While performance management was sometimes defined as the most reviled practice in HR, calibration was often the reason behind that title; the difference being it was happening behind closed doors so not everyone even knew it existed. The intent was good, ‘let’s align on what great performance looks like, let’s ensure consistency and fairness in the evaluation of our people’. However, the reality played out very differently.
Ratings and comparison
It found itself in a pool of subjectivity, as Harvard Business Review points out, most performance evaluations are biased. Leaders often take defensive positions in backing their own people. Doing so to secure those top boxes of the rating curve, at the sacrifice of another department’s people. It also rarely required real data or objective evidence that validated a point of view. As such too, it would often end up in a subjective view of opinions, where the loudest voice was most often heard. It also had the disadvantage that the comparisons were unfair and unhelpful.
How do you compare one individual’s performance to another? particularly when specialist roles or unique responsibilities were a factor, and indeed was it even right to compare people at all. We don’t compare our children and pick out our favourite or if we do, we’d rarely go into a room to debate it! Inevitably, it ended up being a hostile uncomfortable experience for many. This led to many challenges and ultimately unfairness, the very thing it aimed to avoid. In many respects, calibration in its purest form rarely lived up to the promise.
‘Levelling’ and grounding the performance rating curve
As many companies exited these practices, in favour of more progressive forms of performance management, others remained with different versions of the practice. So where do we find ourselves now?
Is it time to end calibration? Or do we have an alternative to deliver on the original intent of calibration which still feels relevant? Aligning on what great performance looks like in an effort to improve the fairness and the accuracy of performance reviews. After all, if you work for a manager who has a highly optimistic view of his own team and will tend to over inflate ratings, it’s pretty unfair if you find yourself with the opposite type of leader, who will be more prone to harsh ratings and a pessimistic view of your team’s performance. These alignment sessions can and sometimes were helpful in assisting managers to work through a ‘levelling’ and a grounding on the performance rating curve.
Well, there are new answers to calibration that do live up to its original intent. Arguably, the label and much of the practice are reducing and reshaping itself as many walk away from the practice. Fortunately, new practices are emerging with a much more inspiring intent. There’s a new kid in town and thankfully it’s a far more inspiring practice than its predecessor.
Aligning on ‘great performance’
Sometimes named ‘Talent Days’ and sometimes ‘People Days’ have arrived and are giving managers the opportunity to align on great performance. Also aligning on sharing their thoughts and evaluating what great looks like, but with the purest of intent. Many of these days are oriented around how do we help this individual grow and accelerate their potential. The practice is simplicity itself and with wholly good intent that takes an individual’s current capability, performance and skillset and defines how to take that to the next level. Sharing with other managers thoughts, ideas and even finding cross-functional opportunities that may benefit that individual.
The practice can also lead to very tangible actions such as identifying appropriate mentors. These tangible actions also include defining clear career path opportunities and unifying around what exceptional performance looks like. While they are veering more toward the talent management category of talent reviews, we see a merging of the two practices coming together. It opens the conversation on how do we know what great performance looks like. When we see great performance, how do we accelerate the potential of that individual.
The new practices of performance management
As ratings and matrices take a back seat to the new practices of performance management, the good news is they are being replaced by great conversations that fulfill the original purest intent of performance management. This intent was to let people know where they stand and holding them to account for their performance. Doing so by recognising great performance and managing underperformance and aligning on what that great performance looks like.
It’s difficult to know how widespread these practices are. We have certainly seen a lot of variations of this in our client sites. Yet there is little writing material about the new practices that are emerging. One thing is for sure, the new practices are inspiring and wholeheartedly good. We see these highly welcomed by managers, who still bear the scars of the former calibration era. We say Bravo to those companies embracing the new kid on the block.
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