To Manage or Not to Manage Performance

Performance management is the wrong tool when it comes to knowledge work. Don’t get me wrong – there is a place for performance management. However, knowledge work and performance management don’t work well together.

To manage means to be in charge of and performance is accomplishing a task or activity. Someone being in charge of other people’s performance is sensible, even recommended, when tasks/activities need to be coordinated across that group of people. However, someone being in charge of a knowledge worker’s performance is a colossal waste of time.

A knowledge worker uses ideas, concepts, and information to perform the majority of their work. Much of a knowledge worker’s work calls upon implicit and tacit knowledge rather than explicit knowledge. Implicit and tacit knowledge are acquired through experience while explicit knowledge is acquired in school ( Implicit and tacit knowledge include skills like functional decision-making, project planning, team leadership, business process improvement, product development, innovation, strategic thinking, and creative problem solving. Because implicit and tacit knowledge are acquired through experience, context and working with others are critical components of this knowledge. Putting someone who is not doing a knowledge job in charge of the person who is creates problems because they don’t have the context nor the experience of working with the people involved in the knowledge job.

The concept of “performance management” is especially problematic when the person in charge has different ways of thinking about the knowledge job than the person doing the job. For example, Dawna Markova and Angie McArthur identify 35 thinking talents in their book Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking with People Who Think Differently. Most people have between 5 and 8 thinking talents. Looking at combinations of 5 thinking talents leads to over 575,000 different combinations (! This means there are thousands of different ways to think about a given knowledge job. Rather than a manager deciding the best way to think about the knowledge job, the knowledge worker should work with several others who think differently to find the best approach. This is why teamwork and affiliation with professional associations are so important to the successful performance of knowledge work.

Just as grades don’t measure the ability to learn, performance appraisals don’t measure the ability to perform. Learning is about understanding a concept well enough to be able to apply the concept in different situations. Similarly, performance is about understanding a desired outcome well enough to be able to identify the resources and approach needed to achieve the outcome. When you receive a grade or a performance rating, it’s a measure of how close you came to how the teacher or boss would approach the subject or work assignment – not a measure of your ability to learn or perform. Of course, neither learning nor performance will happen without adequate motivation to do the underlying work.

There are five key principles for knowledge work to be performed at its best:

  • the desired outcome is understood equally well by the boss and the person doing the work
  • the resources needed to achieve the outcomes are defined by the knowledge worker and accessed by collaboration with the boss and others
  • the approach to achieve the outcomes is determined by the knowledge worker who is held accountable to the organization’s values and applicable laws and regulations by the boss
  • the motivation to do the work is present in the person doing the work and supported by the boss
  • the worker learns from setbacks and failures and continues to be supported by the boss.

For knowledge workers, performance appraisals need to be replaced with outcome appraisals and performance management needs to be replaced with performance direction. Until this happens, remember that performance appraisals do not measure your ability to perform.