The HR Pro: It’s Performance Development, Not Management

TNS illustration - Kirk Lyttle | St. Paul Pioneer Press
TNS illustration

Ah, the dreaded annual performance appraisal. Employees cringe at just the mention of this yearly exercise in management prowess, and managers are equally weary of having to go through the task of “evaluating” their employees’ performance.

There are many reasons why the performance review is so poorly regarded, but there are just as many positive reasons for continuing the practice. The biggest issue with performance evaluations— and the simplest “fix” for them — lies in the name we use for the process.

For years, and with most organizations, the name applied to the process was “performance management.” Implied in this moniker is that the manager is here to help “manage” the employee’s performance and, once a year, imparts his or her great wisdom to the employee about how he or she can improve performance in the upcoming year.

When I first became a manager I was taught: “Just catch them doing something wrong and tell them how to fix it.” The enormous fallacy in this paradigm is that managers do not manage anyone’s performance other than their own.

The answer to the question of who manages employees’ performance is clear: They do. So a simple word shift — from “management” to “development” — can help change how we view and use the performance appraisal process.

The real goal of any supervisor must be to serve the employee in his or her development. By using the annual performance process to continue in that development, the shift goes from one of appraisal (another word that needs to be dropped) and evaluation to one of growth, opportunity and development.

This basic shift becomes a new lens that is positive and growth-oriented.

Once an organization embraces the change from management to development, it then can begin to move from an “annual” approach to ongoing development. We perform each day we work. Getting immediate, open and honest feedback is the hallmark of successful managers and organizations. Would you ever withhold a holiday gift from your child and let him know that the reason he didn’t get a gift was that he did a poor job cutting the lawn last summer?

Of course not.

So why do we think this is OK to do to employees?

The best way to get the performance we need to drive our organization’s performance is to reinforce positive contributions when they happen and redirect actions that are off track at the moment they become known.

One of the classic, and most basic, books on this topic is Ken Blanchard’s masterpiece The One Minute Manager. The book recently was updated and re-issued. In reading the updated edition, I realized that Blanchard’s very simple tale is as relevant today as it was when first published in 1982. The simple advice — set goals, catch people doing something right and redirect them as needed — is transformational.

Many other books and articles have been written about employee performance, doing reviews, motivation and the like. While most are well intentioned and offer intriguing ideas, they often over complicate something that actually is straightforward. In my more than 30 years in human resources, I have found that what employees need is the answer to two questions: What do you expect of me? How am I doing against those expectations?

Once supervisors become adept at answering these two questions, all they need to do is to ask a single question back to their employees: “How may I help you?” By doing so, supervisors become people developers, rather than people managers.

Then, whatever process is established around these three questions becomes one that both the employee and manager look forward to, rather than cringing at the very idea.

One word truly can make all the difference.

Author: Ross Gibson

Ross Gibson is a Brattleboro-based leadership development and human resources consultant who works for The Richards Group. He can be reached at

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