We spend a lot of time exhorting our leaders to be authentic. Then we try to convince them that we are in control by blitzing them with statistics they don’t understand (and often don’t believe). If we took our own medicine, we’d place a higher priority on our own authenticity and we’d take a hard look at whether HR processes enhance or detract from that.”

—HR director of a Times 1000 company in a private conversation. 

In the early stages of our research on systemic talent management, when it was clear that many of the tools and instruments regularly used by HR professionals were either ineffective, counterproductive, or both, we made the assumption that HR should rethink what they use to develop talent. However, as we talked with HR professionals about our findings, we questioned this assumption. The debate goes something like this: 

HR has spent the past 20 years trying to build credibility with line managers and particularly with senior management and leaders. If we suddenly say, “Sorry, we got it all wrong,” our credibility will be damaged. We won’t be able to make changes toward more systemic talent management processes because no one will trust us. What’s more, the evidence demonstrates conclusively that current approaches don’t work. But how much of this dysfunction is caused by the tool itself and how much is caused by the way the tool is applied and the context in which it is used? 

In other words, if we change the system so that it supports and enables, rather than judges and controls, is there a role for HR bling? After all, often the only difference between a flower and a weed is where it grows. 

This led us to a re-evaluation and a new narrative. We recognized that the measure and control phase was necessary. Take performance appraisals for example. The rationale for creating and utilizing today’s mechanistic, tick-box performance appraisal process was rooted in observation of what was (or rather was not) happening in the relationship between line manager and direct report. Employees could go for years without receiving any performance feedback. Appraisals ensured that at least some form of performance and developmental discussion took place at a regular interval. By taking a controlling approach, HR professionals could make sure these conversations were happening and intervene if managers failed to carry out a task. However, this process lacked any sense of ownership by the line manager and employee, for whom annual appraisals were simply a chore. 

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However, the current performance appraisal process provides a necessary step toward the ultimate goal of open and honest conversations about performance. Much like riding a bicycle with training wheels helps to give a child balance and confidence, the average performance appraisal process has established the habit of having regular (if not always effective) performance conversations. Now it’s time to take away the metaphorical stabilizers and return the control and responsibility to the line manager and the employee. 

Organizations that have taken this approach have typically found that: 

  • Employees, line managers, and leaders are eager to move to a more mature process.

  • It may still be necessary to remind people to have regular performance conversations, but there is much less resistance because:
    • they are in control
    • the process is designed to help them
    • they are supported through training, online guidance, coaching, or mentoring.

  • Encouraging line managers to have more frequent, shorter appraisal conversations reduces any perceived burden on them.

  • Integrating the performance appraisal with developmental conversations is much easier when the process is more frequent and relaxed.

  • The quality of the conversations increases when employees become familiar with their own performance data and come to the meeting with suggestions of what to focus on in terms of both performance and development.

  • The emphasis of the conversations shifts from recriminations or obfuscation about the past to performance and learning in the near future.

  • Current work tasks are managed in frequent short meetings focused on task delivery. 

The same principles apply to all other HR bling. Organizational environments are very different than when HR approaches originated—they were created to fit a relatively stable environment, where job roles tended to be fixed and succession planning was relatively predictable. These approaches were also created to match the worldview of Baby Boomers and Generation X. Moving toward systemic talent management is simply a reflection of the new work world, where more flexible, dynamic approaches are required.