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How Your Millennial Employees Are Changing Performance Management

Wednesday, June 1, 2016
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I love a good debate, and we are in the midst of one of the greatest debates the talent management field has ever seen. The topic? Performance management.

In one corner is David Rock, neuroscientist and director of the NeuroLeadership Institute. Rock coined the term neuroleadership and has pioneered research examining an individual’s response to performance management conversations at a neurological level. Rock’s findings have led him to compare the performance review discussion with being on trial in a courtroom, and he advocates, somewhat provocatively, that organizations “kill their performance ratings.”

In the other corner is author Marc Effron, who is dedicated to providing “highly practical” solutions to the talent management field. He has built his career around sharing insights that emphasize simplicity, accountability, and transparency. Largely in response to Rock’s work, Effron published a paper titled “We Love Ratings!” Effron views ratings as a useful and accurate tool to provide differentiation and transparency around performance.

At first glance, these ideas seem diametrically opposed. You either have performance ratings, or you don’t. It is the hard-line attitude taken by Rock and Effron that make this such an attractive and dramatic argument; there has to be a winner and a loser, seemingly.

Yet, I don’t believe that Rock and Effron are as like oil and water as they appear. I do believe that performance management discussions induce stress and can inadvertently backfire to create negative, counterproductive experiences. Additionally, I believe that employees, especially high-performing employees, want and deserve accurate, transparent feedback. However, ultimately I believe that revisiting the core elements with a new perspective can reveal overlap in the arguments posited by these thought leaders.

I make this assertion from two reference points. The first is that (not surprisingly) I work in talent management. I take great pleasure in reading about the latest research, analyzing best practices, and networking with colleagues regarding successes and challenges in our field. I live, eat, and breathe performance management, mostly because it is such a huge influence on the quality of my work. The second reference point is that I am a Millennial. I consult with Millennials on a daily basis regarding performance management issues, and I have my own experiences with participating in performance management processes. Millennials, and their expectations about work, are strongly influencing how organizations view the performance management process.

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Before we discuss how Millennials are driving the evolution of performance management, we should determine whether a Millennial-driven-evolution is actually a good thing. Perceptions are beginning to shift, but historically corporations have been apprehensive of these new Millennial employees: They have too much baggage from helicopter parents and all those participant trophies to provide much insight into how business “really” works. They’re too job-hoppy to have “real” experience, and too entitled to know their place.

I may be biased, but I don’t see it that way. First, there is a mounting body of evidence debunking these myths and negative perceptions. Second, and specific to performance management, I think that Millennials have figured out how to balance the dualities that Rock and Effron present.

Millennials, me included, expect feedback on a more regular basis. This is a marked difference from other generations who view managerial attention as a type of performance improvement plan. We are passionate about our career development and don’t focus as much on hierarchy and tenure, which again is a marked change from previous generations. In essence, Millennials want the kind of regular, development-focused feedback that Rock is advocating for, and we want to know the transparent process and steps to help us get to the next level in our career, which is part of Effron’s argument.

I don’t think our generation views these concepts as contradictory. The Millennial paradigm is to put yourself out there and try an activity, gather feedback about how to do better, and use the goal of getting to the next step as motivation for trying harder. For the most part, since childhood Millennials have functioned in an environment that encourages both feedback for improvement and an open structure to promote advancement. This environment is our playbook for winning.

Speaking of winning, I recently heard a youth sports coach discussing his approach to coaching. He viewed his role as having two main functions: fielding the best possible team and helping his team win each game they played. Before the start of the season, the coach works very closely with other coaches to spread talent throughout the league in a way that calibrated talent levels, promoted skill development, and led to a positive and developmental experience for the players. Once the season started, his role shifted to maximizing the potential of each player in working toward a common goal (winning). Here, the coach builds understanding and confidence around how players can use their individual skills to help the team win.

Without knowing it, this coach provided a nice parallel for the future of performance management, as well as an excellent perspective regarding the framework that Millennials have on this subject. Millennials find an organization to advance in, and expect the attention to help them achieve this advancement.

A bit of quick data to consider: In 2015, Millennials became the largest generation represented in the workforce. Within the next 10 to 15 years, two-thirds of employees will be Millennials. So while David Rock and Marc Effron debate the benefits and drawbacks of performance ratings, I would encourage you to view that specific discussion as having an expiration date. The future of performance management isn’t an either-or discussion; it requires a focus on both the feedback to develop and a transparent process to advance. Performance management is evolving—is your organization ready to evolve with it?

About the Author

Rick Rittmaster, manager of learning and development at MTS, partners with individuals, teams, executives, and external resources to build a more capable and engaged workforce. Working in learning and development, Rick enjoys the sometimes tricky job of building people-centered solutions that meet MTS’s talent management needs. In addition to current learning and development initiatives, Rick also advises on innovation strategy and employee engagement initiatives, and manages the new employee orientation process.

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