Uber’s scandal in 2017 showed how only focusing on performance can damage the reputation of a company.  For those not familiar with the full story, Uber’s management team sacrificed the basic values of integrity and respect in a drive for short-term profits based on performance. Sure, you want to be profitable as a business, but profitability is not only about meeting performance targets.  Profitability, more than anything else, is driven by motivation. To achieve great success you need to nurture extraordinary performance.

A motivated workforce

If you don’t respect the needs of the person behind the employee number or role, you’re impacting performance negatively.  Partly by the decline in productivity as a result of unethical behaviour, mostly as a result of the high, and expensive, staff turnover.

For extraordinary performance, you need highly motivated employees.

Extraordinary performance reviews

But first, let’s talk about the problem with traditional performance reviews.  Already mentioned is that it focuses mostly on hard, tangible targets.  When you meet the numbers, whatever it takes, you get a good review and are rewarded generously.  When you behave ethically and do the right thing, but miss the targets, even slightly, you get punished.

Uber is an extreme example, but they are far from isolated cases.  They were just unfortunate to have someone with enough courage to speak up and uncover the scandal.  In most companies, it’s accepted and allowed by the majority of the employees, who are too afraid to speak up.

But there’s a far bigger issue with performance reviews, closely linked to the field of psychology and the birth of positive psychology.  Traditionally, psychology focused on looking for problems, until Martin Seligman, at the turn of the century suggested that in turn, it should focus on human strengths.

He realized that the more you look for problems, the more you will find.  This is extremely demotivating as inherently we all strive to be good.  Constantly hearing how what we are doing is not good enough is not exactly a recipe for a highly motivated team.

With the birth of positive psychology, which was a radical shift in the right direction, the focus shifted to looking at strengths and enabling individuals.  The results were extraordinary performance.

How to Cultivate an Extraordinary Performance Culture

Leveraging the field of positive psychology, here are 5 ways to nurture extraordinary performance:

1. Focus on behaviours, not targets

Increase our customer base by x users.  Sell y products by the end of the financial year.  Reduce costs by z.

Targets are easy.  They’re tangible and they directly translate to the bottom line. It’s fair, with everyone measured equally, and there’s little room for misinterpretation.  The numbers don’t lie!  At the end of the day, it’s the results that matter.  Or is it?

Results do matter, of course.

However, I’ve found that I get much better results when I focus on the behaviours more than the targets.  When the desired behaviours – like responsibility, communication, and trust – are reinforced, suddenly the results are a natural outcome.  More often than not, hard targets are exceeded as a result.

2. Reward what you want to see, don’t punish what you want to see less of

How exactly do you measure and reward responsibility?  How do you rate trust that doesn’t seem as if it is biased depending on how likeable you are?  Or how do you quantify good communication?

Admittedly, it’s much harder and more complex to reward behaviours than results. That’s part of the reason why targets are used as a performance measure.  It takes much more thought and attention to measure values than simply pulling a few reports from a system.

As a leader, you need to constantly look for the desired behaviours in your team and recognize the employee when they demonstrate this behaviour.  A private thank you for boosting motivation, followed by a public recognition to demonstrate to the rest of the organization what behaviours are desirable.

Most people want to be good and exceed expectations, it’s just that they don’t always know what the organization is looking for. So tell them.  Everyday.  Make recognizing desired behaviours part of the company culture.

3. Reinforce the change

For change to stick, simply deciding that something is a good idea and doing it once isn’t good enough.  Reinforcement is key. Essentially you are building new habits and that takes time and repetition.

Consciously practice the new employee recognition model actively until it becomes a habit.  Constantly remind employees to recognize their peers until it becomes ingrained in the culture.

4. Coach in real-time

Traditional performance reviews are not as effective as coaching.  Partly, because it is a forum where the employee has little say in the targets, measures and sometimes (and I dare say mostly) the ratings.  Mostly because it happens long after the actual events that lead up to the review.

The main purpose of a performance review is to provide feedback on performance and align the team with the organizational goal.  It simply doesn’t make sense to wait 6 months or a year to do this.

What is more effective from my personal experience, is team- or personal coaching in real-time. By addressing an event – both good and bad – as and when it happens, it provides immediate feedback and gives the team the opportunity re-align instantaneously.

Why wait?

5. Focus on strengths

I’ll never forget my first performance appraisal with a “problem employee”. He actively sabotaged me, purposefully not doing tasks I needed for important meetings where I would be made to look bad in front of the Executive Team not having the results.

The first few times I ignored the passive-aggressive behaviour until eventually, I couldn’t ignore it anymore. We engaged in a conflict session facilitated by the CEO, both allowed raising our concerns. His reaction was fueled by a feeling of personal injustice, having applied for my position but not getting it. I suddenly understood and had more compassion.

After the session, the resentment and passive-aggressive behaviour only increased, and eventually, he moved to a different team.

However, I was still responsible for his performance appraisal and decided to focus on his strengths.  As he walked into my office I could see doom and gloom all over his face, expecting a bad review.  A few minutes into the performance appraisal, I could see the shock and surprise replace it as he listened to everything he did right during the year.

Before I even got a chance to discuss his weaknesses, he started pointing them out himself, offering commitments on how to prevent it in the future.

From that day on, he was my most loyal supporter and always put my deliverables at the front of the work queue.  Only because I chose compassion, not revenge.


The goal of performance management is to give feedback and set targets to improve and align the performance between different people and teams. Hard targets are not an effective tool to increase performance, as extraordinary performance is driven by motivation more than anything else.

Positive performance reviews do not intend to exclude the negative side of personal or group performance. Like positive psychology, it is designed to complement, rather than replace it.

For a highly motivated workforce, next time try a positive performance review and see what happens.

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With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.