Why forward looking performance “previews” for business are better

Michael Phelps
Over the last week there were two speakers who influenced this post. The first was the famous goal setting expert  Gary P Latham who spoke at Yale University. And the second was Bob Bowman, (Michael Phelp’s coach) who was interviewed on NBC for his new book  “The Golden Rules.”

It also turns out that our blog posts relating to Jack Welch 4P’s and 1E relating to HR performance reviews are very popular. But there is one big problem with performance reviews:

By definition, performance “reviews”are backward looking

Think of any test you have taken (including blood tests!) and have waited with some anxiety for results. Tests in academia are seen as “learning assessment” a very much backward looking approach. Similarly, performance reviews whether in HR or monthly operations meetings talk about the numbers from the previous month. And whether sales looks better or worse than budget. If the sales forecast was suppressed to start with- the marketing and sales folks pat themselves  on the back. If the sales forecast is missed, the finance folks relish in the discomfort of the marketing folks. And so it goes on…

Based on research by Gary Latham and colleagues, here are some thoughts on performance previews and better performance going forward:

  1.  A preview approach puts the candidate in a “learning ” frame of mind. Instead of focusing on defending shortcomings or gloating over successes in the prior period, the person looks to the future. In doing so, the person reflects on what has worked in the past and what has not worked in the past. The learning being that you do more of what has worked for you with a focus on the “process” of improvement.Here its important to differentiate from the Jack Welch 4P’s and 1 E approach where the majority of employees are neither fired – nor engaged. They are simply made to feel bad and de-motivated. If you fire the employee or vendor it’s one thing. But if the employee or vendor is going to continue to work for the organization, there is too much to lose by just pulling the person down for sub-par performance in the past.
  2. Joint goal setting tends to result in higher goals. Compared to goal setting on an individual basis or decreeing goals ( eg. we need 10% sales growth next year) people set higher goals when they are jointly set with the supervisor or appraiser. So if you are asked to set goals for next year on your own – you will set lower goals than what you would set in consultation with your boss. Surprisingly, the joint goal setting will be higher than if the CEO or Board sent out the goals down the organization.
  3. Achievement pictures prime higher performance. Shantz and Latham (2009) used the picture of From Shantz and Latham 2009Sonia O’Sullivan –   pictured here-in a series of experiments. At a University call center for alumni fundraising, the researchers found that those employees who simply had the “winner” picture in their materials performed much better at fundraising than those who did not.

It’s quite a coincidence that Gary P Latham, one of the great experts on motivation and goal setting, used a picture that was about winning a race. And when you think of Michael Phelps’s coach Bob Bowman – you think about winning as well!

Clearly, beating up your employees about sub-par performance of the past is a bad idea. Instead joint goal setting, with a backdrop of winning visuals, might lead to both higher goals and achievement.

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