Should Leaders Promote Performance Cultures — A Debate on Performance Versus Development Cultures


“If less than 10% of your customers judged a product effective and seven out of 10 said they were more confused than enlightened by it, you would drop it, right? So, why don’t more companies drop their annual job- performance reviews?” Timothy D. Schellhardt, (The Wall Street Journal)

The business world has long been strong on the need for ‘high performance’ within organisations and this has been adopted in other sectors — public and not for profit — as the reality of economic life has demonstrated that resources are not unlimited in supply and that existing resources need to be optimised. Performance has been linked closely with the other P word ‘Productivity’. Can individuals continue to increase the organisations productivity judged via a merit system of metrics and measurements which can often be demotivating ?

HR and L&D departments have been geared up to identify, measure, develop and reward high performance. Leaders often demand the development of high performance cultures in organisations.

Personal appraisal processes have included the assessment of workforce performance, managers have been trained to increased the performance of those under them and in turn have been assessed on their ability to improve performance levels. Career tracks have been linked to performance as have bonus schemes and other forms of reward. Learning and development programmes have been established around the need to improve performance.

In these and other ways organisations have been geared up to live and breathe performance management so that it has become a key message to the workforce, integrated into the culture.

There is however growing concern that the performance model and the ensuing performance culture are gaining the reputation of a deficit model i.e. one in which there is a permanent negative state of affairs that must be continually rectified. This has been exacerbated by:

  • confusing organisational success with individual performance — ‘no bonus this year because the company has done badly, irrespective of the energies of individuals’
  • management interventions that only focus on poor performance and fail to recognise good performance — ‘where have you not done so well this year and what are we going to do about that?’
  • performance metrics that work on a quota system — ’10% of the workforce may exceed performance expectation, 10% may fall below expectations and 80% will perform their job adequately’
  • performance metrics that are claimed to be rigorous/robust/objective and fair but are in fact understood and interpreted in different ways by different managers, often reflecting different managerial personalities
  • learning and development programmes that focus on making up what is missing — ‘your influencing skills are poor we will send you on an assertiveness course’
  • a focus on looking back, using evidenced based assessment of what is not working well, rather than looking forward to what needs to be achieved next
  • people on long tenure within an organisation left with a sense that they must continually improve their performance ad infinitum — ‘ there is no room for complacency so where does your performance need to improve in this coming year?’
  • associated language that has negative impact on the workforce e.g. driving performance, exceeding expectations, performance metrics
  • performance is almost always viewed as the responsibility of individuals and what is overlooked is the fact that the system in which individuals operate also has an impact on how effectively and efficiently people work (management, structures, processes, organisational culture, etc.)

We may have reached a point where the theories behind the need to maximise performance in order to gain the most benefit from the resources we possess have been ill-served by the practices that have grown up around them. As a result performance management has become a source of poor management, HR and L&D practices and subsequently a negative motivator for the workforce.

Leaders may need to take the initiative in questioning the assumptions behind this sacred cow and ensure that the practices that have grown up to measure and promote ‘improved performance’ are realistic, achievable and, importantly, motivating.

One key problem in engaging in a fundamental review of the value of the performance culture is that it is so deeply embedded in the language and practice of organisations, and within the HR community in particular, that any suggestion that begins to question whether performance language and concepts are the most appropriate to ensure workforce motivation and organisational sustainability is summarily dismissed — “nothing else will work”, “it is the only appropriate way of engaging the workforce”

If we go back to the basic need for sustaining organisations in the 21st Century, particularly altering the nature of the public and business sectors we know that they must be prepared to continually adjust to a continually changing environment. Change is a norm. Change that will need to be fuelled by new thinking and innovative practices. Change that will require agility and the ability to be flexible, and yes, change that requires continually working at efficiency and effectiveness. Although maximising performance remains important, it becomes a subset of a greater change agenda. One concept that captures well this organisational driver is development.

The Development Culture Alternative

One way to change the narrative around performance without losing the importance of improving effectiveness and efficiency is to change the language and the focus of attention in order to be create more positivity and forward thinking. One suggestion is the adoption of a Development Culture.

Development incorporates:

  • The process of ‘changing in order to move forward’ at both corporate and individual levels
  • New thinking, ideas and innovation emanating from all ‘levels’
  • The acquisition of new knowledge, new skills and changing attitudes
  • Improving what is: including levels of effectiveness and efficiency in individuals and teams and the reconfiguration of new organisational structures/ systems and processes
  • Using the past as just one factor in identifying changed/improved/appropriate ways ahead
  • Engaging with key motivators for the workforce — positivity and investing in the future (their own and the organisation’s)
  • Develop professional knowledge and skills;Develop effectiveness and efficiency; Develop people’s careers; Develop creativity and smart thinking; Develop for delivering business priorities; Develop to deliver tasks and fulfil roles; Develop key decision-makers and influencers.

Supporting References/Quotes/Viewpoints

“If less than 10% of your customers judged a product effective and seven out of 10 said they were more confused than enlightened by it, you would drop it, right? So, why don’t more companies drop their annual job- performance reviews?” Timothy D. Schellhardt, (The Wall Street Journal)

“The problem. and it is well documented, is that most performance appraisal systems do not motivate individuals nor guide their development effectively. Instead they cause conflict between supervisors and subordinates and lead to dysfunctional behaviours” Lawler E E (1994) (Performance Management: The next generation. Compensation and Benefits Review)

Abolishing Performance Appraisals: Why They Backfire and What to Do Instead by Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins (Berrett-Koehler Publishers Copyright 2009)

The Growth Delusion by David Pilling (Bloomsbury 2018)

If this short article provokes you to think or even challenges your way of being a leader then do get in touch and engage with us. We can be contacted at: curious@kaboodleleadership.com