5 MINS READ
A changing landscape
A reset on lines between home and office
Conversations around performance and goals are always tricky for employees and managers. Perhaps people don’t want to reveal too much, or they don’t share what might be holding them back at work. Alternatively, managers don’t always have the training or tools to have those conversations and steer away from them.
But as we know from our experience during the pandemic, what happens outside of work can dramatically affect what happens in it. That’s especially true as companies adopt flexible and hybrid work models that allow for a blurring of the lines between the home and the office, the personal and the professional.
What’s more, the goals and performance metrics that employees and managers set in a given year need to be continuously reassessed to make sure they reflect reality outside of the workplace. Macroeconomic factors, geopolitical events, public health crises, and industry-wide trends can dramatically rewrite the rules of a given business unit in a matter of days, if not hours.
Consider the case of a software company that had 6,000 of its employees in Ukraine when the country was invaded in 2022. Is it fair to hold those employees responsible for abandoning their projects for months while they relocated themselves and their families to another country?
The role of HR
How human resources can keep up
Clearly, it’s time for performance management and goal management systems and methods to catch up. It’s no longer a viable strategy to do regular assessments without making space for the personal or black swan events that affect whether we can do our work as well as we planned and hoped. In short, human resources leaders need to work with their organizations to build more context and empathy into performance management.
Many of today’s performance management tools have continuous performance management features that can be deployed to prompt and capture these kinds of conversations around emerging issues. The key is to make sure these tools are used effectively and regularly where possible.
As HR professionals, we are often called to either train managers or redesign and reimagine a performance and goal management system. It needs to be applied to the entire organization and must provide a baseline of performance where everyone understands how people are doing and why the company is performing the way it is.
As with any kind of key signal on a dashboard, it should follow some kind of rigor. Clearly, all good management-employee conversations around performance should be rooted in specifics. And all good performance management systems must ultimately tell a story not just of one employee’s experience, but the experience of the entire organization.
Good performance management systems do more than tell a story of one employee’s experience. They reflect the experience of the entire organization.
Consider the context
How context can be integrated into performance management
Usually, our work in updating these systems starts with the goal of making sure employees and managers are talking regularly and updating each other on how things are going. The year-end review is not the time to discover that goals weren’t met – that should have been recognized long before, and managers and employees should have had conversations about how to correct course if possible.
A prompt to seek out context is useful: Think about prompting employees and managers to discuss whether the business changed in some way that could have had a trickle-down effect on that employee’s workflow or priorities. Maybe there was a shift in demand that made a specific goal less urgent? Perhaps another key issue is that the employee might need to have undergone additional learning or skill development, or might have been overwhelmed due to a change in role or team support.
If an employee performed successfully but could not achieve their goal due to external factors, perhaps an organization should adjust performance ratings—and resulting rewards and compensation—to account for that context? After all, if people do what they were supposed to but were held back through no fault of their own, shouldn’t that be recognized?
That’s why considering context matters—it can tell employees that their effort and hard work is recognized. That builds a stronger relationship and employee experience—and the kind of loyalty and retention that every organization needs, especially among its top performers.
Making room for stronger relationships
Finally, make room for empathy. Managers should generally be aware of the kinds of out-of-work events that can impact performance. However, companies shouldn’t assume that conversations about those events are always happening. A good performance management system prompts empathetic conversations so that employees can work with their managers to flexibly meet goals, and so that managers can make adjustments to allow employees to perform to their potential.
Some key empathy-building conversations managers might consider: Do you feel you have what you need from me to get the job done? Are you empowered to take risks that will build your career? Are there ways we need to build your workflows so they can be done on schedule?
Of course, these conversations must be done with great care. Any employment lawyer would want managers to take note of and escalate requests for special accommodations related to disability, for example.
This type of performance management system also helps managers. People may be reluctant to share their own struggles and misses; it’s human nature to seek out excuses. But a good performance management system makes it incumbent on both the employee and manager to raise those issues regularly, document them, and adjust to them. In short, accountability on context is a two-way street.
The goal here is to help build and round out the narrative of an employee’s experience—how did the year go, what could have been done better, what was learned, and where do we go from here? Such a narrative must take into account the context of the business—and an uncertain world, it seems. It also depends on some of the elements that we increasingly know is part of our work persona—everything else that is happening in our lives.
It's true that building context and empathy into performance management systems may not work for every organization. But even if these do not get factored into formal reviews, at the very least these should be considered when discussing and documenting performance, and people managers should be aware of their power to transform their team’s work.