Forced distribution to forced discussion?

Forced distribution to forced discussion?

The corporate world has been rejoicing over the fact that the draconian practice of forced distribution through the so called bell curve has been done away with.

So, what has it been replaced with?

From all my discussions with HR leaders and all the available information in the public domain it appears that the focus is less on annual ratings and more on frequent performance discussions aimed at setting people up for success in their roles.

 That sound pretty cool isn’t it? Just have many chats with your employees and not worry about the onerous task of differentiation of performance.

Well, actually not. It is certainly not as easy as it sounds. In fact my biggest fear is that forced distribution (where managers are forced to undertake relative rating) will be replaced with forced discussions (where managers are forced to have periodic discussions with employees.) We all know what happens when you force people to do anything.

At least, forced distribution had a method. It had an SOP. Also HR Managers were the fall guys if it did not work.

Now, that is being replaced with a practice that depends entirely on the skill and will of managers to have good conversations – a skill that is hugely in short supply. They are in fact being called upon to use these conversations to coach their team members for performance. Yes, the new reality is that Managers are expected to coach their team members for performance through the year through great conversations rather than merely rate them on how they have performed at the end of the year.

This to me is a great step, provided managers are equipped to coach for performance. If they are indeed equipped with those skills and do it well, it can change the culture and climate of organisations and make not just ratings but also performance management systems almost redundant. Well, that would be the day.

So, what are some of the elements of performance coaching for managers?

Shifting from position to person

The first ingredient of performance coaching is that managers must step outside their position and start relating to their team members as persons. In other words, they must be able to build a trust based relationship with their team members. This trust based relationship must be characterised by respect, genuineness, faith in the team members’ intrinsic motivation as well as their ability to find solutions and resisting the temptation to judge.  This will form the basis for engaging as a coach ans also earn them the right to have more difficult conversations.

Proficiency in conversation skills

Since the emphasis will shift from managing to coaching, managers will need to have all the skills for good conversations. This will include the ability to demonstrate high quality presence, the ability to listen with empathy, the ability to respond with understanding, the ability to convert confusion about what is happening into concreteness, the ability to confront dysfunctional behaviours, beliefs and mind-sets and the ability to facilitate action planning and finally holding the team member accountable for those plans.

Mastering the know-how

Performance coaching is all about understanding the psychology of how and why people perform or what comes in their way.

  • The first element of such know-how is about setting the right goals and benchmarks. Managers must be able to set benchmarks and standards that are challenging and inspiring and yet achievable. Managers must also know how to present the job challenge in a way that is motivating.
  • Managers must be able to help employees know where they stand on a regular basis so they can get better while also knowing that they are on the right track. This is all about giving feedback and removing blind spots.
  • Managers must be able to spot and help address some of the self-talk of employees that is negative and self-defeating. In fact, this is perhaps the single biggest area of support that a manager can provide to facilitate superior performance.
  • As performance coaches, Managers will also need to focus on the emotional well-being of their team members. This will include helping them cope with stress, failures and disappointments, fears and so on. This will also include encouragement and appreciation.
  • Training for skills and job knowledge is yet another dimension of performance coaching, something that can certainly augment performance.  

While these many come naturally to some, for the vast majority, it must be imparted. Without the skills and the structure, managers many avoid having conversations or may have conversations that go badly.

Doing away with a system called for courage and we have shown the courage to do that. Replacing that with a new way, a new cultural orientation is the next big thing. The next decade will tell us if we have done on that count or not. If we do, we would have created a much more humane workplace.

That is certainly my hope.