NUGGET : Boss-Subordinate thinking, a top down view of work flows, and faulty assumptions about control are three big barriers to breakthroughs in performance management.

My last post argued that it’s time to stop patching the old performance management forms and systems. It’s time to design something new — something far more powerful for business and energizing for everyone. Yet, we keep cycling through the same approach with different forms and terminology. In this and the next article, I want to focus on WHY it is hard to change. Then, in the 4th article, I’ll suggest some alternatives.

Boss-subordinate thinking. It’s the job of people in formal leadership roles to be sure that there are effective strategies, organization designs, and resourcing decisions. But too often people in these roles act – and are expected by others to act – more like parents than people with different work portfolios and roles. This affects how goals evolve, how problems are solved, how feedback happens and who is expected to give it. The “boss” is often in the drivers seat, doing most of the thinking and talking about the work that will be done and has been done.

The boss-subordinate relationship as THE key relationship for getting work done is less relevant today. People are doing more work on cross-functional teams and projects that are not part of their organization silo. Increasingly they are working with customers and others in supply networks that are not part of the organization whose name is on their paychecks. The “boss” is often not involved in this increasingly more networked work.

Top-down view of how work flows. This relates to the first point. Think about the language and practices associated with performance management. We talk about “cascading goals” and MBO’s (management by objectives) that move down, layer by layer and in smaller bits through the chain of command. Of course, some work can be broken apart and cascade. But important strategic and networked work doesn’t easily fit into boxes and flows that were designed for functional efficiencies rather than messy and innovative multi-functional solutions.

Even when strategic initiatives are managed as intact programs, they have a hard time competing for attention because the rewards also flow vertically. Given a choice between what someone up the chain wants and what the supply chain/customer wants, the tilt frequently goes to the vertical: that’s where the people who make pay, career, and other recognition decisions live. This helps explain why there is such a low success rate for strategic and horizontally flowing initiatives. Performance management practices – with their strong vertical orientation — are partly to blame.

Faulty view of control. Think of who controls things, and how control occurs. Who decides the strategy that guides work? The quick answer is, “the executives.” But, at the end of the day, it’s what gets done – and that is the product of everybody’s many, many little decisions and tradeoffs that happen under the strategic radar and for reasons that may not look like what executives envision.

How to control? Traditional methods rely a lot on technology, forms, procedures, job boundaries, supervision, ratings, and rankings. But overemphasizing these trains people to be risk averse and approval oriented – to play to the system. It allows people to avoid accountability and tough conversations. A client once told me that his first “performance review” sailed into his cubicle in the form of a paper airplane: his manager just didn’t want to talk. Today’s fast moving and interconnected performance environment requires conversations and collaboration. This, in turn, requires good communication and self-management skills – more than many have or are willing to use.

Next, I’ll look at three more reasons why traditional ways of managing/leading, while fraught with problems, are so resilient, even though we desperately need something new.

Power traps
Defaulting to HR
Traditional performance management does add some value

Then in Part 4 I’ll suggest some ways forward.

NUGGET : Boss-Subordinate thinking, a top down view of work flows, and faulty assumptions about control are three big barriers to breakthroughs in performance management.

I’d love your thoughts – in the comment section below, or to me personally at
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