Managing Performance in the Modern Workplace

Managing performance in the modern workplace is different.  As organizations deconstruct jobs into skills, remove layers of management and intentionally drive decision-making and accountability to the base of their structures, performance management becomes more and more a function of collective alignment and influence, as opposed to the traditional exercise of well-defined command and control. 

That shift is ushering in cultures that are defined by their ability to have transparent conversations. Those conversations increasingly feature peer and upward influence and are intended to effectively resolve conflicts and provide in-the-moment feedback, as well as “feedforward.”   

What is Performance Management?

At some level, we are all familiar with one system or another of Performance Management.  The common elements are Objectives, Feedback and Evaluation.


Traditionally performance objectives were developed at the beginning of the year. You filled out a form identifying what you would accomplish over the next 12 months to contribute to the organization’s goals. You then sat down with your immediate supervisor and compared your draft with theirs. This discussion culminated with a formalized statement of intent that represented your agreed-upon vision of what you would do and how you would do it.


Your manager was responsible for providing you with feedback on your objectives throughout the year. This feedback usually came in one of two forms:

  • Planned feedback was formal. It usually took place once a quarter and was documented. These sessions were intentional exchanges focused on ensuring you were aware of how you were tracking toward your overall performance targets
  • Spontaneous feedback was just that! Your manager had the option of providing you with an in-the-moment perspective. This varied from manager to manager of course, and documentation was optional


This was the end-of-year event where your manager gave you a formal rating. This rating was often governed by the normal distribution curve (which forced managers into a configuration where they could only have so many high performers). Your rating was directly tied to your compensation (i.e., bonus based on relative contribution).

Performance Management Best Practices

Challenges with the traditional system of Performance Management were/are self-evident.  But ask yourself this, when was the last time you sat down in January and accurately predicted how the next 12 months were going to roll?

Contemporary best practices of performance management are grounded in all things “agility.” The process still initiates with objectives, but those objectives are cast in anything but concrete! As change happens, objectives are adjusted to reflect the new reality.

Feedback is different as well. Emphasis is placed not only on how to give it, but how to receive it. Beyond that, feedback is rapidly giving way to “feedforward” (where the emphasis of the exchange is not on what you have already done and can’t do anything about, but on suggestions of things you could consider moving forward).  

Tackling Tough Situations

Other glaring points of differentiation between traditional performance management practices and those of today are the content focus and directionality of the feedforward. 

Significantly more attention is currently being paid to “the how” as opposed to “the what.” In the spirit of agility, the content of contemporary performance discussions favors “soft skills”. Things like how to effectively manage conflict or execute a difficult conversation are examples.

And as far as the directionality of the feedforward, it continues to flow from the top down, but with ever-increasing regularity, it flows from the bottom up as well as “from side to side.”  

How to Manage Conflict in the Workplace

Conflict in the workplace is inevitable. The trick is to recognize and own those conflicts as soon as humanly possible and take steps to engage in the comparatively difficult conversations that are necessary to resolve them. Here are several points to consider in that regard:

  • Timely Discussion – The worst possible strategy to employ when conflict is present in the workplace is to pretend that it isn’t! Authentic and transparent exchanges at the first indications of differences are typically better received than exchanges that take place when pronounced damage has been done but not addressed
  • Focus on Behavior and Events – Performance management discussions need to be about behavior and events. In other words—things that happened! People have different interpretations of those kinds of things, and that is what needs to be discussed. What did the behavior mean? What was the true intention behind it? Clarifying that meaning and avoiding the tendency to infer without explanation or illumination is critical.
  • Establish a Shared Pool of Meaning – If the objectives of performance are clearly stated and understood, the resolution of conflict is far more likely. If that is the case, the parties in conflict can at least agree on what they are trying to accomplish and use that as a “North Star” of sorts to aid in the resolution of the disagreement.

How to Provide Feedback to Your Boss

Traditionally, the role of the boss has been to provide feedback, and the role of the recipient has been to receive it. When the boss gives feedback, it is powered by the legitimacy of their position and by trust as well. When you provide feedback or feedforward up to your boss or laterally to your peers, it is fueled almost exclusively by trust or “referent power.” As such, it is by no means the same thing. However multidirectional feedforward can have a dramatically positive effect on both performance and culture. Here are three things to consider when you are attempting to influence without authority:

  • Initiate with Empathy – Starting conversations with openers like: “Perhaps this is not my place, but …” or: “This is difficult to say, but …” can go a long way to positioning your perspective in a non-confrontational manner.
  • Keep it Focused and Constructive – After opening, cut to the chase with the essence of your message. Stick to facts, data and observations of behavior.
  • Make a Clear Distinction Between Feedforward and Advice – If properly positioned, feedforward empowers the recipient to think differently and perhaps behave differently. By comparison, providing advice restricts options and stifles the discussion of alternatives.

Learn More About Leadership in the Modern Workplace

The Center for Leadership Studies (CLS) is the global home of the Situational Leadership® Model. Through programs like Situational Leadership® Essentials and Situational Performance Ownership™, CLS is helping leaders at all levels hit productivity targets, enhance employee engagement and retain key talent.  

And while Situational Leadership® has forever been a language of performance management, the use of that language, and the flow of those conversations, are moving up, down and across organizations like never before! At CLS we build leaders and drive behavior change.