Performance measurement is, admittedly, a tricky subject. On one hand, you must manage your operations and decisions by the numbers. But on the other hand, your employees are people--and people can be difficult to measure quantitatively. So what's a manager to do? Are there certain situations where performance metrics just won't apply to humans in the world of business? Probably. But, in almost all situations, there is probably a fair and productive way to measure performance. Every employee--regardless of his or her job--has a set of objectives to fulfill and criteria to meet, including you. And the only way to monitor progress is to measure. You know the quote... "What gets measured gets done." But we all have extenuating circumstances from time to time, and leaders must obviously be empathetic and sensitive to the imperfection of human performance and measurement--if they want to be effective. But a company that does a good job of determining the best measures of performance, maximizing data and minimizing emotion, has the best chance to win. One of Google's "10 Golden Rules" from its early days emphasized making "data-driven" decisions based on quantitative analysis, and they have always emphasized this in managing people, as well. So how do we make sure that employee performance is measured fairly and objectively?

  1. Always put company metrics first. Before you can even consider measuring team or individual performance, you need to have a good dashboard view of the company's overall performance. I like to think of this as the canary in the coal mine--because it tells you which way the needle is moving and how you need to respond. When the company is doing well, for example, you need to ensure that teams are prepared to handle an upswing in sales or service requests. And when the company isn't performing to its objectives, you obviously need to determine where the problems lie. Regardless of how the canary is doing, however, you can't drill down to that team or individual level with any productive feedback if you don't know what message you will be delivering. Check in on company metrics as often as possible.
  1. Establish your criteria up front. I've said it before, and I'll continue to reiterate it, because this is ridiculously important: You cannot ask someone to live up to expectations you haven't communicated in advance. Surprises not only infuriate people, but they hinder performance in the long run. Why? Because confusion stalls action. (Just picture a deer in headlights.)
  1. Keep your metrics focused. Don't try to measure too much, unless you're looking for folks who are jacks-of-all-trades, and masters-of-none. Any time you set performance objectives, be specific and measurable.
  2. Don't be afraid to measure the seemingly unmeasurable. If you're concerned about how to measure some types of performance--say, for creative professionals like writers or graphic designers--remember that while the quality of the work might be subjective, there are always quantifiable elements to how the work is produced. Speed and efficiency, for example, can always be measured. And more importantly, the outcome of the work can be measured. Are customers pleased? Is the work achieving what it's supposed to?
  1. Provide feedback frequently. This might sound contradictory, but trust me: The more often you connect with employees about how they are doing, the more you remove emotion from the equation. Like a teacher providing weekly grades to students, you are providing digestible progress reports that help people consistently understand what they are doing well and where they need work. You're not letting anything build up over time--and that's often where emotions come into play.
  1. Use the right tools--including your head. Again, early in its development, Google was famous for using technology to cultivate their data-driven decision-making culture. Today they have a People Analytics department and distribute laptop stickers allowing employees who perform well to state "I have charts and graphs to back me up." We're lucky now because we have an ever-increasing set of sophisticated applications helping more and more companies follow in Google's footsteps, keeping the metrics of human performance as objective and transparent as possible. The more this use of analytics proliferates, the more we stop evaluating based on thoughts and feelings--and the more we level the playing field. Think about when a coach pulls a ball player out of a game and replaces him with another. It's not personal. It's about putting the best performers on the field--the ones with the stats to back them up--so you have the best chance to win. That being said, don't let machines do all your thinking. Even Google has, according to one article, worked to "complement human decision makers, not replace them." Your insight and expertise are earned over time, so use them to their fullest potential.

Above all, remember that we measure performance so we can improve it. We don't do it to belittle, degrade, or humiliate. Human beings will inevitably make mistakes, but by keeping performance metrics objective, we can actually preserve the most critical of human qualities in even the most challenging times: our respect--and compassion--for one another.

Published on: Feb 5, 2015
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