Pay and the Abandonment of Performance Management

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that an increasing number of businesses worldwide are abandoning long-standing performance management systems and philosophies in an attempt to address the constantly shifting climate of talent acquisition, development and retention.  A recent Harvard Business Review article summarizes the reason for this trend:


The demise of performance management makes a strategic approach to compensation planning more important than ever before.

…the biggest limitation of annual reviews—and, we have observed, the main reason more and more companies are dropping them—is this: With their heavy emphasis on financial rewards and punishments and their end-of-year structure, they hold people accountable for past behavior at the expense of improving current performance and grooming talent for the future, both of which are critical for organizations’ long-term survival.  In contrast, regular conversations about performance and development change the focus to building the workforce your organization needs to be competitive both today and years from now.  Business researcher Josh Bersin estimates that about 70% of multinational companies are moving toward this model, even if they haven’t arrived quite yet.

The tension between the traditional and newer approaches stems from a long-running dispute about managing people: Do you “get what you get” when you hire your employees?  Should you focus mainly on motivating the strong ones with money and getting rid of the weak ones?  Or are employees malleable?  Can you change the way they perform through effective coaching and management and intrinsic rewards such as personal growth and a sense of progress on the job?

With traditional appraisals, the pendulum had swung too far toward the former, more transactional view of performance, which became hard to support in an era of low inflation and tiny merit-pay budgets.  Those who still hold that view are railing against the recent emphasis on improvement and growth over accountability.  But the new perspective is unlikely to be a flash in the pan because…it is being driven by business needs, not imposed by HR. (“The Performance Management Revolution,” HBR, October 2016, Peter Cappelli and Anna Tavis)

This trend is making the need for a strategic approach to compensation planning more urgent than ever.  In our work with client companies throughout the United States and beyond, business leaders inevitably want to know how to marry their pay approach—especially with incentives—to whatever performance management system they have adopted.  Over the years, many have even hoped we can actually help them engineer the right kind of performance appraisal system and then link it to the rewards strategy we design for them. 

We have resisted that role in part because we weren’t fans of the philosophies and practices driving most employee evaluation systems.  We agreed with the assessment of the HBR authors just quoted that their focus was on looking backwards more than forwards—while our philosophy is to link the owner’s vision of the future with the employee’s vision through the way people are paid (hence, the name VisionLink).  If that can be achieved in a meaningful way, the organization ends up with a unified financial vision for growing the business wherein a wealth multiplier philosophy can take root.  Such organizations nurture a partnership environment wherein the wealth multiple of all stake holders is tied to the company’s success—not solely for the sake of wealth building as an end to itself but rather as a channel to fulfilling the contribution aspirations of both owners and employees, which rely on financial means for their realization.

So, what happens with a company’s pay philosophy and strategy in an environment where organizations are pulling back on formal appraisals and detailed metrics for employee performance?  To answer that, let’s return to the HBR article just quoted and focus on the three business reasons it gives for eliminating performance appraisals (as historically applied).  After each excerpt, I’ll offer an explanation of the pay implications of the abandonment imperative the authors discuss. 

The Return of People Development

Companies are under competitive pressure to upgrade their talent management efforts. This is especially true at consulting and other professional services firms, where knowledge work is the offering—and where inexperienced college grads are turned into skilled advisers through structured training.  Such firms are doubling down on development, often by putting their employees (who are deeply motivated by the potential for learning and advancement) in charge of their own growth. This approach requires rich feedback from supervisors—a need that’s better met by frequent, informal check-ins than by annual reviews.

Pay Implications

This imperative reinforces the need for organizations to view and build compensation strategies in a Total Rewards framework and not as an isolated strategic effort.  A Total Rewards approach means an organization pays attention to four, interdependent employee engagement elements—and makes sure they remain in balance.  It ensures that an employee’s intrinsic drive is not stifled by factors that inhibit the autonomy, mastery and purpose elements authors like Daniel Pink point to as the primary forces motivating performance.  Intrinsic forces are critical in an environment where higher self-monitoring is being used to manage the performance of your workforce.  The four parts of a Total Rewards strategy include:

Compelling Future.  This means the company paints a clear and persuasive picture of where the organization is headed and why it’s meaningful.  More importantly, it communicates why a given employee (in the context of his or her role and unique abilities) is critical to the fulfillment of that vision.  And with the rise of millennials in the workforce, more and more employees want to know that the company’s success has meaning beyond driving profits.  This addresses the purpose element upon which intrinsic motivation relies.

Positive Work Environment.  For intrinsic motivators to be unleashed, employees need to feel as though they are working within the realm of their unique abilities, that other team members have complimentary capacities, that they are sufficiently empowered to produce the outcomes for which they have responsibility and that they share the values of the organization.  They also want to know that their work has a strategic purpose—and they are clear on what that is.  This produces the autonomy component essential to motivation.

Personal and Professional Development.  Self-management and motivation are fueled when employees feel as though they work in an environment that is accelerating their ability to improve.  This usually happens when the combination of resources to which an employee is exposed within the organization creates a unique learning experience—one that allows him or her to excel.  This enables the mastery factor to take hold that intrinsic motivation feeds upon.

Financial Rewards.  Organizations that understand the need to focus on people development see financial rewards through a different lens than those that don’t.  They do away with the concept of incentives and turn instead to a value creation and value sharing model.  They first decide how value creation will be defined in their organization and then articulate a philosophy about how and with whom it will be shared.  Value-sharing gives shape and definition to the wealth multiplier opportunity that is the natural outgrowth of organizational success.  It fulfills a kind of continuity role in the Total Rewards make up by putting a financially codifying exclamation point on the relationship.  In essence, a value-sharing philosophy sends the following message to success-oriented employees: “We consider you to be an essential growth partner in this company and we have confidence in your ability to help us achieve the future business we’ve envisioned.  As a result, we want you to be clear about the financial nature of our partnership and what it will mean to you as we achieve sustained success.”  This speaks to all three motivational areas—purpose, autonomy and mastery—and allows the employee to see how their role in the company will help them fulfill their contribution aspirations.

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The Need for Agility

When rapid innovation is a source of competitive advantage, as it is now in many companies and industries, that means future needs are continually changing.  Because organizations won’t necessarily want employees to keep doing the same things, it doesn’t make sense to hang on to a system that’s built mainly to assess and hold people accountable for past or current practices. As Susan Peters, GE’s head of human resources, has pointed out, businesses no longer have clear annual cycles.  Projects are short-term and tend to change along the way, so employees’ goals and tasks can’t be plotted out a year in advance with much accuracy.

Pay Implications

An environment of constant change and innovation requires a pay strategy that is flexible and adaptable.  However, this doesn’t mean the core compensation plans that an organization puts in place have to be redesigned every few months to keep pace with the agility requirement that exists in today’s business environment.  What it means is that a company needs a comprehensive rewards approach that is effectively aligned with the organization’s business model and strategy and is managed in an operational construct that facilitates change and modification.  It also means business leaders looks at compensation like they would an investment portfolio made up of various asset classes that have to be properly allocated and monitored.  When you set up an investment portfolio correctly, you don’t add and subtract asset groups or investments every time the economy shifts. Instead, you rebalance and shift the “weight” given to certain classes of investments to reflect changing conditions.  Compensation is no different. 

In the realm of pay, this kind of approach requires an operational structure that allows the compensation “investment portfolio” to be monitored both effectively and efficiently.  That’s why we recommend companies build a Total Compensation Structure (TCS).  A TCS is a framework you create for managing and analyzing all of the components of pay and benefits you are offering.  Ideally, it includes an integrated “dashboard” that gives you an “all in one place” view of every employee tier, what plans they’re eligible for and at what level.  This allows you to evaluate the whole value proposition as opposed to each individual component in isolation.  Within this framework, it is easier to make decisions and adjustments in specific pay plans because you can measure each against its impact on the whole picture—and in the context of change and innovation currently at play in your business.

The Centrality of Teamwork

Moving away from forced ranking and from appraisals’ focus on individual accountability makes it easier to foster teamwork.  This has become especially clear at retail companies like Sears and Gap—perhaps the most surprising early innovators in appraisals.  Sophisticated customer service now requires frontline and back-office employees to work together to keep shelves stocked and manage customer flow, and traditional systems don’t enhance performance at the team level or help track collaboration.

Gap supervisors still give workers end-of-year assessments, but only to summarize performance discussions that happen throughout the year and to set pay increases accordingly.  Employees still have goals, but as at other companies, the goals are short-term (in this case, quarterly).   

Pay Implications

A teamwork environment requires organizations to apply what one HBR author called a “promise-based management” operational style.  In such an environment, different departments or teams within a company take on either a customer or supplier role, depending on the need pf each.  For example, at times finance may be the supplier and sales the customer when the latter needs to formulate special pricing for a company customer or market.  At other times, the roles are reversed when finance needs certain performance projections or revenue data from the sales team.  Then finance becomes the customer and sales the supplier.

This kind of dynamic requires an organization to ensure that the payout potential of its value-sharing plans (such as annual bonuses and long-term incentive plans) is tied to a combination of company, team or department, and individual performance.  Those factors have to be “weighted” in a way that is compatible with the employee’s ability to impact each area—but some percentage should be allocated to every category.  This is how you align pay with an organizational performance model that is driven by centrality of teamwork.  When some element of an employee’s pay is always dependent upon the performance of the “whole”—on either a company-wide or department basis—there is continuity between compensation and operations.  That kind of continuity breeds trust, which in turn accelerates execution and performance.

So what do we conclude from all this?  The demise of performance management—at least as it used to be applied—is simply a reaction to the pace at which the talent landscape is changing.  It’s an acknowledgment of an empowered workforce and the need for companies to become “irresistible” if they want to attract, develop and retain the best people.  All of that is requiring business leaders to think more strategically and creatively about the value proposition they construct for their workforce. 

It’s an exciting time but not one for the faint hearted.  Those who choose to ignore these trends will likely find themselves first falling behind, then fading away.  For those who embrace “the new frontier,” the possibilities for accelerated growth are really limitless. 


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