Times are tough, right?

So what’s the point of reviewing performance?

Any business founder or forward- thinking CEO will tell you that cultivating, expanding and then sustaining a business brings many challenges.


These are amplified during periods of perpetual pressure.

But why does the simple act of plugging employees into the core goals of the business present as a dark and troublesome chore, just when you need your team to step up?


It’s tricky assigning goals to people for many reasons. With five generations working together, many employees resent alignment, authority and accountability and especially don’t like to be told what to do. Yet decent performance has very little to do with a good “telling to” .


The golden thread connecting business goals to individual objectives really should be what entices employees to go the extra mile, the stuff that could make the critical difference to the business. But why do employees hate appraisals?

And why does the very concept of a performance review or process give so many managers sleepless nights?


Well, the simple answer is: they’re not skilled or confident enough to operate the process properly.


The competencies required are seldom cultivated or taught and the process becomes laden with negativity, especially when employees don’t have the same skin in the game as their line managers looking to set their goals.

As recently as last year, a major global consultancy firm claimed that over half the business leaders they consulted were considering abandoning their performance review process completely.


  1. When pushed, they gave reasons like:
    1. “It’s not worth the time needed to fill out the forms”
    2. “The process leads to divisive and negative conversations that undermine morale”
    3. “ Younger employees especially, struggle with any hint of authority”

As a consequence, some high-profile organisations are experimenting with letting performance reviews slide.

While it may be trendy to bash appraisals, is it fair or even wise to undermine the process?
In my view, it’s madness, especially now.


So let me (briefly) debunk the excuses:

1. Time: It’s no surprise to me that the same leaders who blame process and can’t find the time often complain how hard it is to attract and retain employees or to cultivate a performance culture. Their behaviour is clearly the challenge, not the forms. What is more important than focus and encouragement, improvement and adjustment?
Their leaders need to re-frame the process; ensure every employee has clear and evolving goals and objectives and that they review them regularly with their line manager in short, focused sessions rather than treating it as an annual chore.


2. Negativity: Feedback and coaching skills don’t come naturally to most. If your process is driving cynicism, you’re not doing it right. Consider training or leadership coaching based on simple principles.


3. Authority: Again, positioning is key and this reaction suggests that your line managers need some development support. Accountability is a non-negotiable for all employees and if communicated appropriately, it should be a source of recognition and appreciation, a positive that bonds and inspires.


It’s a shocking realisation for some, I know, but companies really don’t exist solely for the benefits of their employees. Their purpose is to deliver the vision and objectives of the organisation. Hopefully their goals are balanced enough to include social and colleague metrics and will predominantly be linked to all-important customer and shareholder satisfaction. Even third-sector institutions get how important balance is.


The needs of colleagues, owners, customers and other stakeholders shouldn’t be mutually exclusive and won’t be seen that way, if the leaders are doing their job well.


The performance management system is a critical people process. It should help create and then cultivate the golden thread between corporate vision and employee contracts to drive performance, recognition and reward.

So it’s not only unwise to ignore PM.

It’s dangerously irresponsible.


We’ve recently helped one of the region’s largest building organisations re-construct their leadership development programme on the back of their approach to performance management. They’ve won awards for the resulting process. Their directors credit the resulting behaviour as the primary reason for their counter-cyclical positive performance as a business.

So if you’re tempted by the dark lure of the cynical chatter, try concentrating on re-engineering the way your leaders engage with others about their performance instead.

As their highly-rated HRD is fond of saying:
“it ain’t what you do but the way that you do it”.

                              How are your results?


Ian Buckingham is Mosaic’s Strategy Partner and Consultancy lead. and the CIPD’s former #HRFixer.


This article was originally commissioned by our client Bradley Hall for  Portfolio North magazine. Do connect with them on Linkedin for property and business updates from across the North and North East.


Decisiveness and the quality of decision-making is, not surprisingly, in the top half of Mosaic’s annual poll of Future Fit Leadership traits.

After all, it’s an unavoidable part of the role of any leader, to somehow make sense of the storm that includes: situation, context, circumstances, options and inputs and to come to a conclusion about a course of action that remains true to the official trajectory that the leader has subscribed to.


Yet it’s especially difficult, messy and lonely when that leader happens to work in the people professions, as many of our clients do.


The Mosaic team is drawn from practitioners who have all, at some stage, trodden similar paths to our clients, whether in the agency worlds or other sectors. But we recognise that, as objective third parties or consultants, the nature of the decisions we make, or influence, come with different levels of accountability. Our influencing relationship is different and the nature of the invitation is markedly different to that between a salaried Director and their Board.


With this in mind, we have again called upon the perspectives of a long-standing friend; someone with a legendary international networking presence; an HR pop star Steve Browne, to share his practical perspectives on this tricky topic, from the other side of the pond.


“I’ve worked in HR, here in the States, for oodles of years. My heritage pre-dates enlightened terms like “people-centered” and even “engaged employees”. To be blunt, workplace culture used to be sniggered at when terms like “satisfaction” or worse still, “employee happiness” were used.


Even as a junior staffer, I knew that something was wrong and that issues being experienced by colleagues downstream were the result of what was happening in the “water” above
(quite the metaphor for anyone who’s been camping).


My first “real” HR role was in a manufacturing company where the notion of process was strong. There were few bridges between HR and colleagues. So I took it upon myself to make the brave decision to get out of the office and to walk the floor, to go to where the bulk of the people were. Tom Peters calls this “managing by walking about, MBWA”. It just made decent horse sense to me.


Senior peers and managers said I was crazy and that I would be plagued by moaning or confronted by angry staff. But, within a relatively short time, the number of complaints and “tickets” raised dropped significantly. Why? Because I was accessible, people had a relationship with me and could come to me informally to address challenges before they snowballed. It worked.


My gut was right. My decision was vindicated.


I’ve always tried to present as an approachable, friendly person. It’s how I was raised and it is a natural part of my leadership style in a profession where others choose distance and many boundaries. Friends and contacts tell me that’s why I have nearly 50,000 international contacts, because I work on the social aspects of social media, a lot. I’ll take that. But it isn’t easy cultivating networks or leading change.


When I joined my current company, 17 years ago, my predecessor was known for his focus on due process; rigidity and hierarchy. Rules and systems took priority. Theory X was his leadership style.


I took a different view of our environment and felt strongly that integration and working across teams was the way forward, consulting and facilitating, coaching and influencing. To my mind HR should be seen as a partner and not a back office support function. It wasn’t always a popular view. But I held the line, despite strong opposition at times.


I have to admit that it’s taken longer than I’d hoped and has been a rocky road some weeks. But we’re now getting there. I’m proud of how HR is now woven into the fabric and that we’ve mentored and nurtured people-centric skills. It did test my belief in my convictions, however, and like many HR peers, I seldom get a lot of thanks.


Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had my share of setbacks during my career and there have been times where I’ve questioned why I didn’t adopt a more straightforward profession or approach with cleaner and clearer deliverables and outcomes.


There are HR professionals who set boundaries rigidly and come to work to focus on task. Perhaps they sleep better at night? But I’ve learned the hard way that there’s often an inverse relationship between organisations that claim, loudly, that people are “their greatest asset” and the sub-prime amount of time and attention as well as resources they actually dedicate to the people professions.


I’ve joined organisations where the reactionary and inflexible nature of the more traditional management strictures has been doggedly persistent. Here, my approach has been criticised as idealism and I’ve been constantly under attack. Sometimes, the adage “you have to work within the culture to influence it” is all too painfully true. And there have been situations and roles where I’ve had to admit defeat and give in to the status quo.


Where I have left the arena on my shield, I know that I’ve at least managed to cultivate enlightened sparks in at least some progressive eyes, through example. But rigid structures are hard to re-shape, even when they’re faced with a changing commercial landscape. Not surprisingly, however, one of those organisations was recently taken over by an acquisition they couldn’t defend.


In terms of lessons, I see leadership as something that has to change and evolve organically in line with changing pressures and norms and opportunities. I feel I’ve learned from mistakes. Not least that we all make them. But what’s important is that I’ve consistently made decisions that are true to my core values and beliefs; I’ve stuck to them; despite a lot of pressure and ultimately I’ve left most roles better for having been there. And that matters.


I’d have it no other way.”


We know that the community members who read these posts are interested in the power of the people professions to influence and enable effective business outcomes. Steve’s journey and examples highlight the importance of taking and sticking with values-based decisions at key moments. As an agency, we attract our fair share of cynicism and are often called idealists.


Well, long may that last.


Here’s to Steve and the fellow Don Quixotes, tilting at giants.  He’s an author, speaker and prolific HR networker on a mission to connect with HR professionals worldwide. Soi f you’re not connected with him on Twitter, look up @sbrownehr or contact us at @PartnersMosaic and we’ll join the dots for you.

How infectious is your leadership practice?

A tale of how to change through listening and adapting….and how not to.

This calendar year in this spotlight series, we’ve so-far covered off leading with humanity as well as inclusive and sustainable leadership from our top ten Future Fit Leadership traits shortlist.


The first two certainly resonate with the more people-centric sentiments that emerged from the lockdown period, a rare time, when people were forced to work remotely and it’s fair to say, generally missed the subtleties of in-person contact in all social settings, including work. It’s also fair to say that some of the novelty associated with that unique epoch in the leadership cannon has not lingered as long as many predicted. The ingrained reflex to push and pull people back to the commute and the 9-5 office ritual has proven powerful and we’ve certainly seen a strong compulsion to return to “business as usual”, whatever that may mean. Sadly, this has often resulted in plummeting engagement rates, culture development challenges and leadership coaching needs across sectors. There are exceptions, of course.


It’s been a busy quarter. Leaders have had a lot to cope with in this volatile socio-economic matrix. With five generations working together, the solutions to daily dilemmas aren’t always straightforward and are testing leadership lore.

Time’s precious, so we’re combining two themes into one blog this month. This time we unpack what influencing; listening, understanding and adapting looks like as future fit leadership practice. Because it’s important.


Influence is becoming an increasingly potent leadership skill as the mix of stakeholders that leaders have to manage expands at the pace of the growth of communication challenges and the demands of innovative thinking.

When it comes to managing change, the semantics are dominated by terms like: nudge; evolve; agile; cascade and waterfall. They, all emphasise incremental change at scale. So it’s no surprise (and pretty ironic) that the parlance of post-pandemic change includes the term viral to describe its subtle pervasiveness.


Come to think of it, the root of the word influence is similar to the origins of the most infamous virus: influenza, originally coined to describe the virus as “the influence of the stars” as a way of describing the way the illness spread through the air in an unenlightened age.


Well-intentioned influencing skills clearly aren’t malevolent…always. But the term aptly describes the associated traits. Influence is the antithesis of hierarchical power or control. It’s a far more subtle art suited to these psychological safety-obsessed, inclusion and wellbeing-conscious days.


In Brand Engagement, Ian describes effective communication as “a message transmitted from one person to another in such a way that it results in the action intended”. It’s a simple definition but note the viral nature and the fact that it is neatly both channel and mode neutral. This description implies that a number of qualities need to be present on both the transmitting and receiving side of the equation in order for the messaging to be successful, including willingness to engage and listening for understanding rather than listening in order to respond.


Future Fit Leaders always have an eye on the horizon. But they are constantly attuned to the needs, feelings, and sentiments of their colleagues as they not only need feedback on their strategy and plan, but need their creative input and contributions to the processes that will ensure that they meet their collective goals and milestones. In short, they listen much more than they speak. Think about the great leaders you’ve worked with. I bet this infectious and compelling style was a defining characteristic, however charismatic they were, especially when they shifted to high promoting and motivating mode, as all leaders have to at some point.


To illustrate the importance of influencing skills, here are two extended and very practical examples, from the same sector. They both stem from predominantly passive aggressive cultures. But they highlight two very different responses to the same overwhelming external stimulus and bring the blessing of lessons aplenty.


Organisation A: deliberately shadowed the government’s response to the global pandemic, doing the bare minimum in advance of lockdown (and hoping to avoid it0. However, we were advising their leaders on communication and engagement at the time. So, ignoring out-moded policy, with the support of a handful of forward-looking leaders behind the scenes who were convinced by our business case, we created a preparatory shadow crisis communications strategy in the first two weeks of the emerging problem.


We then worked with the first line managers and divided the colleague population into two “crews”:


  • most “at risk” who were asked to setup and work from home immediately
  • their counterparts who were prepared to “hold the fort” at the office.


Despite the reactive response of a few key members of the senior leadership team, this approach ensured that the organisation both complied with the official line and prepared a deeper, more avant-garde approach for when the crisis erupted.


It ultimately served them well. It was subtle and viral in nature, a regular, dependable rhythm during unpredictable days. It was, short and sharp. Communication drops and engagement sessions set out “what if” scenarios and were hungry for questions. There were a few internal complaints and grumblings about doing more than expected, but they soon tapered off when the true scale of the collective challenge became clear.


Unfortunately, the reactionary approach of the senior leadership team wasn’t just confined to the original approach to strategy. Before the engagement axis could influence them, several key players ran for the hills during the onset of the pandemic, one notably opting to strand themselves abroad during the most important initial phase of the crisis. This undoubtedly increased the intense burden on the communications, HR and IT functions. Interestingly all were led by interim and temporary senior executives at the time, all familiar with the true nature of change and willing to hold the line.


Fortunately, the proactive strategy included a range of variable scenarios and prioritised listening and engagement above “push” communication. This mechanism ensured that line managers at all levels were not only fully briefed and coordinated, regardless of cynicism and fear, but were also able to feed-back best practices and act as an emotional barometer during the most challenging of times.


As a result, it soon became very clear who the true leaders were. Many emerged at middle manager level and it will come as little surprise that, despite navigating the pandemic well, the organisation continues to wrestle with their internal culture and a “back to the future” compulsion now that the interim Execs have left.


Following a steady slew of Glassdoor negativity, they recently appointed another director to head the change process that started five years ago. Sadly, in this case, the positive influence ran its course and business as usual eventually retained control. Unfortunately their corporate reputation continues to suffer as a result with a dire net-promoter score and lots of negative examples.


Now, for the flipside.


When we called time on the aforementioned partnership after seeing the client safely through the eye of the crisis, we answered the call from an influential part of a major healthcare provider who were understandably struggling under the relentless pressure. Once again, we focused on expanding their communication and engagement strategy to encompass all priority stakeholders. But this time we started with the board and senior leaders and insisted on collective responsibility; engagement and commitment. Leveraging and flipping some pretty dire feedback, we were able to re-create the focus and energy of the pre-pandemic period, engineering a sense of unity, compulsion and inspiration to see them safely and effectively through the final stages and into the future. We created a sense of certainty and hope by looking far beyond the darkness and we consulted and involved as many people as we could.


Bridging communication to organisation development and change, we convinced the leaders to role-model people-centred practice, embracing their key influential roles despite being confined to the online environment. The format brought opportunities for vulnerability and authenticity and we made the most of it. That meant facing up to tough news, consulting with colleagues relentlessly; doing twice as much listening as talking and forever focusing one step up on the engagement channel matrix. So instead of calling they held face to face sessions and despite the depth of feeling they always focused on the positives. Coaching the top team, we created a communications calendar based on appreciative principles, viral change, subtle influencing and sharing best practices rather than dwelling on critique, problems and issues. And it worked.


Within a quarter, stakeholder engagement statistics had started to climb out of their nose-dive. On the back of the example set by the leaders, podcasts and listening groups leadership roles were quickly filled and secondment places were in demand. This helped foster a sense of community and joint-problem-solving, and even the recruitment of three new senior leaders was embraced as an opportunity rather than a loss to the transformation drive. Each spent their first 100 days consulting widely, listening to gain influence and then implementing strategies clearly related to what they had gleaned rather than taking a “new broom” approach. Honouring the past while learning from it to create a compelling and evolved future became a catch phrase that helped the senior leaders pivot to face the future with confidence.


They have just sailed through a tricky audit, secured their future funding, and have since been shortlisted for several industry and Marcomms awards for their engagement and campaign work. This is all testimony to the enlightened approach of all concerned, especially stars like the Chairman and CEO and their conviction to adopt the subtle arts rather than mass broadcasts and constant cascades.


Regardless of whether you’re reading this as a client, partner, or part of our wider community of practice, you probably recognise parts of both these scenarios from your current leadership frame of reference. Hopefully you haven’t witnessed too many examples of “phantom leadership”, but sadly, I suspect, the “back to the future” approach to presenteeism most likely rings too true too often. You can and should influence and reinvent this narrative.


The reason why we have decided to sponsor the annual Mosaic Future Fit Leadership review and resulting academy is partly to track the evolution of leadership thinking during this time of relentless pressure, in an attempt to promote more future fit leadership behaviour. But it’s also our aim to identify and share emerging best practices that we then fold into our coaching and leadership development practice. As consultants and coaches we practice what we preach.


Do drop us a line if you want to know more.