Differences in Performance Perceptions

As the recession pushed organizations to practice care in spending while attempting to hang on to their highest value talent, pay for performance experienced a renewal. Faced with limited resources and increased demand for efficiency, leaders appealed to their higher level performers to do more with less based on the assumption that a targeted approach would be less costly and would make sure the money benefited those most valuable to the organization.

Now, as the economy improves, organizations seem to be questioning if pay for performance actually worked. Meaning, did it actually help to retain and reward the best talent in the organization? Similarly, if they failed to implement it during the downturn, many are asking if it is too late to join those already providing performance-based rewards in order to increase competitiveness in the future.

In all fairness, the recession did not spawn pay for performance and the mixed results of its use predates this decade. However, like other crises, leaders tended to risk change when experiencing sudden or dramatic uncertainty.

Over the last several months, I have been examining some of the experiences of those that implemented pay for performance during the downturn. Although the research did not explore every facet of these programs, a simple, yet central question kept reoccurring: do leaders and employees have the same perceptions of the pay for performance programs? Based on a sample of six major organizations that completed at least three rounds of reviews in the last five years, leaders, supervisors, and employees were asked a series of questions on their perceptions of the program’s effectiveness. A few of the major findings related to the mission, understanding, and results of the program appear below:

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Approximately 75 percent of leaders felt the program accomplished its stated mission. In most cases, the stated mission involved recognizing and rewarding high performers. Slightly less supervisors agreed with the question, while a little less than a third of employees agreed. These results would not be atypical of other leadership initiatives that come from the top down. Most pay for performance programs experience a communication as well as execution gap between levels.

The next two questions focus on the communication and understanding elements of the program. Not surprisingly, leaders possessed a high level of confidence that employees understood the system, while supervisors were less confident at approximately 56 percent.

On average, about 38 percent of employees agreed that they understood the tool and how compensation related to it. Similarly, leaders and supervisors felt confident that employees not only understood the program’s tools, but also know what actions and behaviors result in a higher score and more compensation. Supervisors appear the most confident. Given their role in ensuring that employees know how to improve, this result is not surprising.

The last question addresses the outcome of the program from a process standpoint: did the right people receive the reward? Similar to the other three questions, employees feel that the intent did not match the outcome. Roughly 31 percent of employees indicated that the reward went to the biggest contributors.

Some might argue that the results point to the inadequacy or even inappropriateness of pay for performance as a method of recognition and reward. Although it could be an element in that debate, I would argue that the results point more to a lack of appropriate appreciation of the complexity of managing human performance. Like most elements of management, ensuring that results reach potential is not easy. In the next posting, I will explore some of the actions of those that were more successful with their programs.