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Academic Interview: Peter A. Heslin

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In 2016, the Performance Magazine editorial team interviewed Peter A. Heslin, Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, for the “Performance Management in 2015” report. His thoughts and views on Performance Management are detailed below.

”I’d like to see managers focus more on their growth mindset, by developing and inspiring an employee rather than merely measuring them.”

Trends

  1. Which are the 2015 key trends in Performance Management, from your point of view?

Some trends I see are:

  • Increased concern with social and/or environmental performance as criteria for individual, departmental and organizational performance. Making the world a better place, or at least not making it worse, is an increasingly standard expectation.
  • Greater use of Big Data, often gleaned through tracking devices, to enable more real-time and comprehensive performance data tracking and analysis.
  • Emerging reflection on the potential costs and downsides, financial and otherwise, of continuous performance data tracking and analysis. People often resent and react negatively to feeling excessively monitored.
  • Striving to make performance management more about performance facilitation, rather than annual appraisals as a basis for rewarding or punishing people – based on what they have achieved. This involves not only clarifying objectives, but also enabling and investing resources for performance, removing the host of factors that can impede it, and ensuring that employees are always aware of the big picture regarding their work.
  1. What are your thoughts on the integration of Performance Management at the organizational, departmental and employee level?

This is absolutely imperative, though of course much easier said than done. The question of how (rather than whether) individual and departmental incentives are undermining organizational objectives ought to be seriously probed on a routine basis, given how easily misalignment arises. Ongoing pursuit of this question needs to be led and supported by the highest levels.

  1. Which will be the major changes in managing performance, in the future?

At this stage, I foresee further developments along the lines I have identified in my response to the first question, so those would be greater use of Big Data, greater awareness of the costs of performance data tracking, increased social/environmental awareness and enhanced facilitation of performance-related efforts.

Research

  1. What aspects of Performance Management should be explored more through research?

Research might fruitfully explore questions such as:

  1. What factors affect the optimal number of KPIs to be tracked? While the answer will surely be contingent on an array of contextual and individual factors, in many instances I suspect that reducing the number that is established and tracked would facilitate high performance in the most important areas.
  2. How can managers be supported in creating time and a safe space for systematically working through the classic action learning processes that are typically skipped to the detriment of real learning and thus performance improvement?
  3. Relatedly, how can managers be continually cued to have the growth mindset that focuses more on developing and inspiring, rather than measuring and evaluating employees?
  4. Finally, how might Agile software development methods (i.e., daily scum meetings, burndown charts and holacracy), be deployed in other work contexts to facilitate making work visible, the swift and painless surfacing of performance impediments, and initiatives to enable continuous learning and performance improvement.
  5. Which organizations would you recommend to be looked at, due to their particular approach to managing performance, and their subsequent results?

Accenture, Adobe, Atlassian, Microsoft, Gap and Medtronic have each made interesting moves away from annual performance appraisals and towards the ongoing simultaneous support and evaluation of employee performance.

  1. What Performance Management question would you like to have answered by researchers?

Those identified in my response to the fourth question, so those would be what factors affecting the optimal number of KPIs should be tracked, how can managers be offered better support when it comes to creating safe spaces for classic action learning processes and related to this, how can they maintain a constant growth mindset.

Lastly, as I mentioned, I would like to found out further methods of integrating Agile software into the workplace, to make work more streamlined and visible.

Practice

  1. Which are main challenges of Performance Management in practice, today?

I think the main challenges are the perennial ones: precisely defining performance, setting appropriate goals (realizing that stretch goals often do more harm than good), creating a vivid and compelling picture of why performance matters, and providing the right people with the time, guidance and reliable supply of the real-time informational, technical and social-emotional resources they need to do great work.

  1. What should be improved in the use of Performance Management tools and processes?

The answer depends massively on the context, though basically anything that impedes the processes identified in my response to the immediately prior question ought to be improved – or tossed out altogether! Laborious annual appraisal processes are a prime candidate, as illustrated by the companies mentioned above.

  1. What would you consider as a best practice in Performance Management?

Three best practices I would suggest are:

  • Mastering the challenges outlined in my previous responses, such as those I’ve mentioned at the seventh question.
  • Recognizing and resisting the foolish trend to be perpetually “raising the bar” or “trimming the fat” – performance seeking initiatives often dressed up with euphemisms such as striving for excellence or financial sustainability. While these things are imperative up to a certain point, beyond that they can foster resentment of a system that feels geared to endlessly squeeze more out of them! Knowledge workers especially do their best work when they are at least occasionally granted time and space to breath.
  • Realizing that performance can be greatly facilitated by removing frustrating distractions, such as unnecessary meetings, form filling, and other menial admin tasks that can be eliminated or carried out more efficiently by dedicated support staff.
  • Performance is much more likely to be optimized when the focus is on enabling rather than managing it.

Education

  1. Which aspects of Performance Management should be emphasized during educational programs?

Developing the leadership skills involved in effectively enacting the performance facilitation tasks outlined above.

These include inspirational leadership, process facilitation, fostering growth mindsets, goal setting, action learning (e.g., planning & engaging in experiments, considering counterfactuals and conducting after action reviews), listening, coaching and integrative negotiation.

  1. Which are the limits in order to achieve higher levels of proficiency in Performance Management, among practitioners?

Senior managers who hide behind the concept of delegation in refusing to help address conflicting performance demands. These are painful to work through, though even harder when your authority is limited.

It’s fine to ask for suggested solutions, rather than just problems, though sharing the burden of settling on and discerning how to implement imperfect solutions to fraught performance management issues is something that the upper echelons should not shirk.

Personal Performance

  1. What is your opinion on the emerging trend of measuring performance outside working hours?

Presuming you are referring to individuals measuring their own performance in non-work domains, this can be a positive thing if it supports the attainment of personal goals, such as meeting new people, improving one’s romantic relationship or enhancing one’s health and well-being.

Traditional goal setting can be supplemented by apps and data from wearable devices, for instance, though I think it’s really important to acknowledge that there might be costs involved that for some people could be far greater than the benefits.

The spectre of being bombarded with too-much information (TMI) is growing fast: I’m not sure why anyone needs or would want to know their heartrate every time they look at their wrist! Especially for those inclined to be a bit neurotic, obsessive-compulsive or hypochondriac, non-stop biofeedback can become dysfunctional and will most likely become counter-productive.

Indeed, I suspect we are all well served to reflect upon the likely personal pros and cons of different devices and methods of personal performance measurement, before joining the latest personal performance measurement bandwagon. Even once we have made the plunge, I think it’s really important to be ready and willing to set aside any approach or device that seems to be negatively affecting us.

  1. What personal performance measurement tools do you use?

I use a Garmin computer on my bike. That measures many more things that I am interested in. I particularly value the cadence indicator as it provides information that I act on immediately, though I also typically track my heart-rate, average heart-rate, speed and average speed. That’s plenty of data for me!

Specific Question

  1. We are developing a database of subjects/degrees in Performance Management. What are your suggestions relevant to the database (i.e. subjects/degrees such as the Masters in Managing Organizational Performance)?

I recommend taking high quality management and leadership courses focused on developing the skills I mentioned in responses to the ninth and tenth question, regarding what skills are useful to be mastered and what practices are worthwhile to take up.


Should you be interested in having your interview featured in one of our publications, contact us at editor@kpiinstitute.org!

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