Tying ourselves up in knots – performance management

This posting examines the thinking that underpins the idea of performance management

A number of not-for-profits have  adopted from the private sector the practice of setting Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs, not just for one aspect of the work they are undertaking, but as a means of assessing the activities of the entire organisation. There is a tendency also to construe these as specifiable in advance and quantifiable, reducing the work of the organisation to things that can be counted, and are therefore ‘measurable’. Although there is nothing wrong with counting things, this can sometimes be a poor and reduced substitute for assessing the quality of interventions which are aimed at bringing about social development with people. In previous posts I have been suggesting that when we work together we begin to understand what it is we are trying to achieve differently: even a few weeks into a development project we can begin to understand how limited was our original understanding of what we thought we were going to do.

Exactly the same kind of thinking underpins standard management practice across all organisational sectors in the management of individuals, a process which has come to be known as ‘performance management’. Just as the management of the work is construed as being subject to laws of predictability and control, so staff, as agents acting to further the work are appraised according to their ability to fulfil individual and group objectives which nest within organisational objectives. Most not-for-profits have established supervisory processes where managers will sit down with their line management reports and establish annual work objectives for which staff members are then ‘held accountable’. Personal objectives are thought to be logically derived from organisational objectives. As the Harvard Business Essentials guide to performance management (2006) puts it:

Every company, every operating unit, and every employee needs goals and plans for achieving them…The real power of these cascading goals is their alignment with the purposes of the organisation. Every employee in this arrangement should understand his or her goals, how assigned activities advance the goals of the unit, and how the unit’s activities contribute to the strategic objective of the enterprise. Thus, goal alignment focuses all the energy of the business on the things that matter most. (2006: 5)

This is an excellent example of systems thinking, which takes for granted organisation as whole, where individual performance management is a logical extension of setting organisational objectives. All staff members are to align themselves with the organisational mission within a linear concept of time (see the posting on different theories of time below). The suggestion is that the organisational course is pre-determined, and therefore managerial intervention should be aimed at correcting the activities of staff to keep them ‘on track’. The behaviour of individual members of staff are supposed to be visible at a distance by senior managers. Depending on the degree of sophistication of the performance management process, not-for-profits sometimes develop criteria which claim to assess competences, sometimes expressed in the term ‘behaviours’, a word derived from cognitive psychology, which lay claim to being objective measures of gauging staff performance. These behaviours and competences are in turn sub-systems of individual performance which can be gauged and measured.

I have encountered a frequent complaint from staff in organisations who feel that the annual encounter over the fulfilment of objectives is a lifeless and pointless exercise. Often the job has moved on and changed so much that the objectives are no longer relevant. Rather than focusing on what the worker is doing, the conversation hinges on the question as to why previously set objectives have not been achieved.

I have one organisation’s performance management process in front of me, which I will anonymise, and which identifies five ‘behaviours and attributes’ which are supposed to be logically derived from the organisation’s vision and mission. These are commitment, creativity, communication, collaboration and thinking. It is an interesting indication of the self-replicating and hegemonic intentions of such performance management schemes that in this particular example staff can show commitment by their acceptance of the performance management process: “Commitment: Demonstrates strong belief in the values that underpin X organisation. “Walks the talk”, prepared for performance to be measured by these values”.

To perform well means that you have to be prepared to be judged to perform well according to performance management criteria.

In an environment where there is competition between not-for-profits for funds, or where there is a greater focus on how tax revenues are being translated into public services, managers in such organisations are legitimately asking themselves how they can invite their employees to contribute to making a greater difference to the work that the organisation is attempting to do. However, the dominant way of thinking which frames this invitation is conditioned by the belief in control and alignment with pre-determined objectives. At the same time that employees are encouraged to align and conform, they are also, and perhaps ironically, invited to be creative and innovative.

I suggest this as a kind of double bind given that the idea of innovation and creativity suggests elements of surprise and the unexpected which management methods based in concepts of predictably and control seem intent on managing away. Performance management can feel like tying ourself up in knots.


4 thoughts on “Tying ourselves up in knots – performance management

  1. Andre Ling

    Hi Chris, I feel that this is a really important point. I recently sent out a post on a the subject of KPIs on the Appreciative Inquiry mailing list… I’m pasting it below as it might be of interest…

    “I spend most of my time on this list just watching but I felt that this was a topic worth piping up for. I am a bit of a skeptic when it comes to incentives and even KPIs – especially if ‘cascaded’ from the top down. There is a way in which creating alignment from the top-down can be quite counter-productive.

    The day-to-day reality faced by staff in multilevel organisations is messy and complex. More often than not, policies and associated performance indicators are not set by those at the front-line but rather by those higher up in organisational hierachies who are distanced from these messy realities. The simplified/idealised systems they create and roll-out or cascade often serve their own information needs than those of the people they are applied to.

    Essentially this means that the front-line workers are viewed as little more than cogs in a great big machine that operates in a neat, predictable, linear kind of way. But insights from complexity theory challenges the notion that social reality – and thus organisations – functions in such a manner. Non-linearity, paradox, the entanglement of cause and effect (especially in social contexts), emergence and cognitive limitations all mean that trying to plan everything in advance and then enforce systems of
    control from above can never really work very well. Still they are all the rage.

    Managers and leaders might do better by paying attention to the way that power dynamics (including the ones that they are inevitably caught up in and perpetuating) mediate learning and change within their organisations. Then they might just realise that they are also co-producers of the patterns of interaction that lead to the results that frustrate them so often. This is not to argue against having any kind of vision, objectives or even ways of measuring them. Rather it is to point out that it is not simply through having and trying to apply an idealised system (with often invalid claims to objectivity) on a complex and messy reality that the full potential of an organisation to achieve valuable results can be unleashed.

    Any thoughts???


  2. sbilling

    Hi Chris, I am struck by your comment “To perform well means that you have to be prepared to be judged to perform well according to performance management criteria.”

    I guess this is so, if you are an employee then you are saying you are willing to be part of this judgment system. This process can be very degrading for the employee.

    Of course, you and I are both consultants and so don’t have to agree to conform to such a system. We are judged the degree to which our clients have a sense of value in what we deliver for the fee we charge – whether we can convince a client to enter into a contract with us and whether they pay the bill.

    On the other hand, I have had cases where my client, up to CEO level, has asked me, a consultant, to participate in providing feedback to the Chair as part of the performance management review.

    And where NGOs have to submit to arbitrary reviews of their operation by their funder at less than 2 weeks’ notice.

    Hmm, something’s not right here…

  3. Chris Rodgers

    Hi Chris,

    I came across your blog via Stephen Billing’s site, and I look forward to reading more.

    I agree fully with your criticisms of the ways in so-called “performance management” is practised in many organizations. An earlier post of mine on the topic – “Re-focusing performance management” – similarly challenges some of the assumptions on which conventional approaches to this aspect of organizational management are based. If you are interested, you can find it at http://informalcoalitions.typepad.com/informal_coalitions/2007/01/refocusing_perf.html.

    Refards, Chris.

    1. reflexivepractice Post author

      I have come across your site too via Stephen! Your writing is very interesting Chris – keep blogging.


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