Practitioner Interview: Chua E Long
In 2016, the Performance Magazine editorial team interviewed Chua E Long, Senior Vice President/Head of Transformation, Strategy & Transformation at AXA, Malaysia, for the “Performance Management in 2015: ASEAN Special Edition” report. His thoughts and views on Performance Management are detailed below.
In the end, we must recognize that the guiding principle of performance management is not to punish the weak or non-performers, but to allow everyone to perform at their very best.
1. Which are the 2015 key trends in Performance Management, from your point of view?
Companies are excited by the prospects of switching from yearly performance management reviews to ad-hoc or “daily” models, where input on performance is given “on-the-spot” or rather, based on the progress of work being done by the employee.
However, as the trend is still new and needs to prove itself, many companies adopt the wait-and-see approach, partly unsure if this will be a successful model in practice, and largely because no organization has the experience of carrying out the envisioned changes at the early stages of this performance management model evolution.
Many companies do not want to be at the forefront of change, for fear of rocking the boat and being eventually held responsible for negative repercussions.
2. What are your thoughts on the integration of Performance Management at the organizational, departmental and employee level?
Performance management practices should be fully integrated at the organizational, departmental and employee level, to ensure everyone within the same organization is working towards a common objective for the defined period.
But obviously, each department or employee has a distinguished day-to-day function and role, thus the objective should stay the same but the means of materializing the common objective would then be practiced differently.
One possibility would be the approach of using the 80-20 or even 50-50 rule, where a department fully adopts an agreed fraction of the top down objective, and then strives to customize the rest of it to suit the practicalities of the department itself; this is then replicated across employees working within each department.
3. Which will be the major changes in managing performance, in the future?
While many organizations try to quantify performance management systems as much as possible to make it “as objective as possible” vs. measuring it based on the number of beers you had with your appraisers, I believe the future trend is moving towards the opposite direction. This is where EQ (Emotional Quotient) is more appreciated over IQ (Intelligence Quotient).
To be truly successful at what you do, and therefore directly impacting the results of your business and the organization that you work for, having pure IQ is no longer a guaranteed shot for success, unless you work in niche and complex industries like space travel & genetic cloning..
For the rest of us, being able to carry an idea, earn the trust of stakeholders and obtain funding would be key; many great ideas for the industry, or even mankind for that manner, have never seen the light of day just because they were not properly presented and understood.
Hence, in the future, successful performance management systems are those that measure the qualitative parts of a success story that contributes to mankind’s development, with the likes of how a service or product benefited the people who use it. For now, we’re stuck with the number of smart phones sales figures for a particular month or year.
4. What aspects of Performance Management should be explored more through research?
Research on performance management should largely focus on the non-monetary motivators for outstanding performers. Though financial gains are most commonly recognized as the “hygiene factor” that drives performance, it is not necessarily so with many great performers out there in the market. These are people that see beyond the given “if I work I will get paid anyway”, and strive for that extra reason that makes them want to wake up in the morning and get to work.
It is mimicking the spirit of an entrepreneur that works for no one but himself or herself, and finding a way to replicate similar passions within the rest of the workforce, which works for both conglomerates or rather simply someone else.
In the end, we must recognize that the guiding principle of performance management is not to punish the weak or non-performers, but to allow everyone to perform at their very best and then reward them accordingly, hence building a professional ecosystem where we are encouraged to pat everyone on their backs vs. hoping that they will fail in order to make ourselves look good.
5. Which organizations would you recommend to be looked at, due to their particular approach to managing performance, and their subsequent results?
Maybe I will name one or two in the future, but so far I’ve not come across an organization where I could openly promote their performance management practice.
I’ve seen and heard of organizations where performances were predetermined based on your relationship with your manager – who by the way asks questions like “what car do you drive?” during an interview; those where the ratings were pre-determined top down and performance management as an exercise is reduced to just a mere discussion to justify the given rating; to those where tens of thousands of productive hours were spent filling up fields after fields and pages after pages, in an online performance management tool, only to be ignored during the face-to-face discussion session.
At the core of things, employees who fared well during a particular year will hail the performance management system, while the same employee who did badly the following year would accuse the very same system of tyranny and injustice.
Hence unfortunately, many companies are still experimenting with new performance management systems and none of them have emerged as the champion of performance management. I sincerely hope for the day where a company would be able to boast of its performance management system and be widely recognized as such by other leading players in the market.
6. What Performance Management question would you like to ask researchers?
“Should we not be trying to find ways to simplify performance management vs. complicating it further?”
Efforts should revolve around simplification, and not making a science or even art out of performance management systems. Researchers who are able to propose an accurate, yet not so time-consuming performance management model would change the performance management landscape for the better, as less time is spent talking about what was being done last year vs. the continued focus to do well this year and beyond.
In the end, we are all harnessing the limited 24-hour time resource that each of us have, and the choice to spend the hours productively vs. harping on something in the past would logically boost the productivity curve in one way or another.
7. Which are the main challenges of Performance Management in practice, today?
Most performance management systems that I’ve seen today have been a waste of time, especially companies practicing forced bell-curve systems, where you may end up picking the best amongst the worst and over recognizing him or her from a financial or egotistic perspective, or risk the attrition of really good people by picking the worst amongst the best and demotivating the individual by telling him or her, “it’s just how the system works”.
Smart people do not believe in this type of management lie or fallacy, and they eventually leave to contribute to the success of your closest competitor.
There are also performance systems where your fate (and bonus for that matter) is represented by how capable your boss is in arguing a performance case for you. Should you be represented by a really good salesperson who could sell refrigerators to Eskimos, you’re all set to buy that new sports car next year.
On the contrary, if your direct manager is a really smart triple engineering PhD holder with a penchant to write Big Bang theories somehow proven true, but not able to articulate your performance well, you better start cutting out and saving those discount coupons from the local prints. This in essence is a very hit or miss type of situation, which puts one’s fate in the hands of randomness and that is never a positive thing.
8. What should be improved in the use of Performance Management tools and processes?
For starters, there should be an online performance management tool that managers and employees alike could log in, using an existing single sign-in password. The tool should be light-weight – so that it is financially viable to implement and maintain, intuitive – nobody ever taught you how to navigate around your e-mail interface, and responsive – quick loading times, features to notify the next person on his or her action. If it is a module as part of the entire Human Resource management system that manages employee benefits, training and talent acquisition, then all the better.
The process must be flexible enough to allow alterations and exceptions; some companies practices quarterly reviews, which may only be applicable to certain departments, for example, sales which warrant a monthly or weekly review, or it could be covered in separate meetings altogether anyways.
But coming back to my previous point, these periodic reviews become almost useless when the yearly performance review is the dominant determinant of the entire year’s results. How I see it, it’s pointless to be told that you are an outstanding performer mid-year, when you end up being an average performer at the end of the year, which then in turn determines your bonus.
As such, maybe bonuses should then be distributed per performance evaluation cycles. And yes, I have come across companies that pay quarterly vs. annual bonuses, which in my opinion is a rather good rudimentary strategy to keep good people from leaving; unfortunately, that keeps under performers from leaving as well.
9. What would you consider as a best practice in Performance Management?
At the end of the day, a best practice is best determined by the employees themselves.
Conducting an employee survey and asking them the ultimate question of “would you recommend the company’s current performance management system to anyone?” would determine what works and what didn’t. Practically, the survey would not strive for a 100% positive response rate, but any scores above 80% would sufficiently address the practicality and continued usage of the performance management “best practice” within a company’s culture.
The questionnaire should never really ask the question of “do you think you are being paid fairly in this organization?”, as most respondents, imbued with human nature, are more likely to believe that they are underpaid anyways; hence, it would not be a reflective measure of the performance management system.
10. Which aspects of Performance Management should be emphasized during educational programs?
How to “beat” the system, ethically and legally. Performance management is a very dry subject to start off with, and it’s not hard to empathize with employees that just want to get it over with, at the end of the year. That is due to the common belief that they are not in control of the results, and sometimes it’s not their fault, as the performance management system was designed in such a manner.
To approach the subject from an unconventional perspective, like how to “beat” it, should draw the necessary attention towards practice performance; the do’s and don’ts, the envisioned effort, the raised expectations, the teamwork – allowing employees to devise a planned approach towards obtaining positive results at the end of the performance management cycle.
11. What are the limits that prevent practitioners from achieving higher levels of proficiency in Performance Management?
That everyone is different and it is fatalistic to try to categorize and group people into a few distinct themes or quadrants. Behavioral modeling always remains a model, and never quite addresses the fact that individuals are all unique. Once we categorize our workforce like blood groups, we fail the very basic need to treat each of our fellow human being respectfully and appreciate their individuality.
Also, performance management is a system, and the various interpretations of the system itself, by fellow practitioners result in the same system being implemented differently, thus shaping the mixed experience of those in the system. To have a human resources officer that “follows the book” and exercises no flexibility would equate to upfront failure being imposed onto the system itself.
Practitioners need to be selected, trained and retrained in a continuous cycle, to keep up with the evolving needs of their fellow employees, the company and the industry as a whole.
12. What is your opinion on the emerging trend of measuring performance outside working hours?
It’s pure foolishness to be thinking of categorizing performance during and outside of working hours in the first place. Performance should be results-oriented, and not based on inside or outside parameters or the standard 8-hour work day.
An employee could be spending 14 hours in the office, 2 of which are spent surfing social media sites, another 2 exchanging gossip and stories unrelated to work, another 1 for a total of 4 smoking breaks, and so on.
It is always a choice for employees to spend their evenings singing karaoke or reading an article from the Harvard Business Review, which coincidentally would contribute to their work the very next day, but we must leave this choice solely to the employees themselves and yet again, measure their performance based on their results and not the total number of hours clocked.
So instead of even glorifying it with the word “trend”, I would call it a lack of sensitivity for life itself, and respectfully encourage people whom strongly feel otherwise to “get a life”.
13. What personal performance measurement tools do you use?
I do not impose a personal performance tool upon myself; I’m leaning towards a more fulfilling qualitative life vs. a quantitative life, where I try to measure how much money I make per hour, what is my productivity rate, and how fast I can complete an everyday task before I move on to the next one. If there is one “tool” ever, it would be how many hours of sleep do I get every night.
14. Which were the recent achievements in generating value from performance management, in your organization?
Our company performs a yearly employee survey to determine areas where we excel as a company and also to seriously look into those where we were told improvements were necessary. In general, our last year’s results were above the market, and that itself is a positive indicator that the company is on the right track to building a symbiotic 2-way relationship with its employees.
The results of the survey were kept anonymous at the individual level, but granular enough to the departmental level, so as to enable each manager to look into how they could address the employees’ minor concerns upfront before they fester into major dissatisfaction over time.
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