More About Why It Is So Hard to Make REAL Changes: Transforming Performance Management, Part 3


NUGGET : Power traps, defaulting to HR, and some inherent useful qualities in traditional performance management keep us from moving to a better way of aligning people and work.

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In my first article in this series about Performance Management, I started to build a case for changing the way work performance is “managed.” In the last article, I suggested three big reasons why it is so difficult to make real breakthroughs. I put some of the failure to change at the feet of 1) boss-subordinate mindsets, 2) the tenacious top-down view of workflows, and 3) faulty views of control. I’d like to add three more reasons to the list and then, in the next blog, to suggest where to from here.


So, three more reasons why it is difficult to change how we manage and work today:

Power traps
Defaulting to HR
Traditional performance management does add some value


Reason 4: People fall into power traps.There are power differences in organizations and across networks. No matter how much we try to gloss over this fact or to imagine a world where everyone has equal say over everything, power and role differences will likely always be true – and are actually nature’s way of getting big things done. Sadly, though, human beings do odd things with power differences. People with more institutional power sometimes abuse it or are uncomfortable using it, and people with less power manipulate for position or play games (e.g., set low goals so they can exceed them, fail to take risks out of fear, pander to the boss). These behaviors – many of them driven by unconscious psychological forces — are worse in low trust environments where there is little two-way communication, limited transparency, people who are ill-prepared for leadership roles, etc.

The performance management system is especially vulnerable to these distortions because it contains the KEY ACTIVITIES that are very important for people’s social and organizational positioning (goal setting, feedback, role decisions, etc.) Linking individual performance goals and feedback directly to promotion, pay, and recognition makes “clean” interactions even more difficult. We make matters even worse by calling the performance management process “the appraisal system.” YIKES! This tells people that the reason we set goals and talk about performance is to justify pay, reward and other personnel decisions. This relates to the next barrier to change.

Reason 5: Defaulting to HR. It’s happened subtly over decades, but in many organizations performance management has been delegated to the HR/Personnel function. Everyone benefits in some way that leads to a kind of collusion to let HR own it. Line management – uncomfortable in the “god” role of determining roles and direction, and giving feedback – can abdicate saying, “HR made me do it.” Individuals, rather than having to deal with all the messiness of real accountability can focus instead on making annual goal setting and 1,2,3-times-a-year feedback sessions work in their favor. In the meantime, the HR staff gets information to support compensation and personnel decisions and is in a better position to minimize the legal liabilities related to how people are treated. This is collusion by all parties. HR, with the best of intentions, is left holding the bag.

Reason 6: Traditional performance management does add some value. We often wonder, why things are the way they are? Evolution’s answer is “because they developed that way and solved or delayed a problem.” So what are the useful features and lessons from today’s common performance management practices that we can take into the future? I think there are several:

• Important alignment activities of the organization must not be left to chance. This is especially true as organizations get larger. Goals and feedback – fraught as they are with potential human distortions – require a process discipline of some kind. We search and search for the right blend of unleashing change and getting efficiencies from ongoing routines.

• Performance and reward must be linked in some way. This is a lesson from evolution. We know that when people are treated the same regardless of their contributions and hard work, bad things happen: good people leave, morale and results suffer. We search for ways to stimulate risk and diversity and tolerate failure while also targeting success and results.

• Reliable and effective management processes can be a competitive advantage for any organization. Good management (including self-management) process ensures that everyone works in a high quality performance environment. A structure of some kind for performance management helps ensure that basic leadership and self-management practices occur across the board.



In this and the previous blog, I have offered 6 reasons why it is difficult to move to a new performance management paradigm. The next two articles I will suggest how to move forward in this important area.

NUGGET : Power traps, defaulting to HR, and some inherent useful qualities in traditional performance management keep us from moving to a better way of aligning people and work.

I’d love your thoughts – in the comment section below, or to me personally at pat@patmclagan.com
Also, I invite you to please share this article with others in your network.

~Pat McLagan

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