BREAKTHROUGH COLUMN: An Upside Down Look At Performance Management

A RECENT news report from Agence France-Presse revealed that one of common fears of people about dying was being buried alive. In a poll of more than 100,000 of its customers by a funeral plan company, some of the requests of those planning their funerals included having a mirror to be held over their faces to check for vapor signs of breathing and a mobile phone left in the coffin.

Creativity guru Roger von Oech has a rather whacky take on this problem. He recounts the story of a small village somewhere far away, where a plague spread among its residents. The plague put its victims in a deathlike coma before finally claiming their lives. This gave rise to a horrifying problem: sometimes, the victims were buried while still alive. The villagers came up with several solutions to this problem. They would put food and water and an air hole in every casket.

But another group proposed a more effective solution to ensure that the person was dead before being buried. They suggested placing a 12-inch long stake in every coffin lid. Whatever doubts there would be about the state of the person would be resolved soon enough when the coffin lid was closed and the stake plunged into the person’s heart. Instead of answering the question “What should we do if we bury somebody alive?” the second group answered the question, “How can we make sure everyone we bury is dead?”

Now I don’t know whether Von Oech’s story is a tall tale but it entertainingly illustrates that the more effective solutions are found when the problem is turned upside down.

Dying seems to be a subject far from my assigned topic this issue which is about performance measurement models. But before my editor throws a fit at my seemingly unrelated meanderings in this column, let me now try to connect this with my topic.

Performance measurement is all about assessing employee performance not just for measurement’s sake but to serve as basis for actions that will ensure that employees and the whole organization achieve peak performance. Usually, if performance is not up to par, management action would include coaching, training and in some extreme cases, firing of the employee. The coaching and training part assumes that the employee is weak in some of the competencies needed to do the job according to standards.

Performance management systems (in which performance measurement is a component), as we know it now, is based on the assumption that we need to plug in the gaps in employees’ skills or competencies. Substantial amounts of money and time are thus spent on addressing the weaknesses of employees and the organization.

Now here comes an idea that addresses the challenge of maximizing performance from the opposite point of view. What if instead of managing the weaknesses of employees, the organization manages the strengths of its employees?

Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton raised this proposition in their book, “Now, Discover Your Strengths” (Pocket Books, 2004), shaking the basic assumptions of many performance management systems.

They write, “Most organizations are built on two flawed assumptions about people: 1. Each person can learn to be competent in almost anything. 2. Each person’s greatest room for growth is in his or her areas of greatest weakness.”  They counter that these assumptions should be replaced by the following that guide the world’s best managers: “1. Each person’s talents are enduring and unique.  2. Each person’s greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest strength.”

Based on these, why then use a performance management system that is weakness focused? The authors say such a system is merely “damage control” and “a poor strategy for elevating either the employee or the organization to world class performance.”

Their proposition reminded me of my former boss early in my career. She had the knack for assembling what to my mind were the weirdest combinations of people. I would often wonder why she would hire (and stick to) certain people who to my mind had many weaknesses. And yet, she was able to implement seemingly impossible projects and mobilize a fiercely loyal organization to work even up to the wee hours of the morning. Looking back, I can now see that she was hiring and managing individuals based on their strengths that were needed by the organization. And because she gave people the opportunity to do what they did best, she created a happy and loyal workforce, albeit a tired one. She was, in effect, managing performance based on strengths.

On the other hand, I once had a boss who was extremely accommodating with people. She had in her organization a manager who was doing quite poorly. We tried our darned best to improve his performance by sending him to all sorts of training and performance coaching programs. Alas, that person retired unhappy (perhaps because of all our nagging for him to improve in an area which clearly was not within his areas of strengths) with no seeming improvement in his managerial skills.

The jury is still out on how widespread the “strengths revolution” will become. Will companies now shift to a strengths-based selection, performance management and career development systems? Proponents of traditional performance management systems will not take this latest development kindly. Let us see how all these will work out. As for me, I am keeping my mind open and my view upside down.

Author: Regina Galang Reyes. First published in Asian Quality, Special Year Ender 2007 issue.

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Founding Editor, People at Work, Business, Phiippine Daily Inquirer

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