Traditional managers think of performance management as the process of setting goals and evaluating performance, usually on an annual basis. Managers, who must fit the goal-setting and performance review onto an already-full plate, and the associate, who is frequently disappointed with the outcome, often dread the entire process. Countless hours go into the performance management events—and senior leaders wonder, “Are we seeing any return for this volume of investment?”

When performance management systems are set up, organizations are usually seeking to overcome several challenges in their workplace. While the challenges are many, they can be summed into a few main concerns:

(1) How can we ensure employees know how to contribute to our overall mission and goals?
(2) How do we make a connection between what has been achieved and how employees are rewarded?
(3) How can the day-to-day leadership be handled by those closest to the work?

Human Resource professionals are generally very good at creating performance management systems that address these concerns. We set up effective objective-setting processes linked to organizational strategic planning. We craft compensation and total rewards programs as incentives to achieving results. We usually do an effective job of communicating the process and expectations of those within the process. So, why, then, do many of our programs seem to “fall-flat?”

In brief, the systems aren’t practical because they often ignore the reality of being a professional manager. Sure, managers can do most of what you want: fill out forms, document results, and dole out increases, but to really have the system work, they must recognize and value that they are the main “managers” of performance—not Human Resources, not the “process.” And, when most managers are working managers, with their own projects and objectives, dealing with the performance of others often overburdens them—causing them to focus more on the activities of performance management (the forms, the deadlines) than the process (the conversations, the feedback).

How can this challenge be overcome? Simply put, the focus of performance management needs to shift to supporting the manager in leading the process. Some keys to doing this include:

• Simplify your performance management process to three main focus points: setting expectations, encouraging ongoing feedback, and linking results to rewards. Allow as much flexibility as possible without losing consistency across the organization.

• Arm managers with the core skills to lead the process including holding an agreement-setting discussion, providing on-the-fly feedback, dealing with broken agreements, and recognizing outcomes.

• Push associates to be active participants in the process by giving them meaningful, achievable roles. Some of the most effective performance management systems work from the premise that the associate initiatives the main conversations—not the manager. Provide associates with tools to drive their own performance.

• Oversee, but don’t drive, the performance management process from Human Resources. To have managers lead the process, they need to feel the reality that they are in charge—they can access support through HR, but ultimately, the manager calls the shots on how the process will run.

Sometimes the task of revamping the performance management system looks simple on paper, but seems insurmountable in real life. To address this, pick one area that you’d like to improve in order to make the shift:

Is our system too complicated? Too time-consuming? Too filled with “red tape?” Focus on simplifying the overall process.

Do our managers constantly run to HR or Associate Relations for support? Do we often see that the forms are correct but the performance of the group doesn’t change? Do associate opinion surveys tell us they want more and better quality feedback? Focus on your managers’ skill sets.

Do associates sit back and wait to be told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it? Do associates complain that they aren’t heard? Can associates explain the main objectives and purpose of your system? Focus on finding a meaningful role for associates in the process.

Does HR receive constant requests to intervene in performance situations? Do associates hear from their managers “That’s what HR or the policy says?” Focus on working HR to a consulting role—providing tools and resources, but not taking over the responsibilities.


Whether newly implemented or tried-and-true, an organization’s performance management process seeks to direct performance activities to achieve optimum productivity from those involved. An effective system is only as useful as the people who run it—and ultimately as effective as the managers who must bring it to life each day. Improve the role of the manager in the process and you improve the outcome overall.

Author's Bio: 

Kelly Fairbairn is President of PPS International Limited, a company of consulting professionals with offices in the United States, and affiliates worldwide. She is a former HR executive with multi-discipline experience including recruiting, selection, performance management, and training. Kelly has evaluated and designed learning on management development topics as well as designed performance systems. In all her roles, she has been focused on improving the performance of individuals, and in turn, companies. This unique combination of corporate HR and consulting experience makes it possible for Kelly to analyze, design, develop, deliver, and evaluate unique performance solutions, whether they are professional development programs, assessments or performance management systems.