Julia Smith on Personalising Performance

Performance management should enable performance and build capability. When it is done well, it has the potential to positively influence culture, employee engagement and organisational effectiveness. Until recently, performance management had a poor reputation, but in recent years many organisations have made a positive shift in performance management mindset and approach. Whilst the changes are welcome and encouraging, there is a risk that we repeat history by falling into the trap of applying performance management in the same impersonal and generic way.

Personalising Performance

We perform at our best when we have clear and stretching goals, when we feel we have the skills and autonomy to do our work, when work has meaning, and we can see the impact we have.

The drivers of high performance are highly personal yet for decades we have tried to manage performance using generic, homogenous, ‘pre-packed’ approaches, particularly when it comes to goal setting, performance conversations and evaluating performance.

I think one of the biggest issues with performance management is that we have tried to make it do too many things. It morphed from a process designed to enable performance to a process that simply feeds other processes such as reward, promotion, redundancy selection and training course nominations. I worked in one organisation that used performance ratings to decide whether you were invited to a Town Hall with the CEO when he visited. It really is no wonder that performance management became over-engineered and impersonal. It lost its purpose.

In the last few years, we have seen a positive shift away from the slow cascading of pre-defined goals, infrequent appraisals, and impersonal ratings. These have been replaced by frequent performance conversations, dynamic goal setting and the ripping out of divisive ratings and distribution curves. I am an advocate of these changes, but I do have a niggling worry that we may be falling into the same trap of applying processes (albeit better than they once were) without really personalising them to individuals or teams. So, my rallying cry is to let us make performance personal again.

By taking a more personalised approach, organisations have the potential to really catalyse high performance. This can be achieved by cultivating a performance and development culture that has one primary purpose, helping everyone be their best.

Four Ways to Personalise Performance

Personalised performance can be achieved by tapping into the concept of ‘Psychological Empowerment'. Psychological Empowerment is a form of intrinsic motivation that is made up of four factors: meaning, capability, self-determination and impact. Psychological Empowerment is the experience of feeling connected to the work we are doing, having the skills to do it well, feeling in control of how we do it and being able to see the impact we have. When a person experiences these four factors, great things happen. Research has shown that Psychological Empowerment is associated with organisational citizenship, employee voice, positive leader and employee relations and crucially, job performance. People leaders can apply performance and development techniques in a way that creates Psychological Empowerment which is easy to do when they truly understand their people.

Here are 4 ways that we can personalise performance and achieve psychological empowerment:

Goal setting

We can personalise goals by crafting them in a way that they play to individual strengths and preferences. By doing so, people are more likely to connect with and be motivated by those goals. Also, ensuring they are co-created so the individual feels some ownership and control over what they need to achieve. By shaping goals in this way, our people will feel a greater sense of purpose and connection to their work. (Meaning & Self-Determination)

Performance conversations

Having more frequent, less formal performance conversations that are grounded in coaching, create stronger connections between the leader and team member, and conversations become more natural and tailored to each person. Through coaching, ideas, learning, and solutions come from within the individual giving them control and helping them grow (Competence & Self-Determination).


We all learn differently and simply having a conversation about preferred ways of learning when agreeing on development plans will ensure they are personalised and impactful. If your organisation encourages feedback from multiple sources, even better as this means the development plan will be insight-driven and relevant.

For me, simply helping your people optimise learning through experiences tailored to their needs, that challenge them is a powerful way of accelerating their development (Competence)

Evaluating performance

Moving away from ratings, scales or labels toward narratives that describe impact and contribution are a more personal and insightful way of helping someone understand their performance. Being labelled with the same performance rating as many of your colleagues (probably 68.27% of them if using a standard distribution curve) feels impersonal and adds little value to a person’s awareness. Talking about impact explicitly and honestly is a more meaningful way to help people understand their contribution to the team and the organisation’s success. It is also easier to frame tougher performance messages this way. (Impact and Meaning). For those organisations that need a form of differentiation/rating then this method can also work by incorporating the language of ‘impact’ when designing a rating system.

Help everyone be their best

We can truly enhance our performance management approaches by simply giving it a primary purpose which is to help every one of us be our best. To achieve this, we need to create more personalised approaches which tap into each person’s individual intrinsic motivators of meaning, capability, control, and impact. If we apply current performance management tools through this lens, we can unlock potential and prevent performance management becoming the homogenous machine we endeavoured to discard.

Julia Smith will be speaking at People Power on 16th November at Hilton Newcastle Gateshead. To hear more from Julia and for more information, book your place here: www.peoplepowerevents.co.uk