The Baseball Method of Performance Management

Apr 15, 2010

Accurate selection of employees into critical roles in corporate America continues to be a difficult endeavor at best. First, however, we should consider how we manage performance, and improve this foundational process in order to advance our ability to make better selection decisions. Having these sometimes-difficult discussions with employees regarding performance has proven to be a task that many managers prefer just to skip. As a recruiter of many years, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a candidate tell me about a negative relationship with an immediate manager that led them to either leave an employer or be released from that employer. Oftentimes it is unclear to employees what “good” looks like, with disagreements on performance inevitably following.

When you consider sports teams, there is little to debate as to how well a player is doing. Each player and team has “stats” that offer defined information on how well a player or team is performing. Players have “batting averages” in baseball which is further defined by specifically what happened at the plate. This helps baseball leagues have a universal language of what good looks like. Today in corporate America there is no well-defined way to compare “play” across companies. Performance is often based off opinions. Whether it is the opinion of a manager, employee, and/or others, there is typically not a full understanding or accurate picture of the employee’s performance.

What if corporate America took a similar approach to professional sports teams?

Below I will explain how this could look. (Sharing the information below with employees prior to having actual discussions regarding the information will allow them time to ask questions and organize their own thoughts.)

Rookie, Pro, Seasoned Pro, Superstar: These definitions could vary, but get calibrated on this as each level will have different expectations. You would not expect the same depth of expertise from a rookie and a pro. A seasoned pro for sake of this conversation will be those that lead others. Discuss with your employee how they perceive their level of play. What does the employee want to be? Oftentimes there will be a disagreement until it is discussed further and both sides are calibrated. This will be important in determining what type of “average” should be achieved, as well as a suitable number and type of “at bats” (see below).

Next, have a discussion around field of play or what constitutes a “foul ball.”

Field of Play: Oftentimes employees don’t understand the playing field very well. First, what is the playing field? What is considered a “foul ball” or “out of play”? What should the employee be aware of, or what “rules” are all the players abiding by? This can be a great discussion on intra-company relationships and processes. It can create meaningful questions from employees. It can also be an excellent way for a manager to help focus the employee on where to concentrate efforts as well as what areas to avoid.

Next define an approximate number of “at bats” and what each “at bat” looks like. In corporate this could mean anything from a project to meeting a certain sales quota.

Now the manager and employee need to define the outcome for each “at bat.” This becomes an ongoing dialogue as each “at bat” happens. Here comes the fun part. Another lesson from baseball: some outs are more humiliating than others, while some hits are much grander than others. All “at bats” are recorded and are considered part of each individual’s “stats.”

  • Strikeout: This couldn’t have gone worse. This goal/project was a complete miss in every way. In fact, you could strike out swinging or watching, further defining level of defeat!
  • Hit by a pitch: You got on base, but you damaged a relationship(s) while getting the goal/project completed.
  • Walk: This would have gotten accomplished with or without your involvement. It did get done and you participated.
  • Base hit: You got the goal/project completed in good order.
  • Multi-base hit: You got the goal/project done and exceeded expectations. Really stood out.
  • On-base due to error: Your goal/project got completed despite poor performance on your part.
  • Home run: This couldn’t have gone better. Your effort has helped the company in a noticeable way and many others acknowledge and clearly see your high level of play.
  • Line-drive out: You took a good try at this but still failed in achieving your goal/project. The obstacles or play of the opposing team was very high.
  • Long fly ball: Made a good attempt but failed. Missed some elements in getting the project completed appropriately.
  • Groundout: Attempted goal/project but most aspects were mediocre at best.

Measuring errors: During the year most corporate citizens handle issues that come up at the moment. Can you go error-free for the year? The manager and employee will want to discuss “errors” as they occur during the year. This will also be a part of every player’s “stats.”

Great plays: In baseball sometimes a player makes a great play on defense. Maybe a diving catch or a pitcher strikes out a batter. In the corporate world maybe it is creating great customer service or going out of your way to help a peer when you didn’t have to do so. This is also measured under “stats” of each employee as well.

Batting average: Overall “batting average” can be seen for each individual and also for an employee’s team if they lead others. Each “at bat” is measured, discussed, and defined.

Media presence: Most players today in professional sports are somewhat defined by the star quality they may or may not have. In corporate America we refer to this as “executive presence” which has become a very nebulous and erroneously used method of measuring individuals. This star quality is also measured in the baseball method. It should not be a surprise to a corporate citizen how they are viewed by the organization. As a part of their “stats” each manager and employee should define the player’s media presence. This is typically something that can be improved if the employee and manager are willing to work on it together. Some potential definitions of media presence are listed below.

  • Disruptive player: This individual typically creates or gets involved with issues that destabilize the performance of a team.
  • Problem player: In an effort to get results, this individual tends to make everyone mad, typically not caring about how things get accomplished.
  • America’s sweetheart: This person tends to get things done with most people liking them along the way.
  • Seasoned pro: Credible employee with a good reputation amongst most areas of the organization.
  • Money-maker: This person typically brings strong skills and is liked by top management and customers but may be oblivious or not care what peers think.
  • The franchise: This person is the superstar that all want to be around.

Resolving disputes: At the beginning of the relationship, designate an individual agreed upon by both who will mediate any dispute or be the “umpire,” should a disagreement occur. This would typically be the manager’s boss or a peer to your immediate boss. The umpire’s decision is final. This allows another individual to aid in discussion and development of the employee.

This method would create a safe atmosphere for ongoing discussion regarding performance. During regular meetings between manager and employee, “errors,” “great plays,” “at bats,” and “media presence” can all be discussed. Employees can have concrete experiences to look at and use for development. This also makes it more difficult for an employee to dispute poor performance.

What if a “baseball method” approach was practiced across many companies for performance management? What would the impact be on the selection process? The interview could cover “stats,” easily accessing actual past performance situations. The “stats” could become a part of the resume adopting some attributes of a baseball card.