My last article spoke about how consistent communication kept us at Ather, on an even keel through the transition to remote working.
Our year-end performance appraisals this time further reinforced the importance of communication. After all, our performance management program, Vector, is centered around having meaningful conversations.
Think about it.
For over a century, organizations have been trying to create a magic recipe for performance management. We’ve gone from informal to formal, from subjective to objective ways. Yet, we are not in a position to say we got this right. The reason is twofold: one, the subject itself. Knowing how one is doing always evokes anxiety, thus defense mechanisms are up. Two, the evolving nature of the work and the generations that walk in.
The making of Vector
At Ather, we are a multi-generational workforce. This means that we have a plethora of variables at play: different experiences, expectations, working styles, and challenges to name a few. So how do we create an inclusive performance management model?
We started discussions around performance management by asking a few important questions. What problem are we solving? The popular sentiment was that we were doing well without a formal process. We were a small, young, and engaged organization. We didn’t want to go the traditional route. So if we were going to have a process in place, what would we do differently? And then we had more questions. How do we instill ownership as we continue to grow? How do we inspire our colleagues to stay on course?
As we went about devising Vector, one thing became clear: it all came down to the ability to have candid conversations. To have authentic conversations that didn’t involve blaming each other or defensiveness.
We decided we would break it down into three parts:
- Monthly check-ins between the manager and the team member
- Quarterly reviews of goals and the progress on them
- A year-end review that takes into account the check-ins that happen over the course of the year
The first major roadblock was how the managers felt “super awkward” to have these conversations: they met their team members and interacted with them daily, and sitting down exclusively for feedback seemed uncomfortable and unwarranted to them. But we got them on board with the plan after multiple discussions, where we set context on how everyday meetings are about tasks and monthly sit-downs are about conversations leading to a performance culture.
The core of Vector is authentic conversations
At Ather, we constantly work on providing feedback that helps the team member know what they’re doing right, and where they can do better. We want these conversations to help them feel comfortable in seeking help. We don’t want the conversations that are in reality just finger-pointing exercises.
We also see these conversations as an opportunity for the manager to seek feedback on how they are doing their role, what they could have done better, and to understand the support or direction the team member needs.
This may sound like a rather simple thing to do. In reality, many people find it challenging. Most people are conflict-averse and don’t enjoy feeling vulnerable. There is that part in all of us that wants to be liked, be it managers or team members. For instance, we have had managers sandwich critical feedback amidst thick layers of positive feedback, ultimately diluting the relevance and context of the important parts for the receiver. In other instances, we also had managers who did not call out poor ownership, nor celebrate high accountability. This only leaves the team members confused as to what the performance culture of the organization is.
Authentic conversations are a two-way process and cannot become monologues. Between a manager and their team member, it helps the latter to improve and focus on what they can do better. The manager should also be open to seeking feedback. This requires a willingness to be candid, and the ability to accept feedback by both parties.
We had managers who came back saying they “told” the team member the feedback but nothing changed; they didn’t realize that giving feedback is not enough, that they needed to check whether the team member had received the message. The most important part is how much we are investing in getting the team member back on track.
Where are we today?
Performance reviews are a time when both parties are risking vulnerability. Trust makes the process easier. And to build that trust we need to start being honest and consistent. The last two years have been a journey towards that.
Currently, we are weaving team performance goals into individual performance goals. Why would we do that, you ask? A large part of Ather works in swimlanes (cross-functional teams) to solve problems. We realize that the success of swimlanes as a team is important. We want to move away from scripts like “I did my bit, but someone dropped the ball”. This is a huge change – to be responsible for team performance, not just one’s own: Seeing and owning the whole and not just the silo-ed parts.
So yes, we all love Batman. But if we want Gotham to shine, we need super teams not just superheroes.
Published on June 15th 2020 on LinkedIn