Working up against the wall
Nothing is more emblematic of modern management theory and practice than the term ‘performance’. It has a ring about it: it seems to promise that there exists a methodical approach to managing work which carries a guarantee of success. Furthermore, it tightens the focus of management of people to a small, well-defined arena: if we can only get people to perform what they are obligated to perform the business will achieve all its goals at the highest level: shareholders will receive a good level of return on their investments, managers will be well-compensated, society will benefit appropriately and all will be well.
We have, of course, seen this kind of thing before: this is Taylorism, pure and simple. Because what is to be performed is simply your job: the segment of work that has been defined by the job description and which you have been hired to do. “Do” is the operative term: the segmentation of work that Taylorism effects is a segmentation by actions. Ultimately what is of concern to the notional Taylorist planner, this mythical figure or function defining the work segments and their sequence, is the conclusion of each segment, the output; because this is the input to the next segment, and if there is a breakdown in the chain, if even one output of one segment falls short of its designed requirements, the assembly of the work (which doesn’t have to be linear) is broken and the outcome of all the segments is impaired. You only have to think of a breakdown in a production line: the principle is much the same.
Of course we have not claimed in our analysis of work (chapter 2) that modern work is literally a production line, but we are claiming that the idea and the organisation of modern work runs parallel to Taylorism, and draws many of its implicit assumptions about work and about people at work from Taylorism; and that these assumptions are at best unthinking, and at worst highly damaging both to organisations and to their people. Let’s see now where performance and performance management fit into all this.
Performance myths and illusions
Performance management has been defined as a polyglot concept which includes “programme structures, performance measurement, target-setting, competency frameworks, 360 degree appraisal, personal development plans, performance-related pay” and so on [i]. These authors remark acerbically, “These activities wax and wane in popularity.” Common to these elements are the tasks of defining the work segment, of measuring its actual output against the expected output, and of incentivizing or penalizing the worker so as to close any gap; collectively, we would say, managing for performance, or managing in order to secure performance.
Performance management is thus not so much a part of a discipline as “a body of lore and recipes, some based on good research and theory, some based on symbolic resonance and workplace myths.” This is an interesting description as it challenges the aura that performance management has built about itself of rigour, discipline and objectivity. Not so, it is asserted here: like most management fashions it is an eclectic mixture. There sits around a legitimate core a cornucopia of popular and subjective conceptions and misconceptions. Far from bringing the management of human beings into the quantitative sphere of operations management it produces the reverse: operations have to contend with all the vagaries of the things that influence human beings. Welcome to people.
Performing under threat
There is a clear demonstration in performance management of one of the key elements of Taylorism: the subordination of the worker to the work. In this model the worker is simply a unit of labour: her only significance to the organisation is whether or not she carries out the segment of work assigned to her, according to the standards that are laid out in the master plan. Of the significance of the work to her, as an individual, nothing is said. Performance is a one-way affair: workers perform the work that is required of them; work doesn’t have to meet the demands workers might require of it.
Performance has an unmistakable air of menace about it. It carries an implicit threat: “Perform or else.” That is, carry out the actions that are required of you, and for which we have hired you, or you will be sacked, or otherwise penalised. That is the real meaning that is implicit in the now standard notion of ‘accountability’. In order to make this crystal clear the requirements are embedded in measures: the famous (which should be infamous) Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s). Measurement emerged from the dominant management paradigms of the 1990’s: Total Quality Management, and Continuous Improvement. These are the modern versions of Taylorism, in which all work is reduced to measured elements, held to specific standards. This is justified in the well-sounding aphorism, “What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done”–an admission of management failure if ever there was one. KPI’s in fact become coercive mechanisms. They are set by higher levels of management and imposed on lower levels. Moreover, management is able to thrown all the weight of implementation on subordinates: the simple message is, “Here is what you have to achieve; we don’t mind how you achieve them; just get them done or there will be consequences.”
Now clearly there is a place in the organisation of work for planning, orderly implementation, measures, and standards. Peter Drucker–who I believe is the foremost, and perhaps the only, writer to have identified the central principles that drive business success–states with admirable brevity: “Work, to yield results, has to be thought through and done with direction, method, and purpose.”[ii] Drucker speaks of performance, but only in the context of ‘economic performance’. He is certainly in favour of ‘a unified, company-wide plan for the work to be done’, as he is for goals and targets, and work assignment and responsibilities. There can be no arguing with these principles: this is how work gets done.
But the issue is who decides the work plan, and how it is developed and implemented. As we’ve seen, ownership is critical to healthy workplaces. There is no reason why a company-wide plan for the work to be done can’t be collectively developed by everyone working in the business. Indeed, wise management will want to gather all the intelligence and creativity of everyone, and involved them in the process (as we have argued in previous chapters). Setting goals and targets can be done collaboratively. Work assignments and responsibilities can be jointly accepted rather than imposed. It’s not the existence of a work plan or the KPI’s associated with it that is the problem: it is rather who sets them up, and how they are used. If they are set predominantly by the people who do the work, and used by them in completing the work they have accepted as theirs, all the benefits of healthy workplaces discussed in previous chapters will be there. If they are imposed and used as implicit threats, toxic workplaces develop and organisational achievement shuts down.
Yet performance management has become very widely adopted by both profit and for-profit organisations as the primary means of managing work and managing people. Let me give you two examples which show the absurd lengths to which this has gone.
Case 1: The Orchestra
Recently I was asked to look at developing a strategic plan for a city orchestra. They had done some work already and I asked to see it. Among the documents was a strategic plan that had been developed by a major US consulting company for a neighbouring city orchestra. It was, to say the least of it, an unimpressive piece of work. It showed little understanding on the music world within which a city orchestra sits and on which it depends. This deepened to absurdity when the performers themselves–the musicians in the orchestra–were considered. The main recommendation was: the musicians should be performance managed. A more ludicrous proposal it would be difficult to imagine. What counts as performance for a musician? How are you going to measure it: by the number of bow strokes per second? The result of such an ill-advised initiative would be the prompt resignation of the members of the orchestra: what musician, working with all the delicacy and creativity of their highly professional craft, would submit to such crude oversight? And how is it supposed to improve performance (real performance in this case): what is supposed to be getting better? It’s almost amusing to contemplate (almost, but for the impact on people’s lives). Yet it shows two things very clearly: one, that performance management is almost entirely negative in its effect on work and workers; and two, that modern managers seem to be prepared to resort to such idiocies, they must be bankrupt of the knowledge of how to work with their people.
Case 2: The University
Here is a second example. Universities depend for their very existence and legitimacy on their researchers. Research is a demanding and complex kind of work: it requires very high levels of analytic skill combined with insight and creativity. It is often non-linear: it moves in unpredictable ways, backtracks, hits blocks, finds serendipitous ways to advance. It depends crucially on the fostering of new ideas, which may not fit established paradigms. Yet as universities, like performing arts organisations, are seduced into adopting what they understand to be modern management techniques, researchers too have become performance managed. They are required to publish a certain number of articles in rated journals, to accumulate a number of points in rated research activities. This works strongly against innovative research–it is, in fact, intensely conservative–and frustrates the most creative researchers.
A recent study of university researchers in the UK uncovered the interesting fact that among the most influential researchers across the disciplines few had published much in their first 10 years; their significant publications came later–presumably because they were engaged upon big, difficult research projects. It’s worth observing that those researchers would not have survived more than a few years of their early careers under modern regimes of academic performance management.
Proponents of performance management may want to respond that these two examples deal with rather specialised work, in music and research, and that for the average run of work and workers PM is appropriate. All I can give you is the anecdotal view that many others have voiced similar concerns. Senior front-line police officers have expressed to me their frustration in having to divert resources to meet KPI’s that have been given them away from what they know, from their immediate, local experience, are more urgent needs–needs that in the long run are far more important to the quality of community life. Farmers have told me of their anger at being held to KPI’s in agricultural grant projects which they know, from their local knowledge, aren’t appropriate. You can hear the same stories on manufacturing plant floors and in service organisations.
The simple fact is that performance management doesn’t deliver even in its own goals. It is ironic that an approach which is so closely tied to measurement is not supported by the research on it. A well-designed, substantial study compared 500 leading private companies consistently profitable over five years with 750 private companies selected at random and 538 public sector organisations on their commitment to performance management. They reported: “The most important conclusion is that organisational performance is not associated with the pursuit of formal performance management programmes.”[iii]
Assumptions and insults
An even more universal finding of the research on performance management is that people intensely dislike being formally appraised under performance management schemes. And their reaction is not because they are not doing the job well. Rather it is because performance management is aggressive and, in the end, insulting. It carries the assumption that unless you are held to these measures you will work below the level needed for the work and will not achieve the requisite standards; that unless we define precisely what we want of you and hold you to it, you will not do it.
That is a default position. It’s not based on evidence or experience of a particular individual in the job, but is built into the structure of management. It amounts to saying: ‘We know that, if we don’t keep an eye on you, you will rip the company off; it’s our job to stop you, and performance management is our mechanism of choice to keep you honest’. The negative impact of this kind of thinking on the trust and respect that underpin healthy workplaces is obvious. Ironically a likely outcome of employing it is that people will work to rule or work slow: ‘If that’s what you think of me, that’s what you’ll get’. This is the precise definition of a dysfunctional, fractured workplace.
Fear and control
We’ve seen in earlier chapters that the principle of control is central to the Taylorist assumptions that underpin modern workplace practice. Performance management is all about control. All it methodologies are directed towards one end: that the work should be done to specification. Measurement is a reverse methodology: rather than measure what the outcome of work is, measurement is used to coerce work into the shape it’s supposed to be. People are simply presented with the required standards, and that, from a management point of view, is deemed enough. It’s then up to the employee to meet the requirements; to be, as the language has it, ‘accountable’. This is lazy management and it is bad management. Good management practice, as we have been arguing, puts the manager and the subordinate into the work task together; with different roles, but unmistakably together. If there are goals or targets or standards to be met, they are met by working together, with mutual support; not by the manager dropping KPI’s on the subordinate, putting a tacit threat in place should they not be met, and walking away.
Performance management keeps the employee in her assigned place within the work programmes. A researcher has noted:
Programme structures are often at the core of performance management structures. . The hierarchical nature of programme structures. . .gives them a mythical value to organisational management. It locates employees to a particular place and status in a great chain of organisational being and so reduces the threat that any individuality might pose to to organisational good order.[iv]
Managers always retreat from the spectre of losing control. As we’ve noted in previous chapters, this is driven by fear and distrust, in equal measure. Performance management is a central tool for keeping control. It attempts to make people’s work predictable, to the limits of measurability. In the process it loses the creative, lateral contributions that drive organisational success and dismantles the trust that underpins it. Good managers trust their people: they don’t seek to control them, or put them in their place. Only on trust and respect is continuous and lasting achievement built.
The term ‘accountable’ captures many of these attitudes and assumptions. It’s a term you hear every day, in all kinds of contexts. It’s intimately linked to the idea of ‘performance’. Your work is held to be your own affair; it’s outcomes, for better or worse, rest with you alone; if you fall short or fail you have no-one to blame but yourself. Indeed, if there is a failure of work there is by definition a failure of accountability: it’s not my fault, it’s yours, you were the one who created the failure, you have not been accountable. Accountability has even take on a shade of personal morality: if you don’t meet the performance specifications this is not only a failure of competency but in some way a failure of moral integrity; the implication being that you could have achieved the required level had you worked hard enough, or cleverly enough, as you can do, but clearly decided not to. It is not difficult to see in this attitude, so contemptuous of people and of their rights in the workplace, an attempt to justify on moral grounds a set of unethical and dishonest assumptions and behaviours.
Appraisal and communication failure
Finally, let me deal with the view put forward even by critics of performance management that there is something fundamentally positive about aspects of it, by virtue of the exchange it promotes, notably in performance appraisals:
There is no objective evidence that performance management improves an organisation’s performance but there is evidence that people can find it helpful in interpreting and evaluating their organisational roles.[v]
This emerges from the ‘processual’ view of human resources management: the idea that the best outcomes are negotiated through mutual exchange. We can grant that such an exchange could occur during performance appraisals. Why, however, is a personal appraisal event required in order for such an exchange to take place? Isn’t this just one of the exchanges that happen routinely and often of healthy workplaces? To justify personal appraisals by this logic is like endorsing boxing as a method of interpersonal communication because it involves intimate touch. And if it is necessary to construct an event of this kind in order to provide for communication of this kind, then the basic fabric of communication which supports healthy and productive work is by definition not in place.
Performance management doesn’t improve the performance of organisations. It is a major contributor to the negativity of toxic workplaces. It licenses lazy leadership, and damages trust. It has no place in a healthy workplace. Period.
Healthy, productive workplaces
Healthy workplaces are productive workplaces. They start with healthy people, acting towards and with each other in ways that we all know are healthy. There is no mystery about this. Since birth we have been interacting with each other, through all the types and shades of relationship, in family, and extended family, and circles of friends; even with people we don’t get on with. We know more about the construction of healthy places than all the management theorists put together. Recognizing what we know and applying it fearlessly is the key to healthy workplaces.
[i] Fisher, C & Sempik, A 2009, ‘Performance management and performing management’ in J Leopold & L Harris (eds) The strategic managing of human resources, 2nd edn., Prentice Hall, Pearson Education Ltd., Harlow Essex, UK.