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Back to the future: The Life cycle of Performance Management

14th October 

Summer is nearly here, and there’s a possibility that during it many people will be teaching someone to swim. This can be undertaken with the help of swimming instructors in formal lessons, or informally in the backyard pool.

Either way, it is unlikely that the student will be thrown in the deep end and left to ‘sink or swim’; however, that is the way many managers operate with their staff in the workplace. In the absence of performance management, some employees learn to ‘swim’ the hard way, on their own and in spite of their manager’s efforts rather than because of them. In such cultures, performance management occurs when there is ‘a situation’ and ‘all hands are on deck’ to rescue someone who is drowning in work or about to abandon ship. The association between ‘situation’ and ‘performance’ (particularly of the manager or leader) is not a new one. Two US researchers in the 1970’s, Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, proposed a model that they initially called the ’Life Cycle Theory of Leadership’. In the mid-1970’s, it was subsequently renamed the “Situational Leadership Theory”, and remains amongst the mountain of leadership theories that exist today. What does leadership look like? The theories in response continue to mount up. What does performance management look like? Managers appear to understand in theory, but continue to have difficulty putting it into practice. Going back to the future and its original title, the ‘Life Cycle Theory of Leadership’ provides a useful framework for the ‘life cycle of performance management’, a process that is usually absent when staff start ‘dropping down like flies’ (figuratively and, sadly, sometimes literally) in the seasons of an organisation. Moving backwards in coming forwards, the cycle can present as follows.


Stage 1: The newly recruited employee is pleased to get the job. It’s a role they always wanted, and/or an organisation they always wanted to work in, and/or a person they always wanted to work for; or perhaps it’s the thought of getting some money to pay the bills. Whatever the reason, there is a source of motivation for the recruit to say ‘yes’ when they are offered the positon. At this stage in the performance management, the newly-recruited employee is high in commitment, but low in competence (because they have no experience in doing that particular role in that particular organisation as yet). The setting of objectives is going to be important for the new employee. They will want to know: o what it is that their manager wants them to do in the job; o how they should go about doing what they are required to do; o how they will know whether they are doing well or not (performance indicators); and o the skills and abilities needed in order to achieve what they are being asked to do. The style of communication the manager can use is one of telling (or directing), and the employee will likely accept this style because at this stage of their employment, they may want to receive direction rather than being left to their own devices.


Stage 2: Approximately six months later, the employee is starting to find their feet in relation to the job and work context. As in any significant relationship, the ‘honeymoon’ period may still be happening, but at this stage some ‘post-purchase’ dissonance may also be occurring. That is, the person is learning about the job and encountering the politics. The job may, or may not, be everything that the employee hoped for. At this stage of the cycle, the employee’s competence is higher (they have gained some experience), but their commitment may be lower than when they first started the job. This is an important time for the manager to intervene with a review, establishing with the employee once again, o what it is that the manager wants them to do – and why; o how they should go about doing what they are required to do – and why; o how they will know whether they are doing well or not (performance indicators) – and why; and o the skills and abilities needed in order to achieve what they are being asked to do – and does the employee feel confident that they have them? The style of communication from the manager at this stage is one of ‘selling’. The employee has gained some experience, formed views, and may be consciously or unconsciously asking the question, ‘Why?’ The review is opportunity for the manager to confirm what is required, and how it should be achieved to the relevant standards (performance indicators), and explain why.


Stage 3: After twelve months, the employee is hopefully able to get on with their job. For many people, twelve months is a reasonable period of time to gain high competence and confidence, but their commitment may be variable. Research suggests that at around about this time employees get a sense of how long they will stay in the job; sometimes they will enjoy coming to work, and sometimes it may be a struggle. This is the stage where appraisal (feedback) is important. In the case of the performing employee, the manager’s challenge is to turn their commitment from variable to ‘high’; for the non-performer, the challenge is to identify what is getting in the way of getting the job done. The communication at this stage is to verify, o What are the major requirements of the job – have they achieved them? o Is ‘how’ they go about doing what they are required to do appropriate – did it work? o Are the standards viable and performance indicators relevant? o What skills and abilities are needed to get the job done in the future? The appropriate style of communication from the manager at this stage of the cycle is ‘participative’; the employee is competent, but not necessarily committed. The provision of feedback by the manager, based on performance indicators agreed at Stage 1 and reviewed at Stage 2, informs both parties whether they are doing well or not. It is also a pivotal point at which the employee may be supported in moving towards the next stage.


Stage 4: A highly competent and highly committed employee is the ultimate performer. The manager can afford to ‘delegate’ to an employee who has reached this stage of the cycle, but not disappear on them. The conversation a manager can have with an employee at this stage will be along lines of, o tell me (the manager) what you need to do; o tell me how you will go about it; o tell me how you know whether you are doing well or not; and o tell me the skills and abilities needed to get your job done now and in the future. The above cycle is not uni-directional; the employee can go backwards and forwards from one stage to another in response to opportunities and circumstances in the work context. Using the analogy of teaching someone to swim, in the first six months the manager needs to be in the water with the employee, giving them direction. After six and up to 12 months, the manager can sit on the pool steps and give feedback and encouragement. From 12 months on, the employee may want the pool to themselves, but the manager needs to keep an eye on the employee to ensure there is sufficient strength and support for safe performance. When an employee is highly competent and highly committed, it’s safe for the manager to go back inside the house (office), but performance management presents a window of opportunity for a manager to continually check in with the employee to ensure support of competence and retention of commitment. The above cycle is not only based on verbal communication. As the summer fades, so does the memory of both managers and employees, taking with it the facts and agreements established in the conversations about what, how, how do we know, and their implications for skills and training. Getting facts and agreements in writing keeps all parties on track for other seasons in the performance management cycle; documentation is equally important for recording the spring, summer and autumn of employment, as well providing an anchor during the occasional storm.


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