Performance Plans , Personal Development Plans and Performance Reviews

Why is it that getting performance planning, personal development planning and performance reviews to work is so hard?

In the past few days I had a discussion with a high level senior executive service manager responsible for human resource management for a large public sector organisation.  He was expressing frustration about the unwillingness of people, throughout the organisation, to engage in meaningful dialogue around performance planning and performance review.  In fact he said many managers didn’t do it at all!

Many times over recent months people I am coaching have spoken of the fact that they cannot get clarity around the expectations of their managers in terms of their roles and/or priorities.  Even when there has been discussion around these issues they have been unable to have a satisfactory discussion around their personal development plans. Often the discussion about development plans is deferred with words along the lines of ‘Lets talk about that when we know our budget’. It is as though investment in peoples’ capability is a separate issue and something entirely discretionary .

I have also had discussions several times, in the past year, with managers who feel overwhelmed by their workload.  They frequently refer to their inability to delegate work because their staff do not have the necessary capabilities.  This seems to be a perennial view.

When I worked within organisations and now as a consultant to organisations I have heard so many senior and middle level leaders say that formal planning processes are unnecessary … “I talk to my people all the time, they understand my expectations and know whether I think they are doing a good job or not.  That is much better than a process where we waste time completing a document that then just sits on the shelf”.  If it was true that there was meaningful communication and clearly shared understanding that might just suffice.  Unfortunately, I have heard this line repeated time and again by people where there is clearly no such effective communication with at best staff dissatisfaction and at worse, well I could tell you so many war stories and horror tales about the worse …


  • Why don’t people commit to performance planning, development planning and performance reviews?
  • Why is it necessary anyway, if so many people seem to think they can get by without doing it?
  • If it is to be done what’s the model?

Why don’t people commit to it.

When asked why they don’t commit to a formal performance planning process, people frequently say “It’s just a process, it’s not meaningful, I have the necessary discussions”.  Why is it then that the issue of poor performance management comes up in staff surveys all the time as being the area of worst performance for organisations?  Why is it that another area organisations consistently perform really poorly in, as measured by staff surveys, is a lack of commitment to learning and development?

Part of the issue is cultural.  Until there is clear commitment to performance planning, staff development and review from all leaders at all levels from the Chief Executive down it is not going to be taken seriously.  This requires them to model the necessary behaviours transparently and consistently themselves.

A large part of the issue is also, undoubtedly because of the focus on the P word, ‘Performance’.

The particular focus on the P word immediately makes the process more vexed.  It infers risk.  We might be assessed as doing well or even very well and that gives us satisfaction perhaps even a warm glow.  However, there is a risk, an inherent threat, that our performance will be found wanting and our human species is hardwired to respond negatively (fight or flight) to threats.

If people feel a process is going to expose them to risk they are much more likely to respond negatively to it or not to want to engage.  This makes the stakes in any discussion higher and more vexed, potentially more emotionally charged and wearisome for all parties.

The perceived risk is also higher in certain circumstances, such as where performance is tied to remuneration, or in cases where there is demand for downsizing and people fear that performance appraisals are seen as being used as the mechanism for shedding staff.

Fortunately neuroscientific research also shows that people typically respond positively when we appeal to their behavioural needs for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness (this is the SCARF model developed by David Rock at the NeuroLeadership Institute1 and referred to in a previous post2).

If we can shift the primary focus in the planning and review process from the P word to achieving clarity of expectations (Certainty), in genuine one on one discussions (Status and Relatedness) and in a way which focuses on establishing clear and realistic performance expectations and focuses on building the individual’s capability to perform well (Fairness) we have a far more positive way forward for everyone involved.

Is a formal planning and review process necessary?

A well developed and consistent approach to performance planning, development planning and review is essential for several reasons. It is necessary to ensure: clarity of expectations; optimal use of resources; achievement of desired outcomes; and to develop organisational and individual capability.  It is also necessary so we can delegate work.

  • Clarity of expectations – first and foremost the process is about communication, ensuring there is a shared understanding about how the individual’s role supports achievement of the organisational goals, the expectations of the role, the priorities and what success will look like for the organisation and individual for the period in question;
  • Optimal use of resources – this is critical for the organisation and managers, particularly in  times when  resources are very constrained. If there is not clarity around the issues outlined under the previous point then there is risk that there will be duplication of work, or that resources are frittered on tasks which are either unnecessary or low priority.  I have recently worked with the senior executive leadership team in an organisation where this lack of clarity around responsibility has led to duplication of effort and personal friction;
  • Achievement of desired outcomes – this can only be achieved efficiently if the above two points are satisfied;
  • Development of organisational and individual capability – a critical part of the conversation around performance plans is the development plan.  If we have a discussion about a person’s responsibilities, in their role, but do not also have meaningful dialogue about the capabilities they require to deliver, we potentially set them, and ourselves, up for failure.  A significant responsibility of all leaders is to ensure that staff are enabled to deliver on their responsibilities.  Often managers will take the easy path of putting staff into sheep dip, one size fits all programs.  These may be appropriate to a degree (eg programs driving culture change) but these seldom meet the specific needs of each individual.  A much more rigorous and considered assessment of capability needs for each individual in their role, and how these can be delivered, is essential.
  • To allow us to delegate – If we want to be able to step out of ‘doing’ as leaders it is imperative that we enable provide clear communication staff to deliver on their responsibilities and enable them to deliver.  This focus on investing in staff leads to greater capability and engagement.  As we invest in staff in these ways and their capability grows we empower them to do more thereby giving ourselves the opportunity to delegate the doing tasks and provide a greater emphasis to strategic direction as leaders.


What is the model?

I am a strong advocate for a formal, structured and consistent planning process.  A process in which time is set aside as a priority for a formal one-on-one communication about what is required in the year ahead and what commitment the organisation and individual are going to make in their personal development.  A conversation on the run doesn’t deliver this.  A conversation without some documented commitment is fraught.  The documentation of a plan imposes a discipline on both parties to ensure there is shared understanding.

I believe there should also be a formal review process within year.  Say every four months, or at the very least a mid-year review.  These are not a substitute for ongoing dialogue.  That is also essential.  The formal process and agreement should provide the context within which the other ongoing discussions occur.  Formal reviews may be required more regularly for new starters or those under performance management.

One final point, it is important that the formal plans be agreed and in place at the start of the year or very soon after a new incumbent takes on a role.


1. SCARF, David Rock first published in the NeuroLeadership Journal Issue 1, 2008.  See further reading on SCARF at

2. Blog Post titled ‘No Two Heads are The Same’.

Image:   orla/

(If you would like to receive notification of future blog posts please send an email, at the link on the contact page, with the word ‘Subscribe’ in the message field.)