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It’s Time to Stop Trying to Manage Performance

By Jason Lauritsen
January 19, 2022
5 minute read

It’s the dawn of a new year. And for millions of employees and managers around that world, that means it’s time to face the two most dread-inducing words at work: performance appraisal. Or performance review or performance evaluation, pick your favorite. 

Every year, this long-honored corporate tradition is the pinnacle event of our performance management process. Hours of time and immeasurable emotional energy will be poured into the preparation, delivery, and reception of this ritual.  

And while no one will argue against the importance of performance, you will be hard-pressed to find anyone who looks forward to it. 

Managers procrastinate and delay. Employees anxiously await its culmination with dread. All while HR pulls their hair out trying to facilitate a process no one seems to like. 

If performance is so important, why do performance management processes feel so awful?  

Maybe performance isn’t meant to be managed. 

The idea of “managing” performance is a carryover from an era of work that looks nothing like today. 

The time is long past due for a reset in how we think about and approach employee performance. That requires looking for answers in new places. 

One of those places might be Iowa. 

An Insight into Performance from the Farm

As a kid growing up in the farm country of rural Iowa, I was put to work at a pretty early age. 

One of my very first jobs before I even turned twelve years old was helping neighboring farmers to “walk beans.” The job involved walking up and down the individual rows of long soybean fields to cut out weeds one by one. It was just as tedious and boring as it sounds. 

But it was vital work for the farmer. If those weeds were left unchecked, they would overgrow the beans and ultimately do significant damage to the yield (or performance) of the crop. 

Battling weeds is just one of the many things farmers do to care for their crops. They battle insects, add fertilizers, bring in water when it’s too dry, and drain water away when it’s too wet. Farmers know when they plant a seed in the ground, if it has what it needs to grow and doesn’t meet any major obstacles (like overgrown weeds), that seed will grow and flourish into the best version of itself.

This work is called cultivation. 

Farmers don’t waste time trying to manage the things they can’t control, like the weather. They simply focus on creating an environment, to the greatest extent they are able to, where each plant can do what it is naturally programmed to do–grow into the best version of itself. 

Farming is a performance optimization business, and it provides a powerful model for how we should approach performance at work. It’s time for a shift from performance management to cultivation. 

From Management to Cultivation

To shift our approach to management and control to cultivation requires a shift in how we think about performance. We have to think about human performance in the same way a farmer thinks about the growth of their crops.  

This Cultivation Mindset includes embracing some core beliefs about human performance at work.

  • Human beings are naturally programmed for growth and performance.
  • When given the opportunity, individuals will always choose success over failure. No one wakes up in the morning with the intention to fail. 
  • If people have their core needs met and are free of significant obstacles, they will naturally elevate their performance. 
  • Thus, when people are not performing as expected, it is a management failure, not a flaw in the employee to be fixed. 

When leaders and managers adopt a cultivation mindset about performance, it requires them to accept greater accountability for employee performance. You almost never hear a farmer blame a poor harvest on a bad batch of seeds.  

In cultivation, performance is expected. When it doesn’t happen, the assumption is that people either met a barrier they couldn’t overcome, or they were missing something they needed to perform at their potential. 

Either way, resolving that issue is the work of management. 

Performance Cultivation in Action

As HR leaders, shifting the mindset of your managers and leaders will take time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start moving toward cultivation now! 

By reshaping your processes and using your technology tools differently, you can begin to make progress right away. It’s a win-win-win solution. The cultivation approach feels more effective and less daunting to managers, employees actually benefit from and value the process, and the organization’s overall performance improves. 

Here are some key steps you can take to start evolving your organization from performance management to cultivation. 

1. Focus on performance enablement over performance evaluation.  

Performance enablement can be thought of as the work of cultivation. It’s about understanding and meeting needs while also identifying and removing barriers and obstacles. Things that enable performance include:

  • Expectation and goal clarity
  • Visibility into progress toward goals
  • Appreciation and recognition
  • Well-being support 
  • Coaching and helpful feedback

By ensuring you have good processes and technology tools in place to support these processes, you will be nudging your managers toward a cultivation approach. 

2. Emphasize daily and monthly performance conversations over annual events. 

If farmers only tended to the performance of their crops once per year, it would have disastrous results. Why is it any different with people? 

Ensure your managers have the tools and training to conduct effective, regular weekly check-ins and monthly, structured one-on-one meetings with employees. It is in these conversations that unmet needs and obstacles are discovered so that action can be taken. 

Cultivation of performance happens daily and weekly, not annually. Make the process easy for managers by providing them with templates and training.  

3. Treat employee performance issues as a management failure. 

Traditional performance management processes tend to treat poor performance by the employee as a flaw in the employee to be fixed. The classic performance improvement plan, or PIP, feels more like a weapon that is used against the employee than a tool to help them improve.  

In my two decades of experience as an HR executive and consultant, my estimation is that 90% of the performance issues I have either personally experienced or coached can be attributed to a lack of clarity of expectations. 

It’s hard to meet an expectation that is either unclear or unknown — if not impossible!  

Who is responsible for ensuring clarity of expectations? The manager. And yet, who do we tend to punish in these circumstances? The employee. Is it any wonder why employees hate performance management processes?

Instead of trying to fix employees, we need to focus on fixing management by giving them better training and tools to set employees up for success. 

If we put it back in farming terms, if we blame the seeds for a bad harvest, the farmer never learns anything and never improves. An unskilled farmer will consistently see bad results, regardless of what seeds they plant. 

The same is true for managers and leaders.

The Time is Now

Performance management has been broken for a long time. As we boldly enter a new era of work defined by words like “hybrid” and “remote,” the time for dramatic change is upon us. We can no longer avoid confronting this issue. 

To unlock employee performance today and in the future requires a different approach. By adopting a cultivation mindset and focusing your work on performance enablement, your organization will be well-positioned to not only survive in this new era, but to thrive. 

To learn more about how you can reverse the Great Resignation, retain your top talent, and create a thriving performance management process, watch my webinar.