How Useless Are “Performance Standards” In The Workplace Today?

by | Jan 17, 2022

Photographer: Ben White | Source: Unsplash

There is a common belief that for change to occur in an organization you must set high-performance standards and develop clear measures against that standard. These performance standards, we’re told, must be consistent across the culture and approved by top management, otherwise, they will not be effective. This belief is so ingrained that it has become the standard operating procedure, and questioning it might seem hopelessly idealistic.

But have you noticed that some of the things the world values most RESIST STRICT MEASUREMENT OF PERFORMANCE STANDARDS?

Consider the “softer” values such as trust, integrity, and creativity. You’ve likely noticed they’re often the ones with the most power to shape the world around us, yet these seem to stubbornly resist being subjected to a standard of measurement.

So, how can you reframe the conversation around needing measurable performance standards as a pre-requisite for producing the kind of results and the type of workplace that promotes the common good?

What’s wrong with Performance Standards

If you’re operating on the assumption that change is driven by measures and standards, you’ll set new performance standards and create universal measures against those standards. Perhaps you would establish an oversight committee to measure performance standards and adherence to those new standards.

In the case of unsatisfactory performance, you might conclude that efforts failed because the standards were not high enough and the measures were not sufficiently accurate.

This happens time and time again until a change effort is made, creating a new set of standards and measures to drive-up performance. You’ve likely seen this cycle play out in the proliferation of high-stakes standardized testing in public education.

Let’s reframe Performance Standards

To be honest, we need measurable performance standards. We all want to know what is required of us and how we are doing. We’re not proposing getting rid of measurable standards altogether. Instead, we propose a shift to focus on who sets the standards and measures and how they are used.

Too often measurable performance standards are used as a control device, not a mechanism for learning. This flows from a particular mode of thinking grounded in problem-solving. It is the engineering mind that elevates standards and measures to the level of dogma and ideology. This is fine for engineering projects.

But the idea that we can engineer human development is more mythology than fact.

Standards-setting has become part of the class struggle in society, where one class of people is setting standards for another. Legislators set them for teachers, management set them for workers, professional guilds set them for their members. They may start with sincere intent, but they soon become exclusionary and punitive. They become a way to limit access to membership, force compliance, and keep those who were first through the door in their positions of power.

What Performance Standards matter to YOU?

The solution to over-surveillance, isolation, and protecting the status quo is to have people close to the learning and development, the work, or the service struggle with installing proper performance standards for their local environment.

Ask people to define the performance that will have meaning for them. Then have them talk about how they want to hold themselves accountable. This reduces the possibility that measurable performance standards will become punitive. Once measures become punitive, people will work to outsmart them to survive; learning decreases, and energy that should be going toward achieving the work is replaced by subversive efforts to “beat the system.”

How does this work?

Instead of a centralized mandate that is rolled out across the culture of the organization, have the performance standards designed by those who are being measured.

Then a few guiding principles should follow.

Firstly, it is essential to be realistic about predictability. Secondly, value longer-term, qualitative measures. Remember: even if you cannot measure it, it might still be worth doing. Most often what is measured are people’s methods and behavioral style. But what if you were to stop measuring people’s behavioral styles and start measuring business results and real outcomes?

Do you risk Quality Control?

Wait! How can management maintain quality when each unit, each workgroup, each team decides its own measures and performance standards? Don’t worry, there is still quality control. The difference is that is it maintained by team members and peer-to-peer agreements.

Rather than typical carrot-and-stick tactics, what if performance standards were negotiated between peers and then with bosses as the means of ensuring that commitments get fulfilled? These contracts would be between partners, so the expectations and commitments go both ways, with equal demands placed on each side.

The intent here is to eliminate coercion as the basis for getting results. These performance contracts are not tied to pay or punishment, though they may be tied to termination in extreme cases. We can fire people if they do not deliver on their promise. What is different is that we stop trying to improve employee performance by threatening sanctions, manipulating privilege, or withholding pay.

Do what matters most:

  1. Rather than create a central mandate, have the people closest to the work decide the standards appropriate for their local environment.
  2. Ask members of the peer group or team to define the measures that have meaning for them.
  3. Have peer groups decide how to keep themselves accountable, with bosses and employees serving to ensure commitments are fulfilled.

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