Improving performance improvement (2): From win-lose to win-win

Mirjam Neelen

This blog is the second in a series of blogs exploring various components, such as motivation and learning opportunities that come into play when you try to improve performance improvement. 

In my previous blog on improving performance improvement (IPI) I discussed the challenges of the performance management processes. I also acknowledged that it’s not easy to explain what performance improvement actually means. I am choosing in this blog to kind of “ignore” that fact for now for the sake of discussing what can or needs to be done to truly drive performance improvement.

One of the biggest problems with IPI and driving an effective performance management process (PMP) is that many organisations preach win/win, but reward win/lose (Covey, 1999). They talk the talk of collaboration, but instead walk the walk of rewarding competition. And thats ‘most likely where they go wrong. Walking the proper walk is a paradigm shift that’s needed to truly drive engagement and performance improvement.

Could it be true that a competitive performance system doesn’t work? Is it the case that a financial incentive at the end of the year in the form of a shiny Christmas bonus might not be the best way to motivate employees? The article Keeping up with the Karumes in The Economist showed that an incentive such as a monetary bonus only makes people happy in the very short-term. On top of that, because only a minority of employees in an organisation can/will receive such a bonus or an award, the majority of the employees will be left behind disappointed, discouraged, and demotivated (for one year anyway, by then they’ll go back to their happiness base level as well, so they might be able to regain some courage to “try again”). It’s one thing to further explore: What do employees need to truly strive to improve their performance? I will do this in another blog because it seems well worth exploring things like external versus internal motivation, well-being, and the influence of overall justice on job performance (for example Ryan & Deci, 2000 and Aryee et al., 2015) as it might offer some ‘aha moments’ on how to actually improve performance improvement.

With the current competitive environment comes a concomitant focus on results. It’s usually the results or so-called ‘impact’ (see my previous blog on this topic on what “impact” actually means and that it requires an organisation to ask the right questions first) that are being rewarded and that is encouraging competitiveness. Am I being naïve or what? Isn’t the output, result, or outcome what counts in the end? Yes, of course it matters. Yes, of course it’s an important metric. But what kind of culture do you create if success is measured by results only? In such an environment you’ll get people who’ll try to deliver no matter what; sometimes to the detriment of their fellow workers or even the organisation as a whole! Doing this will most probably create a win/lose culture in the organisation. Some “winners” won’t focus on building relationships or trust. They won’t focus on learning and improving. They’ll focus on delivering, drooling at the thought of that big fat sausage waiting for them in the end. And they might kick some others over in order to get there, because if someone else ‘delivers’ it might be at the expense of their reward.

First, it would be helpful if employees actually can have faith in the performance data being reliable and accurate. For example, as Buckingham and Goodall suggest, the individual employee needs one-size-fits-one performance objectives with pre-defined criteria based on her/his strategically timed discussions (see the previous blog on this again) with the her/his direct manager. Also, collecting valid and reliable performance evidence would need to be ongoing and would need to be based on a wide variety of (near to) real-time resources, such as the results of an employee’s everyday tasks and assignments and assessments (e.g. serious games or sims), the amount of sharing that the person did with colleagues and the organisation, and so forth. This ‘aggregated evidence’ could be logged and analysed (i.e., recorded and measured) somewhere. In addition, the employee needs an opportunity for constant learning and improving, which will most likely include situations in which what has been learnt can be practised as well as regular constructive and formative feedback (from peers, manager. clients, her-/himself, etc.) as feedback is possibly the most crucial factor in any learning process (Van der Rijt et al., 2012). This way, employees can take responsibility for their performance improvement based on real-time on-the-job data.

I can you hear snickering. I can see cynical HR people shake their heads in disbelief. They’ll most probably say one or more of the following things: “No way that’ll work!” “Most people only come to work to do their job and that’s that.” “The majority of our employees are not very motivated and certainly won’t go that extra mile at their own initiative”! “It’s only a minority that strive to be a bigger (wo)man than themselves.”

And yes, they might even be right. But the question that then needs to be asked is: Why do these ‘average’ employees not take initiative? Why don’t or won’t they walk that extra mile? Is it because it’s a simple fact of life that most people are average and will always be, whatever they do? There are probably many reasons why ‘average Janes or Joes don’t reach their full potential. These need to and will be explored in a separate blog.

What I’m trying to say is that the problem might be the system and not the people. Of course competitiveness has its place; compared to other organisations, compared to your last year’s results. As Covey (1999) puts it: “Win/win puts the responsibility on the individual for accomplishing specified results within clear guidelines and available resources. It makes a person accountable to perform and evaluate the results and provides consequences as a natural result of performance” (p. 232).

Win/win sounds like a win for all. So, why is hardly anyone truly applying this principle?


Ayree, S., Walumbrwa, F.O., Mondejar, R., & Chu, C.W.L., (2015). Accounting for the Influence of Overall Justice on Job Performance: Integrating Self-Determination and Social Exchange Theories. Journal of Management Studies, 52:2, 231-252. Retrieved from

Buckingham, M., & Goodall, A., (2015). Reinventing Performance Management. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

Covey, S.R., (1999). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. London: Simon & Schuster.

Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L., (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78. Retrieved from

Van der Rijt, J., Van de Wiel, M.W.J., Van den Bossche, P., Segers, M.S.R., & Gijselaers, W.H., (2012). Contextual Antecedents of Informal Feedback in the Workplace. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 26, 233-257. Retrieved from



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