Research matters – Think outside your boxes

How should we measure performance in the current climate? By potential, not results, says Paul Stokes, deputy director of the Coaching & Mentoring Research Unit at Sheffield Hallam University

In the current economic climate, particularly in the UK public sector, we are hearing more and more about value for money, effectiveness and efficiency (see Van Doren et al, 20101). In short, many are feeling pressured to justify their own performance and that of those they manage.

People are concerned with how their performance is measured. As coaches, we are also concerned with performance. For some, however, its management has a different meaning. In his book, Coaching for Performance, Sir John Whitmore2 argues the manager “must think of his people in terms of their potential, not in terms of their performance”.

Making assumptions

He goes on: “The majority of appraisal systems are flawed for this reason. People are put in performance boxes from which it is hard for them to escape either in their own eyes or their manager’s” (Whitmore, 2009, p14).

At a recent coaching and mentoring research day at Sheffield Hallam University, a group of participants examined the idea of performance management and its relationship with coaching. Our conclusion was that, when you talk about performance management, people associate this with performance measurement and a deficit model of organisations and people.

Rightly or wrongly, we tend to associate performance management with a bundle of tools and techniques such as 360-degree feedback, competency frameworks and appraisals, which are focused on dealing with under-performance and what people are not doing well. We also debated whether the label/brand of ‘performance coaching’ tapped into the same assumptions.

Glass half empty

We concluded that there was scope for this to happen. My concern is that by deliberating using the performance coaching label and working with such performance measurement tools we, as coaches, might be colluding with a glass half empty view.

As I have pointed out, this is quite different from what many coaches, like Whitmore, intend. To borrow a phrase from the organisational theorist, Tony Watson (2006)3, such coaches would argue that people are always in “a process of becoming” rather than being fixed in terms of their competencies.

I am not saying that managers or coaches should duck the idea of managing performance. But perhaps, as so often in coaching, it comes down to the questions we ask. Hence, it may be more important to ask: “What does good performance look like here?”, rather than: “What has prevented you from delivering on this?”

My work as a coach, coaching researcher and manager-coach, has led me to believe that we can often make assumptions that people understand what good performance looks like and that the challenge is one of motivation/commitment. This is one possibility.

Another is that they do not yet understand what this looks like and that they need help in understanding good performance better. This seems to be the case, particularly with my public sector coaching clients in the current climate of cuts.

Of course, a focus on good/excellent performance is embedded in process coaching models like GROW and OSKAR, with their emphasis on success and what already works well.

Nevertheless, in our efforts to work effectively with our sponsor clients, we need to be aware of the dangers of the deficit model of performance and of being drawn into perpetuating this in our approaches to coaching.


1 W Van Doren, G Bouckaert and J Halligan, Performance Management in the Public Sector, London: Routledge, 2010

2 J Whitmore, Coaching for Performance: GROWing Human Potential and Purpose – the Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership (4th ed), London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2009

3 T Watson, Organising & Managing Work, (2nd ed), London: Prentice-Hall, 2006

Coaching at Work, Volume 6, Issue 4

Please login to continue reading this article

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply