Employee performance: A pervasive myth

Employee Performance

If I had to really guess about employee performance, I’d say it’s a lip service concept to most people who run companies. They talk about it, sure — war for talent, talent strategy, we need the best people, A-Players, etc. — but I think the prevailing mentality of a lot of companies (and their leadership) is that your processes and your products (services) get you to the promised land. Your people are interchangeable. Now, that’s not always true. People make strong relationships over time in a job, and some of those deals become “rabbis” or “lieutenants,” whereby your career is directly tied to the career of another person. In those cases, I think employee performance probably matters more. For a product marketing manager who stays at a place three years and leaves? No, I don’t think anyone truly gives a crap about his employee performance during those three years. Heck, if he gets more than two “annual” reviews in three years at most companies, I’d just about drop dead of shock.

This is all a little bit sad, because employee performance should matter. It should actually be a bedrock of your strategy or competitive approach. To most companies, though, it isn’t. You could argue that’s evolving — employee engagement! But you could also argue that employee engagement is a consultant-driven scam designed to keep earnings down. Hell, you could argue the whole notion of “being happy at work” is a giant scam too.

Think about it like this, if you’re a purely transaction-based target-hitter: typically, your employees are closest to the customer. You, as a middle manager or executive, are closer to the perks — but further from the customer. If you believe the value of customer experience is rising (it is), then wouldn’t you want good employees speaking to those customers? You would. As a result, employee performance should matter. But again, often it’s viewed as totally interchangeable or even irrelevant. Why did this happen? And what can we do?

The central problem with employee performance

In short? It’s owned by HR. HR is a joke at most companies, and executives could care less. In fact, the sheer wording of HR speaks to this whole employee performance deal. If we cared about people and their performance, would we really call them “resources?” Probably not. Again: HR is largely a joke.

Here’s the deal with organizations: the people with the authority care about who owns P&L. They do not care about who owns employee performance. And that’s where the issues begin.

Employee performance and the psychology problem

Work has long been about these notions of productivity and performance, many of which are rooted in philosophies closely tied to engineering. That’s all well and good, but there are two problems:

At most places — definitely every place I’ve ever worked, and probably some you have as well — managers are “trained” (if you can call it that) around these basic notions. It goes something like this:

  • We’ve got these specific targets over here that we’re beholden to.
  • (Never mind those targets might not be aligned with any priorities, but whatever.)
  • The goal is to hit those targets, be it because we believe in the mission or because we want a fatter bonus.

Here’s the problem: first off, management is really about managing energy. Employee performance comes from energy, time allocation, and connection to the work. It’s that simple. If you want to be a good manager and drive employee performance, that’s what you need to help your people reach. How you doing? You have what you need? You feel slammed on anything? Got any questions about the bigger picture or strategy? It’s not rocket science. But, we wrap it up in a lot of bullshit because of the above — namely, it’s an emotional place and we try to make it a logical one. (Process, anyone?)

Employee performance and Jonah Berger

I like me some Jonah Berger — he could be the next Malcolm Gladwell, you guys! — and here’s some stuff from Stanford Business School tied to his latest book. Note this paragraph:

Social influence also offers lessons for managers seeking to improve employee performance. First, people tend to work harder when others are around. Second, social comparisons and competition motivate action. But be careful about picking the right comparison, Berger warns. Comparing employees to people who are doing much better than they are can be demotivating and cause them to quit. “Winner-take-all competitions, such as employee-of-the month contests, alienate people who don’t have a chance to win,” explains Berger. “You are better off comparing people to proximal peers, others who are doing just a little bit better than they are. When winning seems close, people work harder to close the gap.”

Here’s what we can take from that:

  • People do better w/others around (we’re social animals and/or relative comparison theory)
  • Comparisons and competitions motivate people — to a point

You might read this and screech “We need an open office floor plan with a competitive tiered system — ASAP!” That would be wrong. You need what works for you and your organization. All this stuff — business journalism, motivational theory, work psychology — is at a macro level. Each org is different. Hopefully you realize that. We all love to deify Google and the stuff they do, but not everyone has Google’s money, talent pool, or research background. A 50-person org should care about employee performance because when 1/50 leaves, it’s a lot worse then when 1/20,000 leaves, but … you don’t have to care about it at Google’s level. You care where it makes sense for you. (Hopefully that’s not “zero” though.)

What can we do about employee performance?

I’ve got a couple of humble ideas. Let’s go.


Kill, or at least adjust, performance reviews. Documented research says less performance reviews = you develop people faster. Makes sense. IMHO, hearing about something you did eight months prior is kind of a joke. I can order an Uber in 2 minutes. I gotta wait 8 months to hear about my performance? Bleh.

Priority alignment: I love to bash this topic to death. If your organization has no priorities, which many sadly do not, then employee performance means nothing. Who cares about employee performance on a bunch of no-ROI tasks? I can watch my friend’s daughter sing the wrong lyrics to a bunch of songs from Frozen and it’s cute and gives me joy, OK? But … is it putting money in my checking account or driving my life forward? Probably not. You might think that analogy is stupid, but it’s kind of how we approach a lot of jobs every day.

Take it away from HR: To most execs, HR is still “personnel,” i.e. “Secretarial Pool V2.” It’s worthless. If you house employee performance there, no one will give a shit about it. I can’t really say it any more clearly than that.

Drop the process: Get to “review season” at any company and what happens? Bunch of managers running around tossing themselves on the cross every hour. “So busy. Don’t have time for this! So much paperwork!” Look, we’re all busy. Life’s f’n complicated. And if we’re not busy, you bet your sweet ass we’re telling everyone in a 15-mile radius we don’t have time to breathe. Again, this is life. But if you’re not going to kill performance reviews, at least drop the process on them. Make them simple three-question dialogues with a rubric. Something like that. When a boss has to fill out 92 different fields, all it is is bullshit probably designed to make it easier to fire people. Give up the charade.

Care about people: Pretty simple, right? Your products are great. They’re other-worldly. You’re moving volume, baby! But people still work on those.

What else you got on employee performance?

I’m also curious to hear thoughts on how people perceive talent, HR, reviews, management views on people, and employee performance. Drop a comment if you’d like.

Ted Bauer

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