Tuesday 18 September 2012

Performance Objectives: Restriction or Liberation?

Managers are sometimes concerned that setting clear and highly measurable performance objectives or targets is restrictive of creativity and innovation; after all, we want our people to work flexibly and be responsive to the needs of the business or service, we don’t want them tied down! However, experience tells us that people like to have clear and unambiguous targets and they can be felt as liberating – we just don’t want our whole life to be governed in this way!
If, as a manager, you have control in mind during a performance management discussion, you’ll probably end up with high control, low empower targets for your team member. If you have growth and empowerment in mind you’re more than likely going to negotiate performance objectives that are genuinely helpful to your team member so…

…check your mindset before you begin!

Performance objectives for delivering results.

This is the classic performance target:
“By the end of October process 500 widgets in compliance with the agreed quality standard”

It’s great for… well, processing widgets! And if the quality standard is comprehensive and clear that’s great. But what if we’re not quite in control of the number of widgets that are needed:
“Provide a comprehensive response to requests for information within 3 working days of receipt of the request”

You might use an objective like this where your team member has tended to slip a little on the timeliness.
This allows for flexibility in demand; of course we could go on to define ‘comprehensive’ but we’re talking about people having some discretion and some inherent skill and knowledge here so, unless there is a particular performance issue that needs working on you might want to leave this to the individual.  Equally, you might want to agree a monitoring arrangement – a recording sheet, occasional sampling etc. But again, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Far better if you are able to trust your team member to monitor their own performance!

Performance Targets for Behaviour

This seems a bit more tricky, but how many times do you find that it’s not what someone delivers that causes difficulties, it’s how they deliver it?

Many organisations aim for a strong value base across everything they do. So how can you use performance objectives to support a team member to demonstrate those values? After all, if someone has the habit of being a little rude or dismissive to colleagues they’re likely to need some support to find some new behaviours and practice them until they become natural.

A word of warning here: if you start setting objectives in the absence of honest and participative discussion things can start to feel pretty patronising. On the other hand, used collaboratively and set collaboratively, clear objectives can be really helpful to an individual in, firstly, helping them understand the behaviours they need to adopt and secondly, helping them create new positive habits.

Obviously then, the objectives you negotiate in respect of changing behaviours will be very personal, but here are a couple of illustrations.

For the staff member who is described by colleagues as aloof and distant, not part of the team:
“Every morning for the next two weeks, say ‘Good morning” to colleagues when you arrive in the office and on three occasions over the next two weeks, ask a non-work question or start a non-work conversation”

Or, for the staff member who is highly efficient, but not a ‘team player’:
“On three occasions over the next two weeks, offer to help someone with one of their tasks”

Of course seeing this written down emphasises the need to set behaviour objectives collaboratively. It’s far better if the staff member comes up with his or her own performance targets!

A couple of other things to remember:

  •  Behaviour objectives should be short term; today, next week, or a couple of weeks maximum. Anything more and they become almost impossible to sustain and we really need to reinforce with success.
  • Behaviour objectives need review, so an objective needs underpinning with “Lets meet at the end of the two weeks so we can talk about how you got on and how the new behaviour felt to you.” This review enables the staff member to set new and perhaps slightly more challenging targets for the next period.
  • Habits are really hard to break. An objective about stopping doing something is unlikely to work. Try instead to add a positive behaviour.
  • New habits are much easier to create. Ten to fifteen concurrent repetitions of a behaviour are enough to start to form a habit, and then it gets easier and easier!


Don’t be tempted to set performance objectives for everything! Focus on the things that most need development and agree just four to six clear, measurable and meaningful targets in total.

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