Rewriting appraisals at the Home Office

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Chief people officer Paula Leach​​ explains how performance management has been overhauled to ensure a focus on raising performance

Throwing out tired appraisal processes is key to enhancing the performance of any organisation, according to Home Office chief people officer Paula Leach.

Since joining the Home Office in 2014 as director of leadership, capability and change, Leach has spearheaded the organisation’s People Capability Strategy as part of its Transformation Agenda. As such she has overseen, since her appointment as CPO 18 months ago, the development and execution of a comprehensive, organisation-wide review and reinvention of its entire performance management system.

Speaking to HR magazine ahead of her talk at this year’s CIPD Conference, from 8-9 November, Leach said: “There was a lot of noise about the performance management approach that we had, which included quite a degree of what we call moderation meetings and a lot of forms to fill in.”

She added: “There were a number of issues causing concern – any performance approach has to of course be about raising performance and therefore productivity impact and how you measure your business. And I think the process had overtaken some of those outputs in our case.”

Staff engagement, said Leach, is key. And with around 16,000 of the organisation’s 30,000-strong workforce touched in some way by the review process, be it through blog feedback – which attracted around 12,500 responses – face-to-face briefings, workshops and individual and group meetings, Leach said the process of gathering information to inform the creation of a new review system was as comprehensive as it could have been.

Once assimilated, the information was used to create four proposed models for a new performance management process. Then began phase two of the engagement process, which took a Dragon’s Den format across the Home Office divisions. People were asked to advocate for the different models, give feedback and vote.

Leach said: “The process was about creating a performance culture where the accountability for enhanced performance in pursuit of the organisation's objectives was owned both by the line manager and the employee. It was about focusing on the end rather than the means. It was about fairness and inclusivity, building the organisation’s muscles through training, communication and making sure every individual was valued for what they could contribute, and that high performance was the expectation not the exception.”

The result is a focus on continuous feedback as opposed to traditional appraisals, upskilling managers to allow them to train and coach more effectively, and clearer and better aligned goals for individuals as part of wider teams.

Leach said: “A lot of this isn’t new but what we’ve tried to provide for people is the space to practise, the space to be vulnerable, peer networks to hold each other to account, and also to provide support and actually pay attention to the behavioural change rather than just assuming it’s all happening because we’ve launched the programme.”

She added that the importance of over-communicating and role-modelling could never be underestimated. “The process in and of itself doesn’t deliver the change,” Leach said.

She acknowledged that there was an awareness that embarking on the new approach in April this year was the start of “a good three-year cultural journey” and that the organisation was not expecting to see a huge leap in all staff experiences in the first year.

“We may even see a dip, you never know, because we’ve raised expectations so much. But the qualitative feedback so far is very strong as is the demand for learning – we’ve delivered thousands of hours of learning in the first six months – and we are seeing real enhancement in the alignment of people’s goals with their team objectives.”

At the core of any performance management approach, Leach asserted, should be the requirement for people to be capable, motivated and aligned to delivering the objectives of their organisation.

“What matters is how to get the best out of people and teams. So we need to understand what motivates and encourages people and how to create the right environment for that,” she said.

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