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The problem with performance: Does performance management have a brand issue?

If you have an in-house marketing team, go ask them the impact negative brand equity can have on a business. A good brand shapes the way in which people see and feel about a certain product, service or process. But a brand bad can be a "˜success killer'. 

And though we in the world of HR rarely even mutter the term, the "˜brands' related to our business and tools of the trade can affect what it is we do and how well we can do it. 

One facet of our world with a serious brand issue; performance management.

8 out of 10 employees feel performance reviews don't work. 68% of managers agree. 

Gallup 2018 study

Managing your team's performance is one of the core responsibilities of any manager. But, despite the fact that employees thrive off of constructive, critical feedback, the words "œperformance management" are often received with tension and anxiety. 

But where did these negative connotations come from, and how can thinking about rebranding help us overcome the problems with performance management to get employees back on board?

The problems with performance management

The fact is that a lot of employees (and even managers or HR directors) cringe at the words "œperformance management". For many of your people, performance management has developed a bad reputation over the years because of their own experiences as well as stories from others. As an example, according to one 2019 study, performance management is seen as a predominantly "œstick-based" approach designed to highlight and correct issues for the majority of non-managerial staff. 

This reflects a fundamental flaw in how people view it, as the goal of effective performance management shouldn't be to brow-beat your employees into submission but to champion greatness and model it.

So, how did it come to this?

Well, according to Gartner, 82% of HR leaders report that performance management is ineffective, with feedback cycles not frequent enough and assessments not providing the right support or structure. Of course everyone involved will begin to feel negatively towards processes that take up time and offer little back.

Not only do flawed means of performance management end up being ineffective, one of the biggest problems with performance management is that some of these approaches can also be insanely expensive. 

Take the traditional annual performance review, for example. Between the costs of infrastructure and the productivity lost for every employee and manager involved, and annual performance reviews can end up costing between $2.4 million and an obscene $35 million per 10,000 employees.

Why rebranding could be the solution

Never underestimate the power of a good rebrand. After all, try telling a Gen-Z colleague that, back in 1997, Apple was on the verge of bankruptcy. 

Whenever you implement a new policy or tool in the workplace, you need employees to get on board if it's ever going to be a success. The importance of employee buy-in is exactly why one of the most significant problems with performance management is people's aversion to it.

Rebranding is a way of going back to the basics, looking at how we talk about and use the tools of performance management. The idea that performance management should be something to positively anticipate has been lost in translation. 

How to rebrand performance management

So, if people tend to view it as worse than it is, then what does performance management really mean? Well, the meaning hasn't really changed, but by redefining how we talk about performance management processes, you can help your employees to engage with feedback in performance reviews as a positive experience. So, on that note, here are some important aspects of rebranding you'll need to consider:

  • Less stick, more carrot: We're at a point where many employees interpret the idea of performance management by its worst possible outcomes. People tend to imagine getting chewed out for poor performance, or even being subject to disciplinary action. 

This can make discussions around performance feel quite adversarial. 

So, in order to get the best results, managers need to conduct their performance management processes using a strengths-based approach. Focus on showcasing what good looks like to those struggling, coaching them to up their game instead of deriding poor past performance that can no longer be affected.

  • Use positive message framing: Obvious as it may be, the language we use has a strong influence on the ways in which we think and act.

    What we're getting at is that the term "˜performance management' is so laden with negative connotations that even calling it that in the first place can be a step in the wrong direction. 

Progressive managers don't use words like review or appraisal, instead opting for more neutral performance conversations or sit-downs. This friendlier language choice can considerably lighten the tone, and prevent employees from feeling like they're on the backfoot.

  • Switch to methods of continuous performance management: the effectiveness of traditional methods is severely hampered by the fact that performance management processes lack timeliness. 

Sitting down for a performance review 2 months after a small issue developed into a big problem for an employee will have little impact. 

Making performance part of what your managers look at in a formal manner weekly, with an employee check-in or short-cycle 1:1 is key to improving the impact. 

Focus on two-way feedback between managers and their teams, ensuring relevancy and honesty are front and centre. Building a culture of employee feedback through frequent opportunities for discussing performance is a vital step for any modern-day business looking to achieve success. 

Want to get practical tips on how to drive your employee engagement and performance strategy in 2021?Get your free copy of The HRDs Playbook now for insights into real-world examples of how progressive HR directors are leading engagement programmes.