Performance enablement

Performance management is broadly used as a way to plan, review, and reward people for their contributions. For folks who are unfamiliar about how the process looks like in larger tech companies, it broadly consists of:

  1. Aligning expectations. Companies usually have a framework that dictates expected behaviour and scope of impact for a specific seniority level; and role-specific expectations provided by the person's direct manager, such as expectations within their team or organisation. The beginning of each performance management cycle usually consists of discussing the current state of the person's abilities in these two dimensions and agreeing on a plan of what the next cycle should look like.

  2. Continuously provide support and feedback. Throughout the performance cycle, people need to have the support channels to seek input, give feedback and realign expectations. Typically, the process consists of 1:1s on a weekly/biweekly basis and plan/goal reviews every month. Some companies also have mid-cycle check-ins, which are the mid-point of a performance cycle, with slightly more formal feedback and reflections.

  3. Recognising and rewarding contributions. At the end of each performance cycle, people are rewarded and recognised for their achievements. Different companies will also have their intricacies, but it is usually a combination of extra compensation (e.g. salary raises, stock/equity refreshers, bonuses) and more scope and responsibility (promotions, taking on more responsibility, and so forth). The reward piece is usually defined through a committee set up to reduce bias and focus on facts, so the process is as fair as possible. The outputs of this stage are used as input for the next performance cycle.

Performance management implies control, and managers have their fair share of responsibility for a person's success in their role. Although, for the vast majority of the time, I find it beneficial to approach my role as a manager in a person's performance as an enablement function rather than a controlling one. To explain my point further, consider two performance targets I took from Radical Candor: folks seeking growth and folks seeking stability.

§Enabling a growth trajectory

For the sake of definition, growth can be folks testing the waters with next-level work, such as someone seeking a senior to staff promotion, but also folks seeking a learning opportunity such as a backend engineer wanting to do more data work or wanting to try a new role out, or an EM filling as interim EM for a vacancy within the same organisation to get exposed to different challenges.

Regardless of the scenario, enabling growth is fundamentally about matching people to their aspirations. Enablement consists of jointly identifying meaningful opportunities that will stretch people to their target condition. The first scenario is more straightforward – promotions are "lagging", meaning there's a need to perform at the next level to get promoted, so expectation alignment consists of setting up goals for that person as if they were at the next level. In the learning-focused case, expectations are usually less company-bound and much more team-bound or organisation-bound – which theoretically the manager has even more agency over.

Similarly, providing support and feedback can be done in many ways. Examples include directly through already established 1:1 channels mentioned before and indirectly through helping the person build a support network around them: good mentors to provide them with advice, a financial incentive for learning & development by leveraging company benefits and budget, etc.

In short, while managers can be a multiplying force in someone's growth trajectory, people should have agency and desire for the development path. That is why I believe a manager's role in a person's growth trajectory is fundamentally about enablement.

§Enabling a stability trajectory

A stability trajectory assumes that the person is performing well at their current level and wishes to continue so for whatever reason. Some companies have growth pressure for career progression up to what they call "terminal" level, which once reached, there's no risk of "up-or-out". In such circumstances, people commonly seek stability rather than growth for many reasons, ranging from their focus being elsewhere on their lives or simply liking things as they are.

In such scenarios, people already know well the expectations at their level. In most means, especially in "terminal" levels, a manager's role for a report on a stability trajectory is enablement.

§When to control performance

While most of the work seems to be enablement, there are great reasons why controlling performance is a reasonable approach. A manager is ultimately accountable for the team's outcomes, and sometimes consensus with the report isn't possible. Here are some examples that come to mind:

  • When an individual growth trajectory can impact business goals or commitments. Typical scenarios of it going wrong include chasing a promotion through promotion-driven development and resulting in a bad rating at the current level and missed targets because of the negligence of the manager, or not defining an experiment period and rollback plan for folks making lateral moves from IC-to-management and vice versa. Good controls to avoid such situations are using the expectation alignment stage at the beginning of the performance cycle to define when to intervene and how that would happen.
  • When an individual action impacts their teammates or their directs team, for instance, when there's resistance to develop a skill where the lack thereof affects the team's functioning. A good example might be a manager who doesn't want any involvement in technical decisions but can't delegate the responsibility to a senior/staff IC. Folks sometimes may unintentionally swim against the team's current, and a good way to proactively control it from becoming a performance issue is through openly discussing it in 1:1s, goal reviews, and pointing people out to the company-level expectation guidelines for their level.

There are many other circumstances, but I believe that the bottom-line is two-fold: firstly, more than when, "how" matters a lot – arbitrary control may come across as micro-management; and secondly, usually the control aspect of performance management becomes critical to be exerted when there's an impact beyond the person in their actions, which is very common for managers, less for ICs.

§When not to control performance

Similarly, things can also go wrong by attempting to manage performance from the controlling angle too much. One example that comes to mind is when the manager and the report have misaligned incentives. What I mean by that is that what's "right" for the role at hand is not what's "right" for the person, e.g. significant need for t-shapedness and the individual wanting to go on the specialist route. In such circumstances, applying control may leave only two bad options to choose from: bending the role to fit the person in or bending the person to fit into the role.

Such situations are where the enablement framing has helped me the most – a high performing individual in another team is a better outcome than a low performing individual in this specific team for the business. I've seen folks move internally and get promoted in the next cycle because they were fundamentally ready but lacked matching opportunities, and folks leave companies because they didn't want to develop their skillset in the direction the specific team needed. Undoubtedly, the former situation is preferred, hence why, by default, I believe looking at performance management from the enablement angle tends to work quite well, at least for me.