You've got the power: using goal-driven performance management to empower*
By Lynn Summers and Shabbir Dahod who can be contacted at
Organisations recognise that different management practices produce dramatically different work environments. Some practices create conditions that empower employees while other practices offer up conditions that disempower.
In this paper, we explore the conditions that disempower and define a set of "worst practices" for any interested management team to follow. Using this opposite image of the desired state as a foundation, we then build up the case for empowerment: What is empowerment? What are the organisational conditions that foster it? What management practices can create and sustain those conditions?
Despite the elusiveness of the empowering ideal, a goal-driven performance management system can help to create and sustain corporate-wide empowering conditions by promoting and reinforcing the consistent application of "best practices."
The advantages of an empowered workforce have been recognised for some time. Organisations have attempted to achieve heightened levels of empowerment through a variety of methods and programmes. As many companies have learned, however, empowerment is not a programme; it is a way of life. It requires concerted effort to create the conditions that foster empowerment and ongoing effort to sustain those conditions. And it is mostly through the adoption of certain management practices that these conditions can be created.
Goal-driven performance management (GDPM) lends itself ideally as a tool to further an organisation's efforts to create and sustain an empowered workforce. The primary purpose of GDPM, at the organisational level, is to orchestrate the talent and energy within a corporation toward achievement of the organisation's strategic goals.
At the individual level, its purpose is to enable managers and their direct reports to collaborate in setting meaningful goals, track progress against those goals over time, and evaluate performance. Because GDPM provides a common structure within which to align and manage the work efforts of everyone within the organisation, it lends itself quite well to the challenge of promoting and sustaining those management practices that empower.
First, let's give a bit more detail about GDPM systems. In a technology-facilitated GDPM system, employees go online and set their goals, aligning them to higher-level goals. They can see the competencies that apply to them in their respective positions.
They track their progress on their goals over the course of the year and use the system to communicate with their managers or colleagues concerning obstacles they encounter and resources they need. Managers can keep track of progress, either on an individual employee basis or by looking at rollups of aggregate status information. Electronic notifications alert them to issues requiring their intervention or coaching. And at the top of the organisation, the CEO is able to track cumulative progress against the strategic objectives.
2. The conditions that disempower
Now, let's consider empowerment. What exactly is it and how do you create it? We think it is useful to answer this question by first exploring empowerment's opposite -- disempowerment.
People are disempowered if they are told what to do and have little insight into the ends to which their actions are contributing. They do not see themselves as causes of important outcomes, but rather as pawns in a system over which they have no control.
Think about the kind of work environment that creates and sustains a disempowered workforce: Supervision is authoritarian, employees are admonished to "do as you are told," management shares little with employees in the way of why they must do the things they have been asked to do, individual managers engage in micromanaging their employees, there is an inordinate amount of bureaucracy, and blame is sought when things go wrong.
Under these conditions, employees tend to feel powerless. They wait to be told what to do and are reluctant to take the initiative for fear of doing the wrong thing. They do their jobs "by the book" and feel little sense of personal responsibility or commitment. They comply grudgingly with work rules and procedures and often attempt to win back some sense of power by scheming to "beat the system."
When a large number of employees feel disempowered and act accordingly, it can be costly to companies. Such companies tend to be inflexible, lack innovation, and deliver lower quality products and service. They often get caught in a vicious cycle in which employees' disempowered behavior induces managers to supervise more closely, which of course only exacerbates employees' sense of disempowerment.
If you were to deliberately instill management practices that disempower, what would those practices look like? Here is a list of such practices for managers to follow:
>> Assign goals to your employees without mutually agreeing on the goals and their measures.
>> Minimise the significance of goal alignment (or ignore it altogether) so your employees do not have a sense of the larger context into which their own efforts fit.
>> Set your employees' goals for whatever is most measurable rather than what is most important.
>> "Over determine" goals by tightly prescribing how your employees are to achieve the expected results in addition to defining what results are expected.
>> Have very few, if any, interactions with your employees during the year to discuss how things are going.
>> Don't let your employees have access to information about other people's goals -- especially to information about your own goals.
>> Discourage your employees from admitting that they are having difficulty with a goal or from asking for help or coaching assistance.
>> Require periodic status updates but use them only as documentation of performance, ultimately to be used in a performance evaluation.
This is a veritable list of "worst practices." Unfortunately, many of these practices are followed by at least some managers in most organisations today.
3. Using GDPM to empower people
Having explored "worst practices" and developed a clear understanding of how we can completely disempower a workforce, let's turn the tables and paint the positive picture. What is empowerment and what are the conditions that spawn it?
People are empowered when they have the freedom to act in ways that will achieve important outcomes and when they believe that they are responsible for results that are meaningful. An organisation that fosters such a work environment will facilitate a sense of empowerment among the people who work within it.
Think about the conditions that can result in a sense of empowerment. People feel empowered when they:
>> Understand how their own work contributes to the larger purposes of the organization
>> Have goals to be achieved and some degree of freedom in choosing how best to achieve them
>> Have ways of determining how well they are performing and clear standards against which their achievements are evaluated,
>> They are held accountable for achieving the goals they have agreed to take on
Empowerment takes hold when there is a minimum of bureaucracy and a great deal of interest in discovering better ways of doing things, and when managers are supportive and actively coach their employees. At the heart of most empowering environments is the idea that decisions ought to be made as far from the top of the organisation and as close to the customer as possible.
Under these conditions, most employees genuinely feel empowered. They are encouraged to seize the initiative rather than waiting to be told what to do. They make decisions and act with confidence, knowing that they have made their decisions in accord with corporate values and high-level goals. Employees feel a sense of responsibility and ownership and are committed to the organisation's success. They act independently and even begin to impose their own standards on their job performance, which are often higher than the standards suggested by their managers or by the company.
As a result of having a critical mass of empowered employees, a company can be more agile in navigating its external environment. It can count on the teamwork of its employees, on people working together in pursuit of a commonly shared higher purpose. Because employees are not just doing what they are told to do but rather are striving to achieve clearly understood goals and imposing on themselves their own rigorous standards, the quality of the organisation's products and services is higher. And, not least in importance, the company's pool of ideas encompasses not just the top management group but all employees.
So, given the positive results to be gained by an organisation from having an empowered workforce, it's not surprising that companies aspire to achieve it. Many of the conditions that foster empowerment are the products of management practices. What are these empowering management practices and how can GDPM facilitate a corporate-wide embrace of the practices? Here's a checklist of management practices for using GDPM to drive higher levels of employee empowerment:
>> Set goals collaboratively with your employees, getting their input on what they should be working on and gaining their commitment to the goals.
>> Emphasise how your employees' goals align to your goals and to higher-level goals so that they have a clear sense of the broader context in which their efforts fit.
>> Work with your employees to set goals that produce important results rather than goals that are merely convenient because they are easily measured.
>> Set goals that focus on the results expected rather than over specifying the means by which your employees must achieve the goals.
>> Require your employees to access information about others' goals so that they can understand the interdependencies of their own goals with others' goals.
>> Encourage and reward your employees for using the system to signal the need for help or coaching assistance when a goal is in jeopardy.
>> Require periodic updates with the system, using the information to trigger discussion of progress as well as provide documentation to ensure accurate and fair performance evaluations.
>> Act on information supplied by your employees through the system to increase the company's agility.
4. Good bye to "Big Brother" and the Jackass
When GDPM is used in this way to facilitate empowering management practices -- "best practices" -- employees will be much more likely to feel and act empowered. Think about some of the contrasts between disempowering management practices and the use of GDPM to create and sustain empowering conditions.
Under disempowering conditions, close supervision and the one-way extraction of performance information from employees serve to create a "Big Brother" aura. But when GDPM is fully deployed, not only can managers peer "down" and see what's going on within their parts of the organisation, but employees can peer "up" and see how managers are progressing on higher-level goals -- those that the employees' goals support. This turnabout is not only fair play but encourages collaboration and commitment across organisational levels.
Under disempowering conditions, detailed prescription of how results are to be achieved, close supervision, and the carrot-and-stick approach to rewarding and recognizing employees result in people feeling trapped. As Harry Levinson, chairman of The Levinson Institute and clinical professor of psychology emeritus at the Harvard Medical School, famously pointed out, if you are the one who is between the carrot and the stick, you will undoubtedly feel like a jackass, as that is the image that immediately comes to mind. This is a type of accountability, but certainly not a very constructive or humanizing type.
In contrast, under empowering conditions supported by GDPM, people's feelings of accountability arise not from sanctions and pressure, but from understanding and obligation. If you understand how your goals contribute to your group's goals and to the organisation's success, you are more likely to dedicate yourself to achieving them. And if you have a sense for how your colleagues are dependent upon you in order for them to meet their expectations, you will hold yourself accountable -- no management coercion required.
Using GDPM, people can be legitimately rewarded and recognised for their effective work. In organisations where disempowering conditions prevail, the "effectiveness" of individual performance is often determined at the whim of the manager, by the persuasiveness of the employee at evaluation time, or through the achievement of simplistic goals (the ones most readily measured).
Under empowering conditions promoted by GDPM, an individual's effectiveness is evaluated by comparing results achieved against mutually set goals. And, importantly, effectiveness is also judged by considering how the employee achieved those results -- through application of the appropriate skills and adherence to the core values of the organisation. GDPM assures that the information needed to arrive at a fair evaluation of a person's performance is available to both employee and manager.
The properly deployed GDPM system helps employees do their jobs, rather than merely report what they're doing. This enables everyone to become a committed contributor to organisational success rather than a pawn under the ever-watchful eyes of management.
In short, the major benefit to be derived from using GDPM to support corporate-wide best management practices thus comes not only from what it can do for management and for individual employees but from how it can empower everyone within the organisation.
* Reprinted by permission
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