Is relying on memory damaging the experience and performance of your team?

Many years ago I found myself moving into a Senior Leadership position in a fast-growing global company.  At the time I was horribly unprepared for the experience and essentially had to make things up as I was going along.  It seems learning on the job is a common way to start one’s leadership career.

I remember feeling the buzz of working in what was a startup type environment, and it was important to me to ensure that this culture remained intact.  When it came to systems or policies or procedures, only the most necessary were even remotely considered.  HR processes were deemed unnecessary because we will hire the right people who don’t need processes.  Our financial performance suggested that everything was fine, so why should we bother with pesky performance processes or systems.  My great memory would see me through!

In hindsight I can see how naïve I was because as they say, everything is fine until it isn’t.  I had to learn the hard way.

When memory fails us.

Human memory is notoriously unreliable, especially when it comes to specific details.  There is no greater example of this than when delving into the accuracy of witness testimony.  In fact, scientists have found that prompting an eyewitness to remember more can generate details that are outright false but feel correct.  Under pressure, our brains seem to fill in the gaps with information regardless of whether it happened or not.

Of 21 wrongful convictions overturned by the Innocence Project in 2011, 19 involved eyewitness testimony. More than three-quarters of wrongful convictions that are later overturned by DNA evidence were based on eyewitness reports – American Bar Association.

In other words, our memories don’t always stand the test of time.  There are plenty of reasons for this which are variable in nature including stress, the amount of internal chatter we undertake (talking to ourselves) and having a lot on your plate at any one time.  Memories fade into a general ‘gist’ which is almost always going to be biased in some way (there are over 100 unconscious biases!).

When things are busy, as they are for most employees let alone leaders of growing companies, there is a lot happening, a lot of distractions, and the associated stress.  If you don’t think it is getting to you, it probably is.  Being a leader fosters the perfect set of conditions to forget almost everything!

Memory as a performance management tool

In recent years there has been a raging debate in HR circles about the effectiveness of annual performance reviews.  Some say they are necessary, others suggest the time period is too long for an accurate assessment, and others still suggest that performance should be a continuous process.  The reality is that regardless of your point of view, almost every method or approach I have seen on the memories of those involved.

And herein lies the problem.  Every team member simply wants to be evaluated fairly, that’s it.  Whether it is annually, quarterly or continuously, it just needs to be fair.  But relying on memory is highly unlikely to be fair.  Maybe for a few, but definitely not for all.   This is the problem I ran into.  The team members who I liked, or who were drawing all of my attention, were the easy ones to evaluate.  Everyone else was evaluated by chance.

It wasn’t good enough and it cost us a lot in terms of productivity and performance as we grew.  Relying on memory isn’t fair for team members.  But keeping notes on team member performance on a regular basis adds a considerable administrative burden.  Who has the time even if it is incredibly important?

A simple way to overcome the memory problem

These days my role is a little different.  Rather than leading a large team of people, myself and my team have been working on creating a simple and highly effective solution to this problem.  The premise that we started with is that managers already have enough to do, and any process that asks managers to be fully responsible for performance notes about each team member won’t be practical.

But what if the team members themselves could share the responsibility for ensuring their performance was evaluated fairly?

This simple idea has become the main reason why MyEmployeeLife now exists.  Each week (or whenever is appropriate) team members are encouraged to log anything that their manager or colleagues might need to know now, or should be kept for later.  For example, how they are tracking against their agreed expectations, whether a goal post had to change part way through the performance period.  Managers can also add their comments and identify any areas that need addressing in real time.

Most importantly, there are no surprises when performance review time rolls around.  This is something that everyone can benefit from.

If you are looking to make your performance processes fairer for all team members, get in touch to learn more about our MyEmployeeLife platform

Jason Buchanan – General Manager, Insights & Innovation

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