Almost all approaches to “performance management” are pointless. Why? In a nutshell, they make a fatally flawed assumption about people, which is the belief that we can change our innate wiring.

This is another way of saying if I’m not “performing” there’s something wrong with me. I’m inherently lacking… something — knowledge, skills, effort, tenacity, etc. — and if the organization could simply find a way to fill my deficit, whatever that is, I’d then magically “perform.”

But this approach is the rough equivalent of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on trying to teach fish how to climb trees.**

Of course fish can’t do this, so the entire asinine process just ends up frustrating you and eventually killing the fish.

And that’s kind of what “performance management” often feels like, doesn’t it?

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Then on top of this misunderstanding about the nature of humans, we pile on top of it another mess of incorrect assumptions about “feedback.” On that note — if you haven’t yet read Why Feedback Rarely Does What It’s Meant To in HBR, please take a few minutes and do that before going on. Really, it’s worth your time.

In a nutshell, the idea of giving “feedback” is also flawed almost to the point of uselessness. Each of us have so much immovable cognitive bias that our feedback is always more about us than it is about the other person.

And when we do provide our thoughts, we usually provide them in the wrong place — we’re back trying to teach the trout to climb that oak in the yard.

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Then on top of all that, we’re deeply muddled about the nature of excellence. The popular label of “performance management” itself shows just how confused we are, thinking that great performance could be somehow “managed,” controlled, and predicted like a simple equation.

Truly brilliant performance is elicited; it’s drawn out, liberated, coached, and nurtured — never “managed.” It’s connected to what energizes us at fundamental levels and to states of flow, which seem to be most frequently expressed in humans when we are working in service of a noble cause that feels magnetic.

This means that what we call performance at work isn’t really about “performance” at all, at least not in the heavy-handed, brute-force way it’s handled today.

So, if amazing performance isn’t really about all those things, what do we do instead?

It’s going to feel too simple, so brace yourself.

We have conversations.

Really. We double-down on recapturing the subtle art of dialogue and the near-infinite nuance of language and individual perspectives. We re-learn how to be empathetic and we look people in the eyes when they talk. We practice active listening and we become competent in the art of shutting the hell up. (Hopefully now it feels sufficiently difficult for you.)

Enough trying to make tree-climbers of our finned friends… let’s just put the fish in the water.

Let’s create work environments that allow people to continually learn more about what allows them to be at their best, and provide pathways to help them go there.

Let’s build organizations that mean something more than just making money.

We can do so much better than what we’re doing now — and if we do, we’ll see a lot more of that “great performance” we all want.


If any of this sparked curiosity in you, the Helios team would love to chat — click here to book a time with our fabulous Chief Partnership Officer, Pam!

**I suspect the true cost actually stretches into the billions — if you’ve seen the aggregate math, please let me know.)

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