Not best practice

I wrote yesterday about the pitfalls of using process when what you’re really hoping for is relationship. It’s an example of a category error – trying to fix one kind of problem when what you’re dealing with is a problem in a whole different domain.

One reason why performance management processes can’t work on their own to support engagement and people’s own capacity to self-correct is that it’s in the conversation between people that everything important happens. And skill in conversation is not at all the same as skill in following process.

I find it interesting that in many organisations in which I’ve worked people say ‘we have a successful performance management system’ when they really mean ‘we’re successful in following the process’. Rarely does it mean that employees have a greater sense of enrolment, that there is deep systemic understanding of what’s making performance possible and what’s hindering it, or that anyone is able to self-observe and self-correct well enough to actually make a difference to anything. But at least everyone’s filling in their forms, scheduling performance meetings, and assigning ratings…

All of this is an example of why the idea of best practice can’t easily be applied to human organisation.

In a mechanical environment best practice makes sense: if we find that a certain cooling unit produces good results in my factory it’s very likely to do the same in your factory, assuming we have similar conditions and similar equipment. But in addressing a human system itself it’s often impossible to make such an assumption. The 5-point rating performance system I described yesterday, that might have worked so well somewhere else once before, may have very different effects here. Because here it’s us, not them. And here we have our own particular relationships, commitments, language, understanding, priorities, values, habits, discourse, concerns, interests, conversations, bodies, culture… which means that a process on its own could well, might well, produce a whole different constellation of meaning and effect when applied here – including having the very opposite effect from what’s intended.

How many performance management processes which are apparently ‘best practice’ produce nothing but busyness, hiding, disillusionment, manipulation, game-playing and secrecy simply because we took the idea of best practice far more seriously than we ought to have done? And because as a result, we failed to take seriously what was really needed to address our concerns?

Photo Credit: Nick Winterhalter via Compfight cc


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