“Trickle up” performance management

Team leaders should own this process

“Trickle up” performance management

Posted by Nathan Sloan on May 19, 2015.

When 90 percent of 3,300 business and HR leaders surveyed don’t believe performance management is a good use of their time (see Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2015 report), a desire for change is apparent — and it’s underway. Many companies (89 percent of those same survey respondents) have recently changed or are planning to change their performance management system. Deloitte is no exception: An April 2015 Harvard Business Review article describes how we’re Reinventing Performance Management at Deloitte. We recognize that organizations differ in type of work, culture, etc. But we believe that the thinking and innovation behind the changes we’re making are what’s needed to reverse the dismal perception of performance management and transform it into the driver of business results it’s meant to be.

Three takeaways from our approach to performance management are key: drive performance at the local/team level, focus on the work, and make it an ongoing process.

    • Drive performance at the local/team level.
      Performance management has historically been a compliance- or policy-oriented process that is driven top-down from HR or the business. It centers around annual or semi-annual events —reviews — and it typically mandates some type of forced distribution. Our approach flips this thinking so that performance is driven and regularly measured by team leaders at the team level. These measures are enabling us to see a distribution of performance without forcing it.

In addition, our research shows a strong relationship between team performance and team and individual engagement (higher engagement predicts better performance), and indicates this is best driven at the team level. Team leaders are expected to implement quarterly or more frequent “Pulse” surveys (typically eight questions) that provide real-time data on the engagement level of their team. By regularly monitoring engagement at the team level, rather than via the typical annual organization-wide survey, team leaders can take corrective action as necessary. Team results can even be aggregated and “trickled up” to inform decisions at the organizational level.

    • Focus on the work.
      No matter what our actual role, we’re all hired for the same reason: to do a job and get work done. So the focus of performance management should be exactly that — what people need to do, their priorities, and where they might need help: the what, the why, and the how of daily work. We’ve found that weekly check-ins between each team member and his or her leader are associated with higher engagement scores than scores for teams with less frequent check-ins. (Remember, this is significant because engagement, as we’re measuring it, predicts performance.)

Having frequent check-ins with each team member may sound onerous, but we’d bet that your best team leaders are already doing this today. These do not have to be formal, structured conversations. They might happen in person, via a phone call, email, or even in the course of a team meeting that discusses individual priorities. Instead of focusing on goal setting and attainment, or looking backward to evaluate past performance, the conversations are forward-looking, and focused on getting work accomplished — they live in the tactical world of work, rather than an abstract summary of it.

  • Make it an ongoing process.
    Historically, performance management processes have centered on setting goals once a year, and reviewing performance once or twice a year. Work, however, has a different rhythm — it’s ever changing, and ever forward-looking. So the traditional, batched, retrospective approach seems increasingly out of step with a world that demands agility, responsiveness, and relevance. If we want to drive performance on an ongoing basis, then, we need an ongoing and continuous process. So, in our approach, team leaders focus on regular check-ins about the work and then gathering ongoing performance snapshot data on each individual, either at the end of a project or at least quarterly, that enables them to manage performance regularly and more dynamically. (The Harvard Business Review article describes the four snapshot questions we use at Deloitte.)

Team leaders are the drivers
We have heard from many of our clients that their biggest perceived challenge in improving performance management is closing the capability gaps of their managers or team leaders — that they want leaders trained in how to recognize good performance and how to have the right types of ongoing conversations with their teams. Our design is about giving team leaders the tools they need to be effective. We found that three conditions account for the majority of team level engagement scores: clarity of expectations (the “what” of work), excitement about the mission (the “why”), and ability to use strengths, daily (the “how”). We know that if our leaders can focus here, they can really move the needle.

Future-focused, work-driven
At Deloitte, we were motivated to transform our performance management system to simplify the process and save time, to use the time we did spend more productively, and to more effectively guide and reliably measure our people’s performance. Our approach to driving organizational results through the people who work there — teams, their members, and their leaders — not only “feels” right (and “tests” right) for us but is also broadly applicable to other organizations seeking to fuel performance today and in the future, rather than assessing it in the past.


Nathan Sloan Nathan Sloan is a principal in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Human Capital practice and leads Deloitte’s National Talent Strategies practice, overseeing the development of all talent management solutions.

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