M. Tamra Chandler on “How Performance Management Is Killing Performance”: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

Tamra Chandler is a bona fide people maven. This means she’s someone who has spent the majority of her career thinking about people, researching how they’re motivated, and developing new and effective ways for organizations to achieve the ultimate win-win: inspired people driving inspiring performance. She’s also the CEO and co-founder of a thriving Seattle-based consulting company called PeopleFirm, which focuses on helping organizations find success by improving how they utilize, motivate, and support—you guessed it — their people.

Her book, How Performance Management Is Killing Performanceand What to Do About It , was published by Berrett-Koehler (2016).

An award-winning leader in her field (she’s been recognized by Consulting Magazine twice as one of the top consultants in the U.S.), Tamra has more than 25 years of experience guiding clients, ranging from tiny non-profit arts groups to giant multi-national corporations, through varied and complex business transformation projects. She’s recently focused her considerable energy on solving the problem of performance management. Her Performance Management Reboot system has received international acclaim for its innovative, customizable, and down-to-earth methodology. It stands out in a field that’s awash in criticism but sorely lacking in real answers. Outside of her work, Tamra treasures any free time she can find with her husband, two children, and three pedigreed mutts.

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Now please shift your attention to How Performance Management Is Killing Performance. When and why did you decide to write it?

My journey started in 2011 when the then CHRO at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation asked me to write a white paper for the executives on performance management. Little did I know where that simple request would lead. PM was a topic I had been interested in long before founding PeopleFirm. At Hitachi I’d had the experience of building a program from scratch. What we built was a fairly traditional solution; it had some nice features (like a robust functional and role-based competency foundation), but it was still dogged by all of the Fatal Flaws. So I knew something better was needed. When I started to really dig into the topic using a very research-driven approach, I realized the problem was BIG, and it was in need of real solutions. Back then (and still today, frankly) many people were writing about the problems created by traditional PM, but nobody seemed to have put together a comprehensive solution. Not only did my clients need a solution, but the world needed a solution—and that’s what I set out to provide.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

That you’re never done editing… LOL. By the end I kept asking… “are we there yet?”.

In reference to the content of the book…when people read about the idea of the three common goals of performance management (drive organizational performance, develop people, and reward equitably) they say, “sure, that’s a no-brainer”. But as with so many basically simple ideas, no one had really gone there before. Nobody had distilled the purpose of performance management down to those three clear goals, or understood to what degree their connectedness was key to building a great solution. Those three goals became the framework for all that followed on rebooting performance management. While the concept seems basic, to me the idea was worth a little head-snapping.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ [begin italics] significantly [end italics] from what you originally envisioned?

That’s a great question! I’ve gone back recently and looked at my original outlines, and honestly it doesn’t vary that much from where we ended up. Of course, some ideas become more prominent, and things moved around a bit. And one of our plans was to keep it short and sweet; it ended up longer than I expected, and that was even after cutting a lot out of early draft.

In the Foreword, Dave Ulrich observes, “Performance management faces a major paradox.” Here’s a two-part question: What is this paradox and how best to resolve it?

The paradox arises from trying to find a balance between practices that inspire people and allow them to thrive, and also having mechanisms in place that allow organizations to identify teams and individuals who are performing above or below expectations. Many organizations struggle with this because they believe that to eliminate the controls and the comparisons you also have to let go of processes that hold people accountable. I believe we can deliver on those two ideas simultaneously. In other words, I know you can have a group of people who are strongly committed and are working toward (I prefer that phrase to the word “accountable”) a goal, mission, vision, objective, etc., without having processes in place that rely heavily on methods that introduce bias, increase the feeling of internal competition, and result in low levels of trust or engagement.

You recommend a five-phase collaboration between supervisors and their direct reports. Which phase seems to be most difficult to complete? Why?

Yes, in the book I talk about a five step process to Rethink, Redesign, and Reboot performance management, and in practice I lead clients through that process. The hardest step is Configuration (3rd step). While it takes a little work to get a team aligned on their design principles, the tough stuff lies in developing how you will manifest those design principles across the six categories of configuration (goals & alignment, feedback and performance insights, etc.). This is where the real courage comes in. It’s at this point where you’ll be choosing ideas and practices that are probably very different from what we’ve always done. It’s harder than we think to move to modern approaches that focus less on control and oversight.

We wrestle with questions like: do we need documentation? What if an employee doesn’t want to receive coaching? What does contribution mean in our organization, and how will we know it when we see it? Who has authority to advance people in their roles? And so many more. Answering all of those questions, putting aside for the time being the inevitable thoughts of will our leaders buy this? Can this really work?, and staying dedicated to delivering an experience that helps our people thrive… that is tough stuff!

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me. For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away in each of these.

First, Fundamental shifts (Pages 30, 32, 33-36, 39-42, 42-46, 46-49, 49-51, and 54-55)

This section is all about the philosophical (and often behavioral) shifts leaders need to make to move toward into a healthier and more effective approach to managing performance. I truly feel each of the eight shifts is a critical component to re-thinking this whole thing, but if I have to single one out, an important one is “Abandon Uniformity.” This shift is about avoiding one-size-fits-all solutions within your organization, as well as the temptation to just copy what another company is doing. I’ve sat with many organizational leaders over the years, and they all tell me how unique their organization is. Yet most manage performance in basically the same way. Something is off there. What works for one organization may not (and probably should not) work as well for the next. Leaders need to look at their unique culture, workforce, demographics, geographical dispersion, mission and core values, and then ask themselves “what would engage and motivate our people while achieving our business goals?” The other seven shifts provide foundational beliefs core to an effective solution as well; things like being transparent (Open the Door), empowering employees (Give the Steering Wheel), and focusing on potential over past mistakes (Focus on the future).

Case Study: Leading the Leaders (71-74)

This is a small, but hugely important, section. I like to tell a painful story of a CHRO that failed to bring her leaders with her during her journey, with disastrous results. Lack of executive sponsorship is the top reason for the failure of new initiatives. If the top leaders aren’t walking the talk and championing the effort, it holds others back, and, ultimately, sabotages the whole effort. In my experience, the executive group isn’t given the attention they need because we are scared to challenge their held opinions and leery of educating them.

Frankly, however, it’s necessary to educate our leaders about performance management in order to get them fully on-board in the beginning of a project, in order to avoid headaches and wasted resources later on. For that very reason, I’ve actually created a revised edition of the book (Rethinking Performance Management—a Leader’s Guide, available on Google Books), that’s meant to be a quick, informative read to help get busy executives familiar with the basic concepts of rebooting performance management.

Sketch Your Frame against the Three Common Goals (91-95 and 105-107)

I’m super excited about this tool as a simple and practical way to help leadership teams get engaged. We built a tool called the “PM Sketchbook” that allows leaders to compare alignment to each of the “Three Common Goals” across their team. Leaders complete the sketchbook in about 10 minutes, evaluating where the current PM solution is related to the Three Common Goals, and then what they would like the future solution to look like. The results quickly and clearly show the alignment (or lack thereof) for each of the goals across the team. The areas of misalignment are what would most likely trip leadership teams up in the design process. These unspoken disagreements arise when leaders are coming from different places and haven’t reached alignment on their underlying goals. The Sketchbook gets it all out in the open in a clear and objective way so teams can have the conversation and gain better alignment before moving into design. It saves so much time (and strife!) down the road. Such a simple and powerful tool!

Worksheets for design (92-95 and 180-183)

One of the things that was very important to me was to not make this book be all theory, with no practical application. There are enough of those books out there! I wanted my book to be a functional tool that readers could use to reboot their organization on their own if they desired. The entire “Redesign” section is devoted to this practical application: the nitty-gritty nuts-and-bolts of designing a new solution. It may be too “in the weeds” for some readers, and I’m comfortable with that (I figure they can skip this section). But for those practitioners who are ready to dig in, I wanted tools available to facilitate the process. These worksheets are some of those tools; after a team has decided on their “design principles”, the worksheets let them compare alignment with the Three Common Goals. In other words, it allows them to ask themselves, “is what we designed matching up with the direction we wanted to go in the first place?” It’s far too easy to lose sight of those all-important goals when you’re starting to put the real implementation together. Testing helps re-align you to your purpose. These worksheets also help you to crowdsource (ask others!) your design before moving forward.

Testing your configuration (105-107)

This is another process tool to help readers with the practical application of the reboot. It’s intended for use after designing the new solution and choosing exactly what real-life elements/activities will be included (I call this “configuring”). This tool allows you to pause and test how happy you are with how well your solution meets your targeted design principles. It’s a relatively simple but important check-point in the process that ensures the ultimate solution is one everyone buys into and that does, indeed, do what you want it to do.

Case Study: Peace.org (109-115)

In this section of the book, I provide four organizational examples to show readers what a reboot would look like in an actual organization. After all, theory doesn’t come to life until you see how it plays out in the real world. For Peace.org, a key takeaway is to recognize that nonprofit organizations focus on mission rather than bottom line, so it doesn’t make sense to manage performance as you would for a for-profit company. In fact, there is often a cultural resistance against profit-driven practices. Additionally, money isn’t usually the top driver for employees, so I encourage leaders to get creative with other reward strategies; for example, an opportunity to do hands-on field work might be more motivating than a cash bonus.

Configure phase (111-113 and 117-123

Chandler: This is in the practical hands-on part of the book I mentioned. Here teams make decisions about what “PM Practices” (the actual activities they will include in their PM process) will make up their new PM solution. You may have decided you want “more feedback”, for instance: now you choose what that actually looks like, whether that means employee-driven feedback, weekly sessions that call out great work, feedback during key project milestones, etc. The same goal (i.e. more feedback) can look very different depending on the organization. This configuration period is where the PM solution really comes to life; it’s were leaders decide the ways in which it will take shape in their culture and organization.

Case Study: Tech.com (123-129)

This is another real-life application example, this time a fast-moving, forward-thinking tech company. There are some important takeaways from this section for working with STEM talent. First and foremost: keep it simple. This group hates formality and bureaucracy. I recommend pushing authority and ownership down the ranks as much as possible and creating opportunities for them to work in networked teams with control over their own resources. It’s also wise to connect their rewards with things they care about, such as building mastery, recognition of their mastery, and time and freedom.

Case Study: Retail.com (130-135)

Another real-life example. I discuss a retail company that is addressing the challenge of how to best manage many diverse employee groups (such as salary vs. hourly, long vs. short tenure, store vs. headquarters, etc.) The employees at headquarters aren’t necessarily motivated by the same things as hourly call-center employees or warehouse employees, for instance, and require a different approach. In response, Retail.com custom-designed their new performance management solution for each of their four employee segments. The design of each segment was based on a core set of design principles that applied to the entire organization, but the actual implementation varied from segment to segment.

One takeaway from this section is that task-oriented employee segments are often best managed at a team level, rather than individually. Providing team incentives and rewards is a great way to keep these employees engaged and collaborative. Another takeaway is that it’s a good idea to find ways to connect your hourly employees to your customers. When these employees understand what matters to customers, they not only are able to deliver at a much higher level, but they also are better able to see their part in the big picture. And that drives greater loyalty to the organization.

Making the case for change (153-156)

This section is very important, and it’s a part of the process that often gets overlooked or skipped. It is all too common for executive teams to spend significant time and resources assessing, evaluating, and designing their new approach, without making sure the rest of the company is ready to make the move. By the time they have their new solution ready to go and are all fired up to jump into the implementation, the rest of the organization may just be realizing that this change is actually going to happen (let’s be honest, there is a lot of good intentions in organizations that fizzle into nothing). Instead, leaders should reduce some of this shock for employees by communicating early and engaging people from the beginning in the design process. This communication includes making the case for change that addresses both the heart and the mind; both the gut-level “what’s in it for me” as well as the logical argument for how the change will increase the experience the team has and drive true realizable value.

Communication objectives to change (167-171)

Chandler: This is from the “Defend against the Naysayers” section. The main point of this section is to get comfortable with the fact that you are going to have naysayers (there will undoubtedly be people who resist a change to your performance management program) so that they don’t blindside you or divert you from your course. Forewarned is forearmed, after all! People will resist the change for many reasons, perhaps because they don’t believe you can assess performance without ratings, or they think it’s a legal requirement, or they simply are uncomfortable because they’ve always done it the old way. These concerns are natural. Additionally, there is some ambiguity in the PM Reboot process (because this solution will be different for each organization, you aren’t going to know exactly what it will look like when you start the process), and that can be hard for folks. I encourage people to remember that this is a journey. This section gives the reader some helpful information and tips for how to counter standard arguments, in order to boost their confidence while addressing these concerns whenever the arie.

Custom design principles (173-179)

It was really important to me that this book not be simply another book with theory and some good ideas, but that it also provided practical, hands-on tools that organizations could actually use. This is one of those examples: a step-by-step facilitator’s guide to creating the design principles that lay the foundation for the new solution. Design principles are a critical piece of getting everyone aligned toward a unified vision, like the “must have” list you create before building a house. They offer a crisp way to communicate your vision, an anchor for your design team during the debates and trade-offs in the configuration phase, and a means to check in along the way on how close you are to meeting your original vision for the solution.

What is the single most serious mistake made when designing a performance measurement program?

When I’m working with clients, I think the biggest mistake I see them make is setting boundaries at the very beginning for what they will or won’t do. I wish all clients would start with open minds and a blank sheet of paper, and use the design process to explore all options. The discover process makes them more likely to have the courage to let go of old ideas or habits (especially bad ones like ratings against forced bell curves or ranking systems)

When conducting a performance review?

Gosh, there are a lot of mistakes we can make when conducting performance reviews, but if you force me to pick the most serious, I’d say focusing on the negative (areas for improvement) rather than on an individual’s strengths (and how they can bring greater value to the organization by building on those strengths). The sad thing is that even strong performers, those who are rated well, frequently leave their performance reviews feeling deflated, or, even worse, angry. This is because all that they heard (even if it’s sandwiched with a lot of positives) is the bad stuff. It’s what they remember and it can blind them from anything else.

My own opinion is that, with rare exception, great leaders are not also great managers…and vice versa. What do you think?

How you answer that question depends on your definition for leader versus manager, but yes I know what you’re saying. This may not answer the question, but it’s my opinion that we’d need fewer managers if we had more great leaders. I say this because great leaders inspire people to do their best work, to support the right goals. If you have clarity of intent and need, and you’ve got people with the right skills, how many managers (in the sense of overseeing people’s work) do you really need? You would need managers who are great at project or program management (or other functional capabilities), but fewer “old school” managers.

In your opinion, to what extent (if any) is charisma essential to effective management? Please explain.

When you’re talking charisma, I think more about leadership than management. I do think charisma is a valuable quality for a leader. But can you be a great leader without it? Yes! I have several examples I could share. However, leaders who have a blend of charisma and capability are blessed with a powerful combination that often makes them highly effective. The danger zone is when we run into charisma without capability. My experience is that those leaders can do a lot more damage than good.

For more than 30 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in How Performance Management Is Killing Performance, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

I think the greatest value is in giving them the courage to move forward, as well as a few ideas for building a model that is customized to them and their culture, and inspirational for their people. At PeopleFirm our performance management processes is very different from that of other organizations. It fits our needs and what we’re all about. In other words, it’s authentic to us, and instead of feeling like a burden it’s rather more like a gift. I wish that for all small business leaders.

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

You didn’t ask about my dedication. When I sent in the final draft of the manuscript, that was the first question my publisher asked. “Who is Alabaster?”

“Alabaster” is my nickname for my husband. He has not only been supportive of my crazy demanding career, but he has raised our two lovely children, and has always had my back. He was also a key editor for the book; I couldn’t have done it without him!

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Here is a direct link to Part 1.

Tamara cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Her firm’s website link

Performance Management Reboot link

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