It has been a tad shy of a decade since organizations began redesigning their approaches to performance management (PM). While previous approaches focused mainly on top-down, annual, staid processes, organizations now have to go beyond simply managing performance: they need to enable it. More specifically, organizations need practices that motivate, engage, and develop employees through a more collaborative, dynamic, and personalized process.
Yet, with all the changes made to PM, people are still unhappy, unmotivated, and disengaged. In addition, practices hailed as innovated and forward-thinking haven’t shown themselves to be the “cure-all” they may have been touted as.
So, the question remains – Where are we in the great PM experiment?
We have partnered with Glint to answer this question and looked at 40 academic and business articles, reports, and books for this literature review.
What we saw in the literature
Not surprisingly, the literature shows a general consensus that the traditional annual PM process isn’t enough. As it turns out, most traditional processes don’t drive engagement, often don’t encourage development, and don’t focus on the employee experience. While the research recognizes that some of the more traditional aspects of PM are still very necessary, organizations have experimented with ways to better engage employees in the process.
And experiment they have. We found literature on everything from completely ditching the performance review to facilitating continuous conversations, to adaptable goals. And while the sentiment is right, we think that there is an overemphasis in the literature on the process (i.e., the nuts and bolts of how we conduct performance management and its individual components), and an under-emphasis on the changing relationship between employee and employer (manager and up) and what that means for performance. Specifically, four general themes emerged:
Traditional approaches are no longer appropriate
The traditional model of performance management – the one introduced in the mid 1990s and discussed ad nauseum as an evil necessity – is unlikely to yield the results organizations want because it doesn’t focus on feedback as an informal, real-time way to engage and develop talent. It also disregards the importance of developing and maintaining a relationship between manager and employee, and instead, rigidly sticks to a standardized cycle that is not aligned with how and when work gets accomplished or when feedback is needed.
A “one-size-fits-all” approach to performance management can’t handle the highly dynamic and customized world we live and work in because it doesn’t take into account the work type nor the people in the organization.
Because of this, organizations are shifting performance away from a complex, top-down system to a mechanism that can enhance employee experience – turning something that happens to the employee into something that happens for the employee.
Ratings aren't the problem – we are
Over and over again, authors, particularly in more recent publications, urge caution about removing ratings. In fact, some authors say that organizations have reached premature conclusions about ratings: instead of fixing them, they’re buying into the myth that they serve no purpose and should be removed.
However, the literature also indicates that removing ratings does not exonerate organizations from providing feedback or evaluation; and it may make it harder. Evaluation is necessary to provide meaningful and personalized feedback so employees can improve.
A bigger problem appears to be managers’ inability or unwillingness to diagnose and confront performance problems1. This is particularly challenging in situations where ratings have been removed. And as organizations remove ratings, they need to rely more heavily on more frequent feedback in order to guide employees. Unfortunately, many organizations aren’t sure that their managers are either willing or able to have those feedback discussions2. Which brings us to our third theme.
Relationships are increasingly important
As organizations have replaced annual performance reviews with more regular feedback conversations, there has been a necessary renewed focus on the relationships in organizations – particularly those between employees and managers.
To do this effectively, organizations have to trust their managers to move past just managing projects to truly managing people. This has expanded the role of managers from beyond simply assigning work to one that also includes motivating and engaging team members and holding individuals accountable.
The literature also addresses the growing trend of peer reviews – the practice of employees providing open feedback to each other. This has prompted organizations to begin to think about how best to create a “culture of feedback” where everyone is able to provide quality feedback.
Finally, fairness. As organizations adopt more frequent feedback and more open conversations, they also need to think through how they create an environment of trust and fairness. More specifically, employees need to feel that the feedback they get is credible and fair – regardless of whether it comes from a peer or a manager.
The literature points out that in most PM processes, subtle forms of bias exist, and these biases can create different outcomes for different groups. For example, similarity bias may subtly influence a manager to provide slightly higher ratings for someone more like them (i.e., same likes/dislikes, same gender and race, similar background). These biases are particularly relevant when talking about the relationship between manager and employee. Most PM systems are not yet set up to protect against them.
Interestingly, removing ratings doesn’t remove the potential for bias – it can actually increase it. When organizations remove ratings, they often replace them with fairly ambiguous criteria for evaluation which allow for much broader interpretation. This broader interpretation can lead to perceptions of unfairness and violate norms of trust.
Articles that caught our eye
Of the literature we reviewed, several pieces stood out to us. Each of the following pieces explored ideas that we found useful and interesting. We found them helpful in expanding the way we have been thinking about PM, its challenges, and its possible solutions.
“Spoiler alert: the fix is not to blindly get rid of ratings.”
This chapter discusses recent criticisms of traditional PM practices and reviews them in light of academic research. In an effort to reduce the gap between practice and science in PM, the chapter highlights what organizations can do to improve their PM practices and where scholars should focus their research efforts.
- Argues that practitioners are driving the criticism of PM and that the gap between science and practice needs to be addressed
- Suggests that solutions to address criticisms of PM should come from both a practical and research-based point of view
- Advocates that removing ratings should be the rare exception and not the general rule
“Performance management has buckled because organizations have prioritized measurement over development.”
This report presents research on why traditional practices are not working, insights on how to improve them, and expectations that today’s employees have for their employing organizations. The authors recommend that organizations should create a culture of performance development by establishing expectations, continually coaching, and creating accountability.
- Presents the research behind why traditional PM is not effective in today’s organizations
- Discusses the changing nature of what employees expect from their organizations and how organizations can think through what (if any) changes are necessary in their approach to PM
“…there is still no substitute for the direct feedback and coaching that happens day in and day out…”
This podcast, with transcription provided, discusses recent research by McKinsey on what drives effective PM. The discussion focuses on the role of the manager to engage in quality performance and development conversations with direct reports, the need for some sort of evaluative component, and the finding that perceptions of fairness impact the degree to which PM is seen as effective.
- Discusses the current trends in PM and the necessary reliance on the ability of managers to provide coaching and feedback
- Explains that people still want to know how they’re performing and that some sort of evaluative component is likely necessary
- Illustrates the importance of perceptions of fairness in the PM approach
“…not all biases make us actively malicious. The key is how we manage our biases.”
The article discusses bias from a neuroscience perspective, highlighting that bias is our brain’s constant search for efficiency. While bias is not inherently bad, it can lead to negative outcomes if left unexplored. The authors discuss three biases – expedience, distance, and similarity – and how managers and organizations can mitigate their impact on performance appraisal.
- States that bias negatively impacts performance appraisal and briefly discusses the impact of three prevalent biases
- Provides high-level suggestions on how to mitigate the influence of these biases in performance appraisal
"Putting the System into Performance Management Systems: A Review and Agenda for Performance Management Research"
"…much work is yet to be done in developing a body of scientific knowledge about performance management systems that can better inform practice."
While this article isn’t particularly provocative or stirring (it's why we put it last), it does provide a foundational summary of current PM research, which is helpful in understanding more progressive and innovative perspectives. The authors present a model of PM and summarize research from 1980 to 2017. Based on this review, they provide recommendations for future research in PM. This article is great for leaders and practitioners that want to geek out on the history of PM.
- Presents a model of PM to organize components of PM and to integrate perspectives
- Suggests that there are only seven core tasks involved in PM
- Illustrates the importance and value of both formal and informal components of PM
- Builds a case that we’ve excluded the examination of important variables in PM
- Argues that more research is still needed on PM
The literature on PM is vast and varied, and there are many, many smart people with different perspectives. We’re pretty sure no one perspective is the “right” perspective. That said, we’re starting to see large-scale agreement for the notion that traditional, top-down, annual-driven PM is less likely to reign supreme in the workforce of the future. With this shift, we think we’ll also see an increased emphasis on the role of relationships in organizations, the expectations of managers, and the importance of trust and fairness in PM approaches.