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Performance Improvement Needs Candid Assessment

To improve future performance, it is necessary to candidly assess past performance.  That means overcoming resistance to criticism and learning to give it in a constructive way.

The Case Of The Lost Review

Once I was called in to facilitate a performance improvement process at a successful high-tech company.  

When looking for artifacts from past projects, I discovered that the group held a post project review for a large recent project but that there were neither notes nor report.  My contact told me that the event had been video recorded but that the recording was “lost.”

Upon further exploration I discovered that the review process was so divisive and inconclusive that management decided to just move on and focus on the future.   

When we planned the kick-off event for the improvement program, we decided to use the controversial project as a case in point. 


The goal for the improvement program was sustainable optimal performance based on establishing a continuously improving learning culture.  

To achieve the goal, we would address the foundation for successful process improvement:

  • open-minded objectivity
  • responsive vs. reactive behavior
  • effective communication
  • mindful awareness.

From that foundation, we would then explore how to approach performance improvement using techniques and concepts like goal setting, cause and effect analysis, performance measurement and review, conflict management and decision making, managing change, and methodology. 

Overcoming Obstacles

A crucial step in creating a continuously improving culture is the recognition and overcoming of obstacles, particularly the attitudes and habits that get in the way of candid performance assessment.

To achieve continuous improvement, it stakeholders must explore their own mental models, beliefs and biases.  Peter Senge advises us to turn “the mirror inward, learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny.  to “… carry on ‘learningful’ conversations that balance inquiry and advocacy, where people expose their own thinking effectively and make that thinking open to the influence of others.”(Senge, P. (1994) The Fifth Discipline, p 9)

Too many improvement programs focus in on concrete techniques like measurement and review without addressing the more systemic interpersonal issues that are at the heart of the collaboration that fuels the program.  

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Performance Assessment

When we look at performance assessment, we recognize that it serves all stakeholders and the organization as a whole.  The stakeholders are performers, managers, executives, clients, and anyone else effected by the performance results.  

While many of the stakeholders will not be present at a specific review session, it is important to consider their input and perspective.  Keep in mind the intention to serve the stakeholders with quality performance by reflecting on past performance, learning from it, and applying the lessons learned.  

Assessment is important and necessary.  The challenge is to find the right balance between objectivity and subjectivity in assessing capability to perform and then to improve future performance.  

Objectivity begins with demonstrated performance, though we must recognize that there are always subjective perspectives at work.  One person’s sense of what is or isn’t effective performance can be quite different from another’s.  

To minimize the subjectivity there is need for clear mutually agreed upon criteria.  What are the attributes of effective performance and what are each attribute’s weights?  For example, when it comes to an individual, is truthfulness and the ability to own up to and learn from mistakes an important attribute?  Is it more or less important than technical skill?  

When assessing a team’s performance on a project, what are the critical measures of effective performance?   Are they limited to timeliness and budget compliance or do they include criteria like the satisfaction of stakeholders about relationships and the usefulness of the results over time?  How do the criteria enable an assessment of the probability of performing a similar or more complex assignment in the future?

Coming up with the criteria is a process that goes well beyond adopting an off the shelf model, though models and the tools that go along with them are useful starting points.  it is important to involve key stakeholders, particularly the people whose work will be assessed, in the decision process.  

The process of developing or fine tuning the assessment criteria is a means for gaining support, exposing biases, and for learning about assessment and its role in improvement.  Without the buy-in of the performers and their understanding of the dynamics at work in assessment, effective reviews are less likely.


While concrete measurement and criteria are desirable, addressing the dynamics at work is critical.  These dynamics have two dimensions – organizational and personal.

On the organizational side, is there more than lip service to values like objectivity and confronting dysfunction while not punishing those who have performed poorly?  What is the organization’s tolerance for slow learners and marginal performers?  How does management at all levels act?  is it in sync with or at odds with stated values?  

An organization that has the goal of establishing a continuously improving learning culture, must avoid punitive behavior and be willing to confront performance dysfunction in the face of internal politics.  How does one improve performance and fairly and effectively manage the incompetent and those who do not fit in with the organization’s culture?

The personal dynamics center on the degree to which people seek to avoid critical performance evaluation, where performance includes decision making and the quality of relationships.  How does one adequately assess competence/capability when giving and receiving negative feedback is avoided by many for fear of repercussions? 

Address the often deeply embedded resistance to criticism.  This resistance is not easily overcome.  It takes more than policy statements, procedures and guidelines to cut through it.

It takes 

  • Commitment and example form the highest levels of the organization
  • Mindfulness and emotional intelligence to be aware of and not driven by emotions like fear of punishment and anger
  • Valuing and opening to criticism from others – making one’s thinking open to input from others; recognizing that through criticism there can be improvement

Being able to give criticism honestly and respectfully.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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