Performance is out

Last week I was talking to a leading company in the industry of collaborative robots (machines that work side by side with humans). Those robots take care of the repetitive tasks (the ones that are measured as “performance”) while people take care of those activities that add value and that only can be done by humans (i.e. “contribute”). The perfect combo. That is why every time purely productive indicators such as “performance” or “results” are used to appraise people or as the foundation for people development models, a shiver runs down my spine.

These concepts, intimately related to the productive organisation of the 20th century, where human beings were “resources” (like any machine), strive to reduce the individual to a number, figure or percentage, as if the person was his or her numerical results. The world of sports and its idea of “high performance” applied to teams do not do a great service to evolve the model either. The truth is that it is quite difficult to resist the epic of the glorious results of revered sportsmen and women. Their exploits (which are even reposted on Linkedin) are often used to draw parallels with attitudes to be put into practice in the company (let he/she who is without sin cast the first stone). But, to be honest, neither the work environment is a court nor can people be judged in their full dimension by their performance.

People do not “perform”. People CONTRIBUTE through actions that are not linked to productive data and that are related to, for example, how we shape the culture of the organisation by sharing its purpose, the immeasurable mark we leave on the teams we work with, the narrative we weave when we welcome someone new, how we coach someone who is learning or leaving the company, the relationships of trust we establish with our community…. Let’s just say that human beings are too complex, diverse and rich in nuances to resign ourselves to using a simple metric as a factor to determine whether we are good or bad at what we do, suitable or unsuitable for a position or role. Not to detract from goals, scores or sets won, but personal and professional development is not something that happens in two hours, like a match. In such a long term concept as professional career (also taking into account that we are retiring later and later) people are much more than their productivity, the sales they generate or how efficient they are at cutting costs compared to last year.

We shake our heads when we hear about the Great Resignation. We open debates about the employee experience (“employee”, another 20th century word), we talk about what our employer brand should look like and we invest in internal campaigns looking for the wow effect. But we forget the bottom line: making people feel as if they were a number is one of the main sources of disaffection. How do you think people will feel, then, when we use a number (their performance or results) to define them? In other words, as long as processes like that typical performance appraisal (which was invented last century) remains at the heart of an organisation’s development strategy, that organisation will fail again and again in its mission (if it really has one) to develop its people. Development is not about appraising your performance with a number, but about having a conversation about how you are contributing with facts and behaviours.

Interestingly, the same people who make up horror stories that robots will take our jobs are the ones who insist on continuing to value people on their performance and results. Hopefully a robot will replace them soon.

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