Education and Employee Engagement
Chickens, Eggs & Employee Engagement

The Downside of Performance Measurement

Oscar Wilde once said, “Moderation is fatal. Nothing succeeds like excess.” Maybe he was right, although it is difficult to judge without knowing the context of the remark. It seems more likely, however, that the opposite is true: namely that excess is fatal because it will always ultimately end in failure, no matter how successful it may initially seem, or how benign the activity.

Performance Measurement_000014898327XSmallTake performance measurement for instance. This appears to be an area that is getting excessive attention and where a rigid – almost religious – fervour is having disastrous side-effects. Few can doubt that wrong performance measures are driving wrong behaviours.

You only have to look at the banking industry for evidence of this. How else do you explain the recent, massive fines it has incurred? But, if the banks are too easy a target, take the NHS. Following earlier reports that 3,000 people had died unnecessarily in the past year, (the same number as died in 9/11!), this week saw the publication of the Keogh Report that identified such significant failings in 14 out of 146 acute NHS hospital trusts (10%) that 11 have been placed under special measures.

If you consider that people who go into the medical profession do so because they care for their fellow human beings and want to make a difference, this is a sure sign that something has gone disastrously wrong somewhere. The likelihood is that the performance measures are in the mix somehow and while I have no experience in this field, the horrendous stories I have heard, first-hand from people who have experienced the lack of compassion and care in one of those hospitals, certainly bear this out.

Thus you cannot help wonder if we have become fixated with performance measures to the point of excess? The time and effort that is spent identifying, collecting and collating the information is bad enough. But on top of that there is the validation, verification and review of that information, all of which takes time from the more important aspect of actually doing. Yet, this obsession with performance measurement is rooted in performance related pay and is further evidence of research that indicates that incentives are actually counter-productive.

People are the best judges and critics of their own performance. With clear direction and some autonomy they will happily get on with their work. They don’t need – and most likely resent – efforts to continuously monitor, measure and judge them. It is no wonder then that employee engagement figures are so poor. In fact you would have to say the NHS performance is indicative of disengaged people, especially if you use the common sense definition of employee engagement espoused by Gallup’s Jim Harter.  So why devote so much time to finding new methods to measure and reward their performance? It is a waste of their time and yours, for how much time do you spend managing performance? It’s like trying to squeeze a balloon: it simply distorts things and makes life more difficult for everyone.

At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, the solution is simple: give your people the autonomy they need and an ownership stake whereby they share equitably in the organisation’s performance. That will guarantee a more successful organisation, especially in the long-term, and without so many of the ups and downs along the way. 


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