why are we using tools that were made for industrial world, 20th century thinking? Think about that.

Are you hiring people the same way you were 25 years ago? Were you trading people the same way? Are you compensating them? Are you employing them? Are you working with them? The answer is probably no. Why haven’t our systems and ways of working evolved to the point that we can manage people in a fundamentally different way? Performance appraisals were made for an industrial world. We’ve surpassed even the information age in the digital age, and things are fundamentally different. 

Peter Capelli of Warden talks about the performance management revolution. In about 2015 to 2016, many organizations abandoned their use of performance appraisals, most notably Accenture and Deloitte, two of the world’s greatest consulting firms. They abandon their use, and these are the folks who sold it to the world. SAP also, as you know, a software company that automates systems, ditch them for their own employees. It’s no secret that Chief HR Officer said, “Rating workers did not work, people are open to feedback, and also to harsh criticism. However, when you start giving scores, or praising them, the shadows go down.” 

The question becomes: what to do differently? That’s what we’re talking about today. We’re talking about a 21st century way of thinking and working, and that idea is simply this. We’re not talking about appraisal. We’re talking about a performance improvement system, appraisals look backward, tried to grade people, rate people, criticize them,` look at things that they could not change from the past versus working with them today to coach them to help them improve. The performance conversations method is an improvement system, it’s not about appraisal. 

Feedback and appraisal are fundamentally two different ideas. Feedback is information people can use. It’s usually offered immediately close to the action, it gives people information about where they are, it gives them information to help them assess things and make change. It is reinforcing. It is accurate. It’s usually informal. At the time of the action, kind of episodic, and it’s not linked to other things. It’s kind of like say, “Hey, Chris, you’re doing well on a, b, and c. Your colleagues say that you are a good team player, your reports are impeccable, but you need to grow more on your use particular tools and methodologies.” That’s feedback. “Chris, you are B plus,” that’s appraisal. Appraisal is something that happens yearly, or is a formal document that’s linked to other things. It looks backwards, right? It doesn’t really tell you how to improve, it tells you how you did. Feedback is something that is information, and when coupled with a couple of other elements, really can help a person get better, and we’re going to focus on that. 

The big idea here is simply this: performance conversations method is about helping people get better. People just don’t get better, you got to coach them, you got to empower them, you have to help them, you have to work with them, guide them, and support them. Then you have to be in the action with people, help them to improve. You want to improve their engagement and knowledge, their buildings, their work. Coaching and supporting people as they work is really what it’s all about. 

Next is the idea of boosting one’s confidence, and this is really important. Think about the past year in the pandemic world. The world has been taxing for a lot of people. Today, one of the most important things a leader can do is to encourage people to help them cope, to get back into the fray, to work harder, to try harder, to know that someone has their back. That’s the idea here, that if you’re working with people, you’re criticizing them, give them suppose constructive criticism, what you’re saying is, “Hey, what can I do to help you do your very best work? What obstacles can I remove? What tools or resources can I provide to you to help you get back into the fray into your best work?” That’s what it’s all about, so how did you go about doing this? 

It is simple. It is very simple. It’s simple and elegant. It’s about having a series of brief structured conversations about the things that matter most. Series, meaning that we’re talking about a planned group or series of conversations over time, call it 20 to 30-minute meetings that happen over a period of time scheduled every six weeks, every eight weeks, every 12 weeks, depending on the person and the work they’re performing. In junior person, might need more coaching sessions. A senior person, fewer. Some work moves pretty fast. Therefore, you may need more frequent meetings, even monthly or bi-monthly. Some work is more stable, it may be a trimester. 

The idea is that we’re going to have a planned series of brief meetings. They’re going to be structured, not just conversations about the weather. We’re going to ask key questions about the work and the things we can do together to create the best possible outcomes. It’s going to be about the most important things about our goals, where things are, what can be improved, how can we diagnose what’s going on, and make the appropriate adjustments. It’s conversational. It’s not a one way dialogue of a leader, supervisor giving one some constructive criticism, and given them a grade. It’s about a two way conversation, so a person can say, “Ouch”, “I don’t know”, “I need help”, “Can you support me?” The beauty of these series of conversations is the person knows that the purpose is to help them get better, feel better, and do better work. They’re okay saying, “I’m off track, can you help?” because the relationship, the idea is fundamentally different than we’re trying to get to, because they’re not being evaluated, they’re being coached and supported. That’s what the briefs conversation is all about. 

It removes the supervisor from being a judge to be a coach. It sounds subtle, but they’re fundamentally two different ideas. A judge is someone you don’t know, dressed in black sitting up on their kind of high horse of their stage, and they’re protected by a person with a weapon, and we don’t know that person. When they say something, they pass judgment, they leave, and we don’t have a future relationship with them. It’s kind of hard to give negative feedback to someone, and then work with them later. The whole idea of appraisal, and the judge focus of a trained, impartial person who’s unemotional, very experienced, and kind of distant from us is fundamentally different than that of a coach who’s concerned about you, as well as your work, trying to help you get better. That’s the idea—to bring out the best in you. That relationship, that ongoing contact is really what the performance conversations method is about. It’s about a 21st century way of working with others, to help them do their very best work. 

Now, we’re going to couple feedback with feed forward. Feed forward is anticipatory adjustment. It is taking feedback information from the environment, and making changes before they’re fully needed, so that you stay calibrated and on the right path. Think about a car’s autopilot or cruise control, you start to move out of the lane, you get a little beep, so you can kind of keep it in the rope. We don’t wait until it’s all over the feedback, we got to crash—no, we want to adjust. Think about a cruise control, you getting to heel, and the car notices its slowing down, and the feed forward says we need to make an adjustment before our speed is too low. Smooths things out, that’s what feed forward is. Feedback looks backward, gives information; an assessment kind of a feed forward, takes that information and anticipates changes, and it makes adjustments so that one can stay on track. That’s part of the feedback, kind of feed forward conversation, the checking conversation, the one on one as Google calls it, the pulse This is G Carlson right, the coaching sessions, the progress reviews, the check-in conversations, the performance conversations that you have with your subordinates, because you are prepared to coach people in the 21st century. 

Now, how are you going to do this? You’re going to do this—have these, the series of brief structured conversations about things that matter most. You’re going to ask a few key questions. We’re going to arm you with questions that help you diagnose the situation and manage through them. Now, questions are the holy grail because in almost every profession, is a tool used by experts to help bring out the best of the situation. When you go to a doctor, how do they assess what’s going on with you? They ask a few questions. How about lawyers? They ask lots of questions of witnesses and that sort of thing. Police, they investigate by asking questions. Counselors, similar to doctors, they ask questions. Journalists, they investigate by asking question. Scientists is the scientific method: observe, asking researchable question, call it a hypothesis, and go and gather information. I can go on and on, and you, as a 21st century Manager, you also must be able to ask some really good questions. 

The performance conversations offers a magical three and a magnificent seven, and teaches you how to formulate your own questions. Here’s the big three here: simply what you really want to know as you’re working with your teammates, your subordinates, your members of your group, your department. You want to ask them a few key questions, what is what’s going well? How can we reinforce that and replicate them? What’s not going well? How might we adjust and what else is going on in your work life so that we work together to prevent problems from happening or take opportunities to seize on things to improve by diagnosing or kind of discussing any other things that are on one’s mind. 

It sounds simple and easy. It is a little bit of an art, because it’s about a dialogue, it’s about the partnership, it’s about co performance ,where one works with their subordinates in a structured kind of environment with key prompts, key relationships, and coaching sort of relationship so we can work together to figure out how to make the best possible situation of working together. Really the most important question that one could ever ask a subordinate is, “What can I do to help you do your very best work?”

For a person to be open and earnest in responding to their question, you must have the right kind of relationship with them. We’ve talked about that. Building a coaching relationship, where your concern about not just a performer, but the person as well. That’s what coaching is. It is different than being boss or judge. It’s a relationship where we co-perform, we work together to bring out the best possible outcomes in helping you do your very best work. It’s about having a series of brief, structured conversations about the things that matter most. We got to schedule meetings every 4, 6, 8, 12 weeks, whatever is appropriate for your work and the work of your subordinates. We’re going to have structured conversations that talk about the things that matter most: our goals, our priorities, changes in the work, the new technologies, things with coworkers, whatever is important, we’re going to talk about because this is the key. We’re going to work together because I’m going to help coach you to success. Think about it, we’re shifting from a 20th century, backwards looking sort of approach to a new way of working with our subordinates, and that is the performance conversations method. 

I hope you’ve learned a few things. I hope I’ve shared a few things that will help you rethink how you work with your team and produce great outcomes here in the 21st century. You can contact me at the information on your screen or you can certainly reach me right here in the Quartz Network. Good luck. Hopefully, that gives you [unintelligible]. Let me know. Thank you.

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