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‘Performance Enablement’ is a behaviour, not a process

By James Lawson – Global Director of Customer Success 

It feels like the number of firms rethinking their performance management process is escalating with the goal for it to become more meaningful and impactful for everyone involved. Within law firms this process needs to leave partners with the energy, focus and tools to consistently provide a great client experience. Plug remuneration into that mix and the existing emotive element of the process is greatly exacerbated.  

Although this is not a new concept, the timing of this ‘re-think’ post-pandemic is rather timely given the surge of potential new business, and pressure on firms to retain and attract talent. It feels like now, more than ever, is the time to take heed. 

When I first heard of ‘performance enablement’ about four years ago, I was very quick to dismiss it as an HR fad that was just a re-badging of the current performance management tradition. I’ve also read many keyboard warriors who have said the same on various LinkedIn posts and articles. However, I think they are wrong and before you grab a pillow to suppress your screams, I’m about to tell you why. 

Consider the notion of the current performance management process not existing. If you were to build this from scratch, wouldn’t you want it to be less of a process and more of a habitual element of the firm? You would want this ‘movement’ to drive people as if they were high-performing athletes who benefit from the process and therefore trust it and want to invest in it. 

Biases are a huge problem in performance data because they often tell us more about the rater than the person being rated. Our insight report takes you through the six critical steps to continuous performance enablement which mitigates this bias.  

Bias aside, even if you have a great manager who checks in with you frequently, chances are a few days later you won’t even remember anything you discussed! These check-ins really are the secret ingredient and are a crucial part of the coaching and appreciation portion of feedback and can mitigate that bias that almost tears down the evaluation before it’s started.  

If I was to start again building a performance management method, I would also ensure I had a formal check-in process where these conversations are documented, especially when it comes to the annual performance review. 

Knowing without doing is the same as not knowing, so check-ins help remove bias in the performance appraisal because the manager has documented, frequent conversations they can reference when evaluating a direct report.

This feels like a lot of ‘check-ins’ but if we position them as very succinct, outcome-driven touchpoints they are much more likely to be embraced.  

So as much as we know that the goal of this process is to promote ongoing, focused discussions between managers and their direct reports, culminating with formal year-end evaluations, the day-to-day reality of the workplace usually derails this plan. We must make a concerted effort to consider human behaviours which are closely linked to the whole performance management process. Research tells us that there are five key ‘domains’ known as SCARF that influence our behaviour in social situations that strongly apply in the workplace. (David Rock 2008) These are: 

STATUS – our relative importance to others

CERTAINTY – our ability to predict the future

AUTONOMY – our sense of control over events

RELATEDNESS – how safe we feel with others

FAIRNESS – how fair we perceive the exchanges to be.

These domains are even more prevalent when remuneration is more intrinsically linked to these reviews. It’s not hard to see why we activate the same threat and reward responses in our brain that we rely on for physical survival often in our careers. It’s not surprising that within law firms ‘status’ is the behavioural facet that dominates.  

The reason why some partners dislike performance management is that it doesn’t give them enough to grow as individuals. Partners don’t enjoy being surprised by year-end feedback. Feeling threatened blocks our creativity, reduces our ability to solve problems, and makes it harder for us to communicate and collaborate with others. When those elements are aligned, two things happen, someone looks to leave, or they become toxic and negative. But, when we feel rewarded, our self-confidence soars, we feel empowered, and we want to do a good job. When we feel all the SCARF elements have been considered for our situation, we have clarity and feel understood.  

Hope is not a strategy.  

You’ll learn from the report that by moving to performance enablement you are intentionally moving towards something that is important for your firm. It shouldn’t be just an act of HR. It should be moving you towards your culture, brand and business needs. Be open and thoughtful about what has not worked in the past and ask your audience, ‘how should we move forward with this process?’. Performance enablement does require more training and skills and it’s a real art to weave this into the fabric of your firm, especially if you have strong characters who have treated the performance management process with a level of ambivalence. 

Clarity means good quality data and articulation and application of the value of that data. Clarity is saying a tomato is a fruit, application is knowing not to stick it in a fruit salad! I appreciate performance is not usually black and white, but you can eliminate a considerable chunk of the conjecture in the reviews using performance data. One of the most effective ways to hold someone accountable is to associate an objective measurement with each desired outcome.

I appreciate performance is not usually black and white, but you can eliminate a considerable chunk of the conjecture in the reviews using performance data.

Firms should also apply multidimensional data, including continuous measurements on employee development, on-the-job behaviours in coalition with results, in order to help managers proactively identify gaps, provide targeted coaching and recognize proven capability. 

From my observation, expectations and accountability are the foundation of the performance enablement process. While HR professionals are typically not part of day-to-day workplace execution, they are able to influence the organisation to think differently about the concept of performance.  

Rather than talking about performance as if it can be managed through structure, HR professionals must help organisational leaders shift their mindsets to focus on enablement. Then, they can partner with stakeholders across the organisation to apply right-fit tools and tactics that will enable firms to do their best work every day. 

At the time of writing this, I spoke to three of my past work colleagues who had all had extremely successful careers in sales, two of which have retired early and still feel as passionately about this as I do. I asked them ‘why do so many top business development directors leave their firms?’ and the answer from all three began with ‘it’s not the money, it’s the outlook, the way the future is framed’. I’ve seen it far too many times in my career and yet I have never heard it articulated in such a way that opens the door for a direct way to address it. Everybody moans about the process, but very rarely do people leave a firm because of it. It’s often the behaviours of those invested in that process that causes us to lose our minds. With performance enablement we are creating the channels to consistently pivot and re-frame the outlook we give our people and give a firm a competitive advantage. Add to that the whole ‘attitude will take you to the right altitude’ mindset that this enablement process encourages, and you have something truly attractive for the best people in the industry. 

With performance enablement we are creating the channels to consistently pivot and re-frame the outlook we give our people and give a firm a competitive advantage.

Who will set that attitude? You could argue everyone should do it, but in my view, managers — not HR professionals — are the most important players in performance enablement. They must be able to provide clear expectations and feedback as part of the everyday work experience. They must drive that attitude as if they are a personal trainer or coach. It’s all in our report so don’t just take my word for it!  

Download our new insight paper

Download our latest insight report exploring the biggest challenges facing law firms as they take the journey to transition from performance management to performance enablement. The paper examines the inefficiencies in the current system and presents better alternatives that can deliver real value for firms as well as providing some practical considerations to making it happen.

Transforming Performance Management to Performance Enablement.

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