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Demystifying the 4 myths of performance measurement

March 18, 2013

By Charley Morrow

Performance measures that are designed to help improve individual and organizational effectiveness can often distort meaning and actually demotivate.

All measurement systems have the potential to build meaning and support the meaningfulness of work. But, building meaning with measures does not happen automatically. This is true of performance measures that are designed exclusively for decision making as well as measures intended to motivate.

Good measurement systems build alignment including common understanding and meaning. People work easily and smoothly together because they all interpret the feedback provided by measurement similarly. Bad measurement systems confuse employees who can’t see how the measurement is relevant to their day-to-day world. For these employees, these systems are merely one of those organizational routines that must be followed. But, it is not helpful in terms of working together.

Meanwhile, destructive measurement systems lead to misalignment and “gaming the system.” In these unfortunate organizations, people are so focused on modifying the results of measurement that they withhold information, mystify results, and act unethically to change their results and associated incentives.

But the simple fact is that all performance measures need skillful leadership to achieve positive results. And there are four specific myths you must watch out for:

Myth #1: A perfect measure exists
There is no “perfect” measure. In fact, the most important thing in organizations—talent—is often the hardest to measure. Validity and reliability always come into play, but this is something that few measurement experts readily admit. To overcome the myth of perfection, it’s important to use multiple measurements and to acknowledge the imperfections when making talent and compensation decisions.

Myth #2: Performance measures are “real” and “concrete”
Problems inevitably arise when we confuse a measure with the much more complicated process, person, or performance. The reality is all measures are based on a model.

Myth #3: Measures have just one meaning
The meaning of measurements often differ wildly from person to person. Insight from those diverse meanings become possible when the data is compared, and the context, and the connotation of the people being measured are understood. Great leaders focus less on the measure and more on the context in which the measure is used. In doing so, they develop a common meaning.

Myth #4: All employees react predictably to measures
The reality is that every measure motivates and people respond according to their own personal meaning which can often be quite idiosyncratic. Building shared meaning and understanding is possible when everyone understands the context. Making meaning is a social process; it is always done in partnership with others.

Remember, every measure is motivating someone, somewhere, and the motivation is most likely personal. Good leadership requires discussing the meaning of measures, cultivating shared interpretations, and creating a common framework for coordinated action, decisions, and effort.

How do you react to performance measures?

More about performance measurement
Click here to download Charley’s webinar recording to learn more about how you can overcome performance assessment assumptions.

More about Charley

Charley Morrow is Vice President of Assessments at Linkage, a division he founded to provide measurement-based insights and development for executives and top talent. He has over 20 years of experience designing, implementing, and evaluating training, individual assessment, and organizational-transformation interventions, and he’s an expert in developing assessments and methodologies for individual, team, and organizational motivation and performance.

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