Clear Review CEO Stuart Hearn looks at the age-old question of manager capacity in the context of performance management.
I wouldn’t say that it’s a common refrain, but it’s certainly not an unusual one. I’ve heard many variations on the theme, but it usually boils down to the same basic point: “Managers don’t have time to do check-ins”.
When I was pulling together the ideas and thinking that would become Clear Review, I approached it with the knowledge that the annual appraisal - even amongst all its other faults - is a time sink. It takes a disproportionate amount of time to do. It can paralyse departments for weeks, in some cases, as managers cajole and browbeat people into giving 360-degree views on team members, then write their own comments, then get it all signed off, then file it with HR. And then have the meeting, write up the notes from that and agree it with the employee in question. Deloitte estimates that their own annual appraisal process ate up 2 million man-hours per year.
I appreciate that, on the face of it, there is a challenging conversation to be had here. “You know that thing everyone hates? The thing which has one virtue and one virtue alone: it happens only once a year? Well, good news: now you have to do it monthly.”
I am, of course, exaggerating for effect. We know - as Deloitte did before us - that the “little and often” approach saves time and effort. Small, calibrated interactions build a more accurate and less onerous picture and make the final assessment far quicker (and far more likely to produce a useful outcome). But the fact remains that there can be a cognitive barrier. It’s another regular meeting in a world that has no lack of meetings. How do we overcome that cognitive barrier and make this a meeting that people want to do?
First of all, there are the nuts and bolts of the process. Yes, there are more meetings. But a well-structured check-in needs to take no more than 15-20 minutes. With the right questions teed up and ready to go - and the tool you use really ought to have those ready for you in the system - you should be able to get straight into the detail, agree the actions and get out of there before the coffee has cooled. 20 minutes once a month is 4 hours a year. That’s barely more time than it takes to watch The Irishman on Netflix with two or three breaks to top up your wine glass.
Then there are the benefits: the “what’s in it for them?” part. Deloitte list a whole host of positive improvements resulting from their shift to continuous performance management. And many of those speak directly to this challenge of time management and capacity. For example, instead of desperately trying to capture all the data and context at the end of the year, you collect talking points, discussions and goals as you go. When you need to refer to it - for example, in a remuneration / promotion discussion or as part of succession planning - then it’s all there, saved and ready for you.
But the real benefit (and this opens up a wider conversation about manager capacity) is in the shift in the role of the leader. Instead of being an evaluator - someone who “marks” work and gives a score - the manager starts to become a coach. The manager has an opportunity to guide team members to higher levels of performance. You don’t give someone 5 out of 10: you find ways to develop them from a 5 to a 9. This is when performance management becomes performance development. And this throws up another question about time: is it time for organisations to rethink priorities for people managers? To take it one stage further: can managers be effective coaches on top of their roles as subject experts? Do organisations really hold managers accountable for the development of their teams? Is it possible - I won’t ask if it’s sensible, because the answer is a self-evident “yes” - that we’re ready for a reimagining of how managers spend their time?
What are managers actually for? If you have a person whose specialist knowledge is so vital to the business that it simply cannot do without them, but who never has the time to invest in calibrating and developing the efforts of their people, then why make them a manager? It’s perfectly possible to craft job roles which take the management burden away from people and make them an individual contributor rather than a people manager. I’m reminded of the story of the so-called “manager amnesty”, where a certain large San Francisco tech firm routinely offers engineers and technical people the chance - after six months - to give up managerial responsibility and return to their subject matter roles if they find that it doesn’t suit them. There’s no shame in admitting that you don’t want to manage people. It’s certainly preferable to continuing in the role and being a bad manager.
Great management is absolutely about time: the lack of it; the pressure to get things done with finite resources; the importance of showing ambition and energy (and, usually profit) to senior leaders. But the world of work is moving on. At Clear Review we’re proving, with our hundreds of customers, that performance management can be done differently. It can be done with a lighter touch. It can be done without the indigestible 12-course annual meal of the annual appraisal. People want development, and continuous performance management can provide that. But organisations need to think about their managers, and whether the business provides the right environment for them to be the coaches they need to be. We can’t simply add to the pile of responsibilities. We need to look again at the fundamentals of what they do.
We need to give them more time.