In theory... Performance management

Emma De Vita's weekly look at management-speak.

In the target-crazy world that is modern Britain, it should come as no surprise that employees should be set ambitious goals and have their performance measured. As the thinking goes, if it's good enough for the NHS and schools, then it's good enough for voluntary organisations.

You would think that nothing could be simpler than managing people, but the underperformance of organisations suggests otherwise. The effective boss motivates staff and appraises their performance in a way that encourages ever better productivity. But how many bosses fall down at the first hurdle by sidling out of appraisals or using them to castigate quivering employees?

Things used to be much more straightforward. A century ago, it was enough for managers to simply order their workers to do things. If employees failed to comply, they were fired; if production targets were surpassed new workers were taken on. People were seen as mere factors of production.

But in 1911, US engineer Frederick Taylor published The Principles of Scientific Management, in which he wrote: "The principal object of management should be to secure the maximum prosperity for the employer, coupled with the maximum prosperity for each employee." His writing precipitated a shift in workplace attitudes: workers would no longer be viewed as small cogs in a larger machine but as individuals with their own needs and desires.

A century on, where are things heading? There appears to be a gap between individual and organisational performance. Targets are set, then missed and the mud-slinging begins. Blame flies around and morale gets lower. Some organisations simply get rid of underperformers, but that pushes the problem under the carpet. Until some realism is introduced, managers will continue to set unachievable and meaningless targets for their employees and bang their heads against the wall when they remain unmet.

- Emma De Vita is a senior section editor on Management Today.

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