25 February 2015

Appreciative Performance Reflection: A powerful alternative for annual review season

In a recent post I critique the traditional, so-called SMART-goal-oriented, performance review, an annual ritual that most people anticipate as eagerly as they do tax season, or a visit to the dentist (not that I have anything against dentists!). Advocates of this latter-day corporate version of the auto-da-fé would insist on the necessity of setting specific, measurable, achievable, results-oriented, and time-bound goals to ensure that individuals are aligned with the overall objectives of teams, departments, divisions, and the organization as a whole, that they are objectively held to account for their responsibility towards the organization’s intended achievement, and that there is a fair and manageable mechanism to assess the relative contributions of individual team members. “Besides,” more than one command-and-control freak has assured me, “people want to know how they stack up against their peers.”

Jeffrey Pfeffer, the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, and hardly a left-wing advocate of fads like holocracy, puts it very simply:
Managers don't like giving appraisals, and employees don't like getting them. Perhaps they're not liked because both parties suspect what the evidence has proved for decades: Traditional performance appraisals don't work. … Performance appraisals often don't accurately assess performance. … Performance reviews mostly reflect how well employees can ingratiate themselves with the boss. … Reviews occur too infrequently to provide meaningful feedback. … Those receiving the reviews invariably believe they are above average—and defensively resist being told that they aren't. … Performance appraisals [are] unlikely to improve performance. … Possibly the biggest issue, however, is that performance appraisals focus managers' attention on precisely the wrong thing: individual people. … By focusing on the presumed deficiencies or strengths of people, individual performance reviews divert attention from the important task of eliminating the systemic causes, such as inferior technology [not to mention problematic HR-driven systems or personally-dysfunctional managers], behind poor performance.
So what’s a possible alternative?

I recommend periodic Appreciative Performance Reflection conversations. This process derives from the Appreciative Inquiry methodology developed by David Cooperrider, from which the Discover, Dream, Design, Destiny structure is taken. It is a way of enabling a positive-focused review of one’s accomplishments in the larger context of long-term aspirations and ambitions. More than that, Appreciative Performance Reflection enables one to contextualize those accomplishments in the service of organizational and colleagues’ objectives. Using a reference group comprised of those with whom the individual mostly interacts as well as their manager, rather than simply reviewing accomplishments with one’s direct supervisor alone enables better collaboration and activity coordination among individuals, especially those working in diverse functional areas. Additionally, this process encourages more innovation and greater initiative than traditional goal setting exercises. Traditional goal-setting often provides an incentive for uninspired objectives—people quickly learn that greater rewards accrue from setting non-challenging goals.

The Appreciative Performance Reflection is ideally held with a reference group of three people chosen by each individual, which often includes the individual’s direct supervisor or manager. The reference group helps facilitate, and actively participates in, what is essentially a coaching conversation around the individual aligning their aspirations and bringing their strengths to the organization’s collective success. The participation of the reference group helps to create mutual accountability and collective responsibility. It enables organic, emergent alignment of everyone's efforts towards common successes. Ideally, the reference group process obviates the traditional necessity of a hierarchical command chain to align people’s activities so that the organization accomplishes its goals. The thinking behind this acknowledges that autonomous individuals are capable of self-organization towards common goals in a context of common understanding, a key finding of my research.

The setup and framing is roughly as follows (noting that the animating questions have been condensed for the post):

Appreciative Performance Reflection

Given your current understanding of the aspirations, high-level objectives, and business needs of our organization over the coming medium term (i.e., up to a year), please reflect on the most recent six to twelve months past, the coming six to twelve months, and one to three years ahead as you answer the Discover, Dream, Design, and Destiny questions, below.


  • Since the last reflection and formal check-in, what have been your greatest personal successes? What is it about these accomplishments that is important to you, that helped them be memorable and significant? Who contributed to your success in these accomplishments, and how?
  • Reflecting on your own personal growth, development, and transformation since our last reflection and formal check-in, how have you have changed, and how did those changes occur?
  • What is one thing about you at this point in your experience here that you want to herald to the wider organization?


  • What would you like to do more of, do differently, or do even better than you’re doing now in order for you to be even more successful and satisfied?
  • Imagine that you are in your ideal role here, doing precisely what you love, and feeling very proud and satisfied. What does that role look like? What have you done to achieve that role?


  • Which one or two aspects of the ideal role inspire you to take positive action over the next while? What initial steps can you take?


  • What resources and individuals do you want to call upon to support your aspirations? What type of support do you want from your supervisor? What resources to which you don’t have ready access would support your success over the medium term? Which from among your particular strengths will you call upon to support your progress and success towards achieving your aspirations?

Using such a framework to guide a strengths-oriented, appreciative reflection enables the desired alignment of individual’s activities among collaborative groups with whom each person interacts the most in a way that encourages people to bring their best towards achieving their – and the organization’s – aspirations.

[Review] "No Journey's End": A Wild Ride, and a Wild Read

No Journey’s End, a new, “creative nonfiction” book by PeterChiaramonte, should best be enjoyed with a background soundtrack of Steppenwolf’s classic, rock & roll anthem, “Born to be Wild.” Chiaramonte takes us on a ride that perpetually seems to be heading over an existential cliff as he recounts how his life-path intersected for a time with that of a convicted member of Charles Manson’s murderous “family,” Leslie Van Houten. We follow the journey of Chiaramonte as an aspiring but rebellious academic who chafes against the reins of the traditional academy that leads him from an uninspiring job in a suburb of Toronto to the psychedelic adventure that was Southern California in the early 1970s. After seeing newspaper pictures of the then young-and-beautiful Leslie Van Houten, he is compelled by an irresistible drive to pursue, woo, and win the heart of a woman whom we know is ultimately doomed. The author portrays Van Houten as a naif, caught up through little fault of her own in Manson’s vengeance project driven by the sex-and-drugs-enabled mind control of his followers. Throughout the hard-driving narrative, a variety of characters from both Van Houten’s and Chiaramonte’s lives act as crash barriers for the tragic couple careening towards the inevitable end. It is no spoiler that would threaten the sheer roller-coaster enjoyment of the read to note that Chiaramonte managed to veer safely to a life-long academic career, while Van Houten has spent nearly her entire life in the maw of the US penal system.

Given Chiaramonte’s credentials, it is not surprising that this book can be read as a philosophical and existential reflection on one person’s inexorable attraction to impending disaster. The narrative is filled with drugs and rock-and-roll that typified the times (although notably, very little sex). It is also filled with fast cars and the vicarious horrors that were the crime scenes, both physically in the LaBianca and Tate/Polanski homes, and in the psyches of the drug-deranged family members. During the prison visit scenes, in which the author speaks with the object of his desire through bullet-proof glass, one gets the impression that he is actually looking himself in a Narcissus-inspired mirror. Zeus, it is humorously said, advised Narcissus to “watch yourself.” Chiaramonte is given the same advice throughout the book by various and sundry actors that populate both his and Van Houten’s lives. As the reader vicariously races through the hell of the Manson experience in the author’s “shotgun seat,” often watching the blur of scenery through spread fingers of hands over eyes, one realizes that among many other things, No Journey’s End is a cautionary tale that retrieves the ancient trope, there but for the grace of God go I. Chiaramonte does a masterful job reflecting on what might – but could never – have been, looking for adventure, taking the world in a love embrace, and exploding into space.

24 February 2015

Humans vs. Human Resources Systems – Guess Who Wins?

Jeremy Scrivens, a “work futurist” living in Melbourne, Australia, tweeted last week that “#HR says that engaged staff give their discretionary effort. Shirky calls this #CognitiveSurplus. Another term is Voluntary Contribution.” He is referring to the importance of workplace engagement for people to “bring their best,” so to speak. People for whom work – what occupies them as the source of regular income – is not “work”—an onerous, demoralizing, soul-destroying necessary evil… heavy on the evil.

Widely quoted statistics report that between two-thirds and three-quarters of employees are disengaged or “actively disengaged” (I just love the cynical irony that term embodies) from their employment. There are, of course, many possible reasons for such vivid disengagement: lack of autonomy, dysfunctional managers, boring or monotonous work, a sense of purposelessness… you could probably list them as well as I could. What struck me about Jeremy’s tweet, however, was the mention of HR – presumably the Human Resources role – that speaks about the importance of engaged staff.

Seriously? The HR function?

My tweet in response expressed the substance of my incredulity.

As a friend noted during a recent conversation, if organizational systems create circumstances that promote structural disengagement among the workforce, you could have the most enthusiastic and otherwise motivated employees in the world, and guess who will win? To be sure, I’ve seen, met, and been in conversation with the “losers” in this scenario all too many times. HR systems that begin with dehumanizing recruitment practices using automated, artificial pseudo-intelligence resumé parsing systems, and end with the highly problematic annual performance reviews, contribute to – make that “actively” contribute to – the epidemic of contemporary employee disengagement.

The standard discourse goes like this: In order for the organization to achieve its vision, it must accomplish its mission (set by the top leadership). This requires the setting of annual objectives for the business as a whole and decomposing them into aligned objectives for each functional area, and subsequently for each department, manager, and employee. If everyone accomplishes their individual objectives, then the organization will accomplish the overall objectives, and ultimately accomplish the mission. (“Mission Accomplished” has a nice ring to it, no?)

The requisite alignment and necessary accountability requires goals to be specific, measurable (because if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it), achievable, results-focused (because if it doesn’t contribute to the organization’s results, it’s not appropriately aligned), and time-bound (because if you don’t set a deadline, you don’t know when to hold the employee to account). Isn’t all that smart?

Performance reviews, then, enable the employee and her/his manager to quantify to what extent said goals were accomplished, often setting the size of reward “carrot” according to the degree of accomplishment (because we all know how effective carrots and sticks are for motivation). The performance review also sets next year’s equally “smart” objectives.

Finally, so that organization ensures that it retains the supposedly “best and brightest,” many use rank scoring to eliminate the lowest performers while instilling a culture of fear among the rest… Following the guidance of this discourse, presumably, creates engaged, motivated employees with lots of cognitive surplus according to the standard Human Resources discourse.

To borrow terminology possibly in the lexicon of my friend from down under, Bollocks!

Given the complexity of today’s business environment (not to mention non-business organizational environments in general) it is impossible to anticipate with any accuracy whether a set of specific, measurable, etc. task-oriented goals will actually be useful in contributing to the organization’s success over a year. The very fact of a dynamic environment tells us only one thing with any sort of assurance, namely that this year’s target will likely be next year’s miss by the time we reach it.

Performance reviews tied to an employee’s income (let alone job security) absolutely ensures what Frederick Taylor called “soldiering” ’way back in 1911, where employees will sandbag their objectives so that they can be assured of meeting them. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism about predicting the future (“never predict anything that hasn’t already happened”), never set a goal that you haven’t already achieved! [See here under “Success by the Numbers” for an example of how this principle is actually implemented in a governmental organization.) And by creating a rank-scoring environment, organizations generate conditions of constant competitiveness among its employee ranks together with constant fear for retaining one's job – think of it as employment as a season of “Survivor.” In doing all this, what we actually create are circumstances of individualistic safety and risk-aversion rather than the highly desired and sought-after workplaces that promote collaborative innovation.

In fact, the only benefit of this HR-mandated set of dehumanizing systems is that employees can be controlled and “held to account” for their actions. Aside from that, no one benefits—not employees, not customers, not investors, not communities. And the sad reality of it all is that systems whose design creates circumstances of structural disengagement will win every time.

The key question for leaders is, how can we humanize organizational systems so that the humans win instead? Perhaps we should start by humanizing the act of leadership. Stay tuned… More to come!

19 February 2015

Thoughts from an NFP/NGO ED Roundtable

Yesterday morning, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a roundtable conversation among Executive Directors of Not-for-Profit and Non-Governmental Organizations (hence the NFP/NGO ED alphabet soup of the post title). Included were EDs of arts organizations, a film festival, an Africa advocacy organization, and a peace-building/post-conflict think tank and consultancy. Alan Kay hosted and facilitated the two-hour conversation from a Solutions Focused standpoint.

One of the participants – the ED of the film festival – shared his view of the ED’s role as being more entrepreneurial: “the relentless pursuit of opportunities without regard for resources available.” The inherent transition of (mostly publicly and charitably funded) NFPs and NGOs to having to become more self-reliant and creative for revenue sources has likewise transformed the ED’s role. In the former model, the ED’s focus was primarily on program and budget—creating mission-consistent initiatives that close-to-exactly spent the annual budget grant. With handout funding sources drying up, that administratively oriented ED may find that s/he is lacking crucial, strategic engagement skills essential in today’s complex environment.Such skills have become mandatory in the contemporary world to fulfil the mandate of leader whether it be in a NFP/NGO, a for-profit corporation, or public sector institution: to enable a conducive environment in which people come together to engage so that an alternate future becomes possible.

Speaking of former models, it has always been the case (it seems) that growth was the often-unspoken, driving agenda for EDs in NFP organizations and NGOs. The growth imperative was, of course, consistent with the dominant discourse of late 20th-century capitalism. With so many contemporary NFPs and NGOs all chasing very similar worthy causes, a very serious question emerges: can all of these organizations that share overlapping objectives find sufficient capital and human resources to viably sustain themselves, let alone grow? This query suggests two, vitally important considerations. First, how could these organizations with common purpose meaningfully and materially collaborate in ways that might eventually lead to some sort of merger, either in body or in enacting effect? (One person mentioned the idea of being able to use $1 in 2 ways.) Indeed, combining the resources of two or more organizations may enable opportunities to grow from the tactical wish list into new strategic initiatives for the combined organization. Implicated in such a path are the EDs – specifically, the EDs who would no longer be an ED – who, in most cases, would have to find satisfaction in a modified role. Alternative governance models – a rotating, collaborative leadership model, or a consensus leadership model – might prove to be both useful and valuable in mitigating the challenge to the EDs’ identity-valence relationship with the organization (more on this in a moment).

Second, members of the NFP/NGO sector in general must seriously consider whether growth is always a useful or valid endgame objective. [In fact, such a consideration might well be useful in the for-profit and public sectors as well.] A simple example: an organization whose purpose is to facilitate the eradication of preventable, childhood diseases might legitimately see their endgame as putting themselves out of business! Less obviously, capacity-building NGOs focused on, say, post-conflict regions of the world, may deliberately choose homeostasis for themselves while focusing on capacity growth among their supported constituencies. Determining appropriate strategies to maintain structural stability while dissipating energy through their associated membership around the world presents unique, and uniquely complex, challenges—a very different endgame from that of “growth.”

Should the ED have passion for the cause, or highly developed administrative – that is, program and budget – skills? Ideally, of course, this would be a “both/and” situation. Board search committees often tend to emphasize the latter, drawing from the operational focus that many board members tend to bring from their other business activities. Indeed, such a board may have members all too willing to “drop by” and offer their operational “suggestions” to an ED, subsequently holding her/him to account if the suggestions are not followed. (The clear consensus around the table was that such nominally well-meaning “assistance” undermines the ED’s role by overstepping the legitimate governance boundaries of the board.) A leader without passion for the cause may find their affective connection more strongly expressed in the trappings and social capital of the ED role itself. Preservation and enhancement of their role becomes their personal passion and purpose, a means to achieve more means, so to speak, rather than the intended ennobled ends.

Enabling the organization’s board to become more actively engaged with that higher purpose is of strategic importance to the ED. One participant shared the metaphor of talking to his board more about “what’s on the shelf, not about the shelf itself.” The supporting "shelf" is the stuff of most ED reports to the board: the numbers, statistics, key performance indicators, and other infrastructure metrics of so-called accountability. What’s on the shelf are the stories and experiences that convey embodiment of the organization’s purpose, and particularly, the real-world effects that the organization’s intentions have enacted, enabled, and created. For the film festival, for instance, it is not the box office receipts nor the series subscriptions sold. Rather, it is bringing to the screen the story of a wrongfully convicted youth, the documentary of which caused the New York state Attorney General to order a new trial. [In a similar, on-the-shelf vein, NPR’s hit podcast, Serial, was responsible for enabling Adnan Sayed, convicted for murder in Maryland, to win an appeal of his conviction.] 

Generally speaking, KPIs and metrics are proxies for objectives; effects, on the other hand, speak directly to enacting the organization’s intentions, irrespective of profit motive. This is a distinction I’ll explore further in the next post.