Improving performance is not just about process, it’s what you do with it

By Stephen Easton

Monday April 13, 2015

The latest push to reinvigorate performance management in the Australian Public Service won’t succeed without the buy-in of leaders and executive-level staff working to improve their people management skills.

To help middle managers get a handle on applying the principles of high performance management in the real world and within their existing processes, the Australia and New Zealand School of Government is running a popular workshop on the subject for the second time this May.

The host is one of Australia’s leading experts in the field, public sector management strategy professor Deborah Blackman, who led the Australian Public Service Commission’s three-year project, Strengthening the Performance Framework, and development of the related diagnostic tool for agencies.

Blackman says the workshop explores the reasoning behind the conclusions the research team reached for the APSC: that the focus must shift to encouraging high performance among all staff, instead of seeking out the small number of underperformers; and that performance management must become part of day-to-day, core business. The shift to high performance should also be linked to everything else that’s going on.

“Lots of organisations have got big change management processes going on, and what I’m finding slightly strange is that they’re not linking their performance management systems to those change management processes,” Blackman told The Mandarin.

Change management and high performance people management are both tools that should fit together with everything else into an “integrated system”, she adds, and it’s not just the big machinery-of-government changes she is talking about. High performance can also help to bed down new ways of working that come from ever-present demands for productivity gains.

“Particularly for the productivity ideas, you need that buy-in from staff, which means you need the positivity, which means you need to be thinking about it in a ‘high-performing’ way, and that’s why the whole thing should be fitting together,” said Blackman.

Applying the new principles for high performance management does not mean new processes. That wouldn’t help anyway, according to the research, which showed there are many processes that would get the job done. “It’s all about the managerial capacity, not the process, so we talk about how to build that capacity, how to get better at what you do,” the professor explained.

” … you need that buy-in from staff, which means you need the positivity, which means you need to be thinking about it in a ‘high-performing’ way … ”

Much more important is buy-in from executive-level managers — not just in human resources but everywhere — and leadership from the senior executives to clearly explain what is happening. Without this, performance management will forever remain a loathesome box-ticking exercise.

According to Blackman, there’s renewed focus on the lack of people management skills in the middle ranks, where a lot of public servants have been promoted on the basis of their success at completing tasks. “You’ve got managers now coming up with bigger spans of control who’ve always been focused on task, and they’ve not had to learn how to manage people before,” she said.

The workshop, she says, is “an opportunity to not only learn about performance management but actually to talk about the issues around managing people on a day-to-day basis”.

“One of the things we talk about is there’s a big focus on culture,” Blackman explained. “Culture is important, but the problem with culture is it can take years to grow and years to change.

“Dr Fiona Buick worked on the [APSC] project as well, and her work showed that if you have a clear, common purpose and a clear set of outcomes, so people know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, you actually don’t need a shared culture.

“You can work around the culture you’ve got and develop the new one, so it’s not just about performance management per se, it’s about the whole idea of it as part of managing people, part of how you do change and culture management, all of those kind of things.

“The workshop is really an opportunity for the people who are learning how to manage people to talk about all those things.”

The ANZSOG workshop, Driving High Performance: Managing organisations and people, is being held in Canberra over May 20-21.

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