Sunday, January 22, 2012

Should We Define Superior Performance?

I think most of us agree on the importance of setting performance goals and clearly communicating performance expectations to employees.  Without this, you're left with something like management by mental telepathy.

But here's a question that has dogged me for some time:  Should managers, as part of the setting of performance expectations, give employees information on what they must do in order for their performance to be considered "superior"?  What it would look like to "far exceed expectations"?  Or is it better, even necessary, that we fall back to the Justice Potter Stewart position - that excellence is hard to define but we'll know it when we see it?

I hear more arguments against than in favor of pre-defining superior performance.  That it would give too much - even too specific - direction to workers.  That it boxes employees in and limits the possibilities of what they might accomplish.  In a world as fast-moving and uncertain as ours, these are compelling points.  Yet I'm left with the nagging sense that we're letting ourselves off the hook too easily here.

And here's another angle to consider.  In my admittedly unscientific observations, I am left with the impression that compensation professionals favor predefining superior performance and that leadership/OD/learning professionals typically fall on the side of leaving superior performance undefined.

Are these sweeping generalizations on target?  If they are - why would it be so?  Is it that we who practice in the rewards field feel tend to be too black and white, too linear in our perspectives and preferences?  Or, like me, have too many of us had conversations with motivated employees who want very much to do what it takes to excel (and to earn the rewards associated with excellence), but who are frustrated by a boss who refuses to provide concrete suggestions - or even hints - of what they can do to better their contribution to the organization's success.  For an employees in these shoes, the response of "I can't tell you but I'll know it when I see it" can feel like a big fat cop-out.

Is it?

Where do you come down on this question?  I'd love to hear the thoughts of those both in and outside of the compensation field.

Ann Bares is the Founder and Editor of the Compensation Café,  Author of Compensation Force and Managing Partner of Altura Consulting Group LLC, where she provides compensation consulting services to a wide range of client organizations.  She earned her M.B.A. at Northwestern University's Kellogg School and is a bookhound and aspiring cook in her spare time.

Thanks to Ann Bares / Compensation Café

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