In some companies, traditional annual review processes are being replaced by ongoing efforts to help employees improve their performance. The challenge? Many managers aren’t confident they can change employee behavior.

A quiet revolution is underway in how companies manage employee performance. In recent years, organizations have begun to prioritize processes for improving future performance over evaluating employees’ past efforts. Yearly development objectives, annual reviews, and formal feedback tools, long championed by human resource departments, are being replaced by real-time feedback delivered directly by line managers.

Although this shift holds much promise, it risks bumping up against some hard realities — namely, the ability of line managers to help employees develop. We surveyed more than 500 managers around the world. About three-quarters of the managers said they had no trouble helping employees identify and understand which behaviors they needed to change to improve performance, and roughly the same percentage said they knew how to deliver feedback. Yet only about one-third said they knew what to do to help people change, and less than 10% had confidence about making behavior change stick over time. Little wonder, then, that less than half of the managers we surveyed believed that efforts to change behavior actually work. If line managers are the linchpin of the new performance management process, a 50% success rate is not good enough.

A possible explanation of these findings is that change is tough. Yet research shows that people can and do change. The frustration expressed by managers was not that development was difficult, but that it was unpredictable — that sometimes it happened and other times it didn’t.

It turns out that psychologists and behavioral economists know a lot about how behavior change works. The trouble is that their insights are rarely presented in a way that managers can apply. During the past five years, we sorted through decades of psychological research in an effort to help managers become more effective in fostering change and development.

Conventional approaches to change involve a simple, two-step process: First, identify what needs to change, and then resolve the issue, usually by providing information about what new behaviors are needed through advice, feedback, or training. Interventions using this model are straightforward, but largely ineffective. Recognizing the limitations, many organizations have recently moved to coaching by managers. Coaching conversations have a different — more collaborative — tone than the more instructional “identify and resolve” approach, but at their core they are still primarily about identifying what people need to change and what they must do about it.

9 Comments On: The Missing Piece in Employee Development

  • soumen-sarkar | May 26, 2017

    I expected a lot more rigour and data to support the claim that the article really nails the missing piece. Performance Management has been a big drainage in management bandwidth [including HR which spends significant time every year to find out low performers /high performers and to bring new innovations to make the assessment more aligned to business objectives]. Every change in the performance management comes with promise of improving objectivity, transparency and efficiency of the process. However every year both the managers and the employees dread when the time comes for annual performance appraisal.
    So I thought the authors would provide some new optics and clear guidance to organization on how the process can be more evident and deliver positive experience to both the manager and the employee

  • Abhijit Bhattacharya | May 29, 2017

    Poor performance need not necessarily be a symptom of low level of motivation or other internal contextual factors as discussed here. In this fast changing world when people are constantly forced to innovate, managers constantly need to realign team members according to each individual’s preferred cognitive style. Misalignment for a prolonged period can lead to frustration, communication gap and decline in productivity. It seems, very few managers are aware of the the cognitive styles of their team members which might be a cause for poor performance in many organisations.

  • Chirag Gandhi | June 6, 2017

    Disappointed, the fact that annual reviews are not effective has been established for a couple of years, with some of the larger organizations doing away with this ritual all together. I was expecting some insights into how the live feedback or any of the other methods have made an impact.

  • Aaron Peterson | June 6, 2017

    Interesting article, however the authors make the same mistake they pointed out early on in that this doesn’t teach a manager how to use the Four Factors: motivation, ability, psychological capital, and supporting environment. Many great books and articles are written each year telling individuals and companies what they should do, the difficulty is how to do it. For example, I understand intrinsic motivation, but as a manager how do I help an employee tap into that resource if they aren’t already doing so?

  • Richard Smith | June 7, 2017

    I acknowledge earlier comments that this article falls well short of being a ‘how-to’ guide for managers and leaders. However it does bring together a range of helpful insights, ranging from expectancy theories of motivation to behavioural economics. It highlights helpfully how managers need to work with, rather than against, the grain of these approaches in their desire to help their people develop. I have worked with performance management and people development processes for well over 40 years. In doing so, I have found that success lies in getting the focus off the mechanics of an HR process and onto the quality of conversation between manager and managed. It is in this conversation – an ongoing one through the year, supported by periodic ‘stock-takes’ – that real traction is gained for development.

  • Stowe Boyd | June 7, 2017

    The authors pose the hypothetical, ‘If line managers are the linchpin of the new performance management process, a 50% success rate is not good enough’. Yet they are clearly *not* treating this issue — whether line managers are in fact the linchpin of a new performance management process — as hypothetical.

    How about the obvious: they aren’t?

  • Chandra Pandey | June 7, 2017

    The frequency of feedback cycle is decreasing to reflect the fast paced market cycles. From sustainability point of view its the combination of objective that works, not all the development objectives can be achieved in short span of time or real time. The aspects of Coaching, mentoring, bi directional conversation are more fruitful for sustainable initiative/proposition than traditional command & control mechanism for the simple reason of goodwill, trust and together we travel approach. The only difference is that it is more recorded now as formal means than informal means earlier. It is difficult to find data points in the published article to consider it as revolutionary than evolutionary. One of the more hyped and commonly overused word prevalent in enterprise world is Transformation. This is partly because it grabs attention as PR exercise and partly because everyone wants to be seen on the right side of equation in perception. Rapidly changing world & disruptive market place is a reality which requires time to time acknowledgment as course correction first followed by grounded transformation. Most of the articles/case studies often focus more on the short term financial goals as post facto rationalization than sustainable growth possibilities. It remains debatable if the glass is half full or half empty as it depends from which side it is being looked upon and where the viewer wants to take a stand.

    It is often said that Performance Management is a hollow promise without Performance Design as starting point. Performance Design has to be thought in context of operating unit, empowerment, distance from decision table, applicable constraints, leverage points, incentives & market connect to meet the expected benchmark. In changing world what is the performance design refresh cycle? In a random sampling there is good likelihood that 9 out of 10 orgs use the expectation against data points which are more than 3 year old and often wonder why change manifests itself in sporadic results. From communication point of view it has to be transparent articulation of development/behavioural change to achieve what all metrics in terms productivity gain(Time or Effort reduction), cost reduction, revenue or profit expansion etc. The bigger the organization, the bigger is the confusion of what applies to whom or everything applies to everybody. In modern era there is good likelihood that most of the org will face natural business course disruption at least once in 8 years. Therefore learning from trend line in downward spiral is both Org & Individual level prerogative, the uptrend of revival happens in symbiotic understanding of course correction & the subsequent change process initiatives. It is not uncommon in business world in large orgs that top guy thinks at 100 ft. level and passes the parcel to HR at 50ft level and the finally the line manager executes it at 10 ft. level. Each having their own priorities, constraints & limitations from where they operate to keep the lights on. In assessment the time has come for integrated performance management where line of sight & line of action is all pervasive irrespective of classification of assembly line, unit or head quarter designate(manager) to have synchronized behavioural/change effect.

  • Dirk de Jong | June 8, 2017

    If theory does not stroke with reality, change reality.

  • Sohel junior | June 17, 2017

    Very first time I am here and read it. I found this helpful, thanks for sharing it.

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