Performance management, forced ranking should be ditched

Performance management, forced ranking should be ditched

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By Rachel Nickless –

Neuroleadership expert David Rock believes companies are going about staff management entirely the wrong way. In fact, the man who helped kick-start the international trend of applying brain science to the workplace is partial to abandoning performance management and forced ranking altogether. “You can’t have a coach who is also the judge. It doesn’t work. But organisations completely ignore that,” he says.

Rock, the keynote speaker at the Asia Pacific NeuroLeadership Summit to be held in Sydney from June 19 to 21, co-authored the first paper on neuroleadership in 2006, earned the first doctorate in the field and co-founded the NeuroLeadership Institute. His talent is translating dry academic studies into layman’s terms and seeing where brain science is relevant to management.

In a lengthy chat over the telephone from Boston airport, he tells The Australian Financial Review the most important work his institute has come up with is the SCARF model – status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness – which identifies five key areas that academic studies have shown to create surprisingly strong threat or reward responses in people. “If anyone attacks your status, you react as if your life is in danger,” he says.

Forced ranking is a threat. Rock says forced ranking on a distribution curve “threatens all five domains of SCARF and makes people very unhappy”. While it is common in Australian companies, Australia and New Zealand Banking Group has just abandoned it for performance reviews.

Talent is not fixed. The fundamental problem with assessment and assigning people to a certain category is that it primes them to think talent is fixed, Rock says. It is crucial for everyone to understand the plasticity of the brain if they are to develop others or themselves. “The philosophy you have about human potential matters a lot. If you believe that talent is innate, then feedback becomes a threat, stretch opportunities are dangerous and others’ success is a problem. If you believe talent can be developed and intelligence isn’t fixed you are able to process information differently,” he says.

It is important to encourage people to have an open mind about potential when giving feedback, whether that is to a colleague or child, he says. Instead of saying “you are really smart”, ­recognise effort and people stretching themselves, he says.

Develop, don’t rank. He suggests that employers should still have annual discussions with staff about their ­performance – or better yet quarterly discussions – but suggests they change their approach to focus on ­development and growth instead of assessment and ranking, which sets off the threat responses.

Staff can be their own guide. Rock adds that in order for change to become habit, people first need to “buy in” to the change and that is easier to do if they come up with an idea themselves. “Learn to ask the right kind of reflective questions and hold back on advice ­giving,” he advises.

Critics argue neuroscience can often be used in a misleading way to justify generalisations about human behaviour. Merely using the term encourages people to take unsubstantiated or exaggerated ideas as scientific fact.

Rock agrees “there are organisations just throwing ‘neuro’ in front of things that are not peer reviewed.” But he adds his institute’s work is peer reviewed in academic journals and is used by some of the world’s leading thinkers and organisations. Recently Rock helped Juniper Networks develop a new approach to performance management based on his research. The company surveyed the direct reports of 70 staff who had engaged in a pilot of the new program and found those staff had experienced an 88 per cent increase in engagement.

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