Confessions of a benefits manager: Candid helps with performance management


The Higher Beings – our management team – are not known for asking for advice. They could have asked me, or even Big Bad Boss, but instead they’ve gone and engaged a management consultant to look at performance management. I feel pretty miffed. We have tons of experience on the subject, and the money could have been much better spent on something else: actual benefits perhaps, or even proper pay rises for a change.

Mind you, I’ll admit that performance management has been the problem child no-one wants to take care of. At one stage it sat within our department because of the links to performance-related pay, but truth is we didn’t really want it. It is an ugly and contentious baby, so Big Bad Boss successfully fostered it off to organisational development, arguing that falls under leadership training. There was even some talk of putting it in finance based on some tenuous link with payroll, but the accountants were having none of it. Perhaps now we’ve outsourced performance management altogether, which would be a bonus. Sadly, I find out that the consultants are not taking over the process, but merely telling us how we can do it better. Worse, I’ve been co-opted to the team working on the project.

In the first ‘discovery’ meeting, the management consultant, Jeremy, kicks off with his credentials. He has an MBA in human resource management and is a part-time lecturer on performance management. I have the sense we need to know how clever he is so that we shut up and listen. And we do. That’s mainly because we don’t have much choice; Jeremy barely pauses. I couldn’t tell you what he is saying, but it is typical consultant-speak: fancy words, little content. While he talks, he is unrolling a giant sheet of paper and sticking it to the wall with Blu Tack. I could point out that we have a new touchscreen presentation screen as well as a regular whiteboard in the meeting room, but I let him get on with it. 

Team involvement

I’m relishing watching someone else work for a change, when Jeremy decides to engage us in the discussion. He hands out a stack of picture cards and a number of Post-it notes. I have to concentrate very hard on not rolling my eyes. It is going to be one of those meetings.

We have to select several picture cards that represent our view of performance management, or we can write something on a note. We then have to stick everything on the large sheet of paper, which is deliciously tacky with spray-on glue. When we’ve done that, he hands out a number of coloured sticky dots. Jeremy must have a serious expense account at Staples. I wonder if all this stationery is getting recharged to us.

On another large piece of paper, Jeremy has drawn a big arrow with ‘good’ written at the pointy end and ‘bad’ written at the other end. We have to stick our dots on the arrow to represent the current state of performance management in the company. We mustn’t let anyone see where we put our dot, and we have to all stick dots at the same moment. These two instructions seem mutually exclusive, but I don’t want to appear negative by saying so. However, I am negative and my dot is off the scale ‘bad’. I am thinking of the Higher Being who called his team into a room and went round the table shouting out each one’s rating in turn. Legend also tells that he told the person with the lowest rating that they wouldn’t be getting a pay rise because they already had enough shares to retire on. That’s our leadership for you. The group’s dots are all clustered around the word ‘bad’ so I guess I’m not alone in my opinion.

Around 20 minutes later and Jeremy has summarised our feedback nicely into three main ways to improve performance: we want more regular feedback, we want a simpler process, and we want managers to focus on the positive. In actual fact we want a new leadership team, but naturally Jeremy doesn’t come to that conclusion. Instead, he is going to come back with a proposal.

Time for change?

In a couple of weeks, we gather again to hear it. I look suspiciously at his rucksack. If we have to start messing about with Post-it notes and sticky dots again, I’ll not be responsible for my actions. Luckily, this time Jeremy has a presentation prepared for us. He drones on and on incomprehensively slide after slide. Finally, he gets to the gist, which is this: stop doing performance management.

Gosh. We hadn’t expected that.

After the initial shock, I rather like the idea. It certainly solves the difficulty of who looks after our problem child: just get rid of the wretched thing! It also puts an end to all the pointless tedious discussions about rating distributions and impact on pay budgets. Just don’t do it. Full stop. It is a shame we had to go through all that faffing about with paper craft to get there, but I have to hand it to the guy, it is a truly brilliant solution. I love it.

I might have known that our leadership team would object. Turns out that despite all the moaning and groaning, they actually like the drama of filling in forms and randomly assigning ratings. They enjoy routinely humiliating staff by assessing perfectly good performers as ‘needs development’. Perhaps they think it makes us work harder, and it probably does, albeit in the short term. But, if our executives wanted to keep things exactly as they are, why on earth did they engage an expensive consultant touting transformation? Some things defy any reason.

Next time… Candid gets an apprentice.