Strengths-Based Performance Management

Cultivating a strength based performance management strategy

It's that time of year again:  your annual performance appraisal.  Are you dreading yours?  If the answer is "yes," you're not alone.  Research tells us that dissatisfaction with performance appraisal is at an all-time high (Alder et al., 2016).  Managers and direct reports alike are finding the process to be time-consuming and stressful at best and ineffective and de-motivating at worst.  Why?  

Well, let's step back for a moment. Let us consider how and why we conduct performance appraisals in the first place.  Let us first consider the context and what purpose performance appraisals initially served.

Performance appraisals, for most organizations, were created to serve a legal function.  Employers need a systematic way of hiring, firing, and promoting that could be defensible in court, if necessary.  But the performance review process has expanded to include a wide variety of functions. Scorecards, and perhaps even ratings, are thrown into meetings that become an annual catchall conversation addressing performance, promotions, compensation, and everything in between.  Somehow along the way this chat about cash bonuses and one's professional report card, as it were, became mistaken as a sustainable driver of performance.   

One-off conversations, however, aren't going to cut it in an age when organizations place a premium on agility, rapid feedback, and quick course-correction.  In the last few years especially, organizations have come to the realization that we're using an outdated system to solve a modern problem.  As a result, the number of organizations that have shifted to a culture of coaching and immediate feedback has risen exponentially (Kenny, 2016).  This trend towards performance dialogue is a step in the right direction, encouraging regular feedback and de-coupling the conversation from compensation.

However, this is only half of the equation.  Those changes don't address the quality or underlying value orientation of the conversation, let alone that of the performance management system as a whole.  Marianne van Woerkom and Maaike de Brujin (2016) would argue that much of the dissatisfaction with traditional performance appraisals is driven by the fact that they are fundamentally centered on our deficits.

These researchers base this assertion in part on vacancy theory, or the idea that hiring managers assess potential applicants against a predetermined set of tasks and criteria for any given position.  Whoever fits the criteria best is the person who gets the job.  However, this sets the precedent for employees to be measured against a uniform set of criteria, leading to a focus on deficits, with minimal time devoted to individual qualities and strengths.  Thus, performance appraisal tends to target the areas where an employee falls short of the norm, regardless of how well she may excel in other areas.  

Imagine you're a software engineer who works brilliantly in a small group and proves to be a major asset to your company.  That said, when it comes to pitching your team's ideas at the all-company meeting every month, you'd rather go swimming in an ice bath.  Even though you hate public speaking, your manager says it's a requirement of your position.  As a result, much of the energy during your one-on-ones is devoted to setting SMART goals to improve a competency that you simply loathe.  It's no wonder why conversations like these are characterized by frustration and dread.

What do researchers suggest is the solution to this problem?  A strengths-based approach.  

A strengths-based performance appraisal is one that aims to identify, appreciate, and cultivate an employee's unique qualities in a way that contributes to company goals (van Woerkom & de Brujin, 2016).  Studies suggest that this is important because strengths are a better starting place to build from than weaknesses (Meyers, van Woerkom, de Reuver, Bakk, & Oberski, 2015).  They also stimulate greater increases in personal growth and intrinsic motivation (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).  Furthermore, employees who recognize that their workplaces encourage strengths use become more confident and engaged.  They demonstrate higher levels of performance as well as lower absenteeism (Van Woerkom & Meyers, 2015; Van Woerkom, Bakker, & Nishii, 2015).

Leaders are already on the right track, changing performance dialogue from an annual appraisal to an ongoing conversation.  But let’s not forget that we can't just change the hardware of a traditional performance management system (e.g. frequency of one-on-ones) without also updating its software (e.g. underlying value orientation).  Performance management ought to become fundamentally strengths-based rather than deficit-based.  Here are three things that managers can do to initiate that shift:

1.  Build teams in which colleagues’ strengths complement one another.

Accept that an employee may never be a perfect performer on every aspect of his job.  It might be sufficient to have him develop a weakness up to a level of acceptable proficiency.  Otherwise, encourage him to spend time on those activities that he gains energy from.  Manage around weaknesses by arranging two or more colleagues with complementary strengths to join forces.

2.  Encourage your employees to become aware of their strengths.

Oftentimes people don't actually know what their strengths are.  It's possible that individual strengths come so easily that they are perceived to come "naturally" to everyone.  Exploring strengths using the VIA survey or the Clifton StrengthsFinder as a departmental activity could be a great way for colleagues to get to know each other better.

3.  Try conducting a feedforward interview with one of your direct reports.

Feedforward is the opposite of feedback; rather than looking at ways past performance could have been improved, it looks at where someone wants to go in the future and how to get there based on past success. Invite your direct report to share about an experience at work during which she felt energized--before knowing the results of her efforts.  This can allow both of you to analyze the conditions in which this peak moment happened and thus, build motivation to replicate it.

References

Adler, S., Campion, M., Colquitt, A., Grubb, A., Murphy, K., Ollander-Krane, R., & Pulakos, E. D. (2016). Getting rid of performance ratings: Genius or folly? A debate. Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 9(2), 219–252.

Kenny, G. (2016). Fixing performance appraisals is about more than ditching annual reviews. Harvard Business Review.  Retrieved October 6, 2016 from https://hbr.org/2016/02/fixing-performance-appraisal-is-about-more-than-ditching-annual-reviews.

Van Woerkom, M. & De Bruijn, M. (2016). Why performance appraisal does not lead to performance improvement:  Excellent performance as a function of uniqueness instead of uniformity. Industrial and Organiational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 9(2), 275-281.

Van Woerkom, M., Bakker, A. B., & Nishii, L. N. (2015). Accumulative job demands and support for strength use: Fine-tuning the job demands-resources model using conser- vation of resources theory. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication. doi:10.1037/apl0000033

Van Woerkom, M., & Meyers, M. C. (2015). My strengths count! E ects of a strengths-based psychological climate on positive a ect and job performance. Human Resource Man- agement, 54(1), 81–103. doi:10.1002/hrm.21623

Van Woerkom, M., Oerlemans, W. G. A., & Bakker, A. B. (2015). Strengths use and work engagement: A weekly diary study. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psy- chology, 25(3), 384–397. doi:10.1080/1359432X.2015.1089862