Performance Management Isn’t “touchy Feely.” Here’s Why.

At Team Excellence, we help organizations manage employees and relationships. That means we get into the “people stuff” that some in the business world refer to disparagingly (and incorrectly) as touchy-feely.

The behavioral sciences are often referred to as “soft sciences,” especially in regard to management disciplines, while finance, accounting, manufacturing, engineering, information technology, etc. are considered “hard sciences.” Because psychology, sociology, and other studies of human behavior and interaction are not as precise or black and white as their hard science counterparts, they haven’t been considered necessary or important to how one actually runs an organization.

But my perspective has always been: Nothing is more critical to the success of any business than the thinking and behavior of human beings. To write off interpersonal relationships, psychology, and human motivation as touchy-feely and inferior to the more traditional, hard-edged, “masculine” aspects of business is an outdated view that is fortunately changing. Still, we have a long way to go.

If one goal of management and leadership is to solve problems, consider the following. Which is more challenging?

(1) Opening a technical manual to determine how many degrees to adjust a cutter blade so one can obtain the precise dimension needed on a coil of flat-rolled steel processed through a slitter machine

or . . .

(2) making an informed decision on how to coach an autocratic supervisor to communicate clearly with employees to improve performance and reduce operating expenses by 10 percent?

I rest my case. It’s time to clean up the sloppy jargon surrounding performance management, especially terms like touchy-feely, which to this day is commonly used to describe any intervention that addresses human behavior. When we do eliminate such terms, our language will better reflect the reality that the human side of the equation isn’t about mollycoddling people or pointlessly focusing on feelings, but is instead about empowering people to create real business results.

(For empirical proof, look no further than Gallup’s recent study on the ROI of strengths-based development; they found a profit increase of 29 percent in many strengths-based workplaces compared to their peers.)

To the best of my knowledge, the term touchy-feely became part of our lexicon in the 1960s and 1970s, and was often used to describe those bare-your-soul exercises that went way too far in what were called T-groups and/or sensitivity training. Often, these programs were conducted by self-appointed psycho-babble-ologists to get the most dysfunctional members of a culture to improve their self-knowledge and self-esteem.

Thankfully, the trend ground to a halt almost as fast as it started. Although the T-group fad has mostly disappeared, touchy-feely—unlike flower child, groovy, and right on!—has not. If you Google the phrase, you’ll find that “touchy-feely” is often used “disparagingly in contexts where hard and businesslike behavior is the norm.” When I hear executives say that something is “touchy-feely,” they are usually dismissing what I do. They are saying, “This isn’t important. It’s just something we have to do.

At Team Excellence, we take a different approach. A comprehensive, metrics-driven, integrated system of performance definition and measurement, the Team Development Strategy ain’t no touchy-feely approach. As any similar intervention should be, it is designed to overcome the real problems associated with most performance management programs:

  • Too vague, nonspecific, and limited in scope.
  • Considered only for performance or job appraisal. Annual performance reviews and occasional psychometric testing rarely improve motivation or performance. In fact, they are dreaded like the plague!
  • Used to justify compensation decisions that were made earlier.
  • Used selectively. When results don’t please management, they are tossed in the trash.
  • Too political. Some employees are afraid to speak truth to power; some managers evaluate subordinates on how well they toe the line.
  • Too expensive. Many consultants charge an arm and a leg to administer tests, interpret results, dispense licenses, certifications, etc.

As we confront these very real issues, which have led to a well-publicized shakeup of performance management practices, we would do well to banish the archaic idea that attention to the behavioral sciences within organizations is merely touchy-feely. If you ignore the humanity of your workforce, especially in this day and age, you will fight a constant uphill battle in creating a healthy, efficient, and productive organization.


This article was originally posted on Khorus Blog.