Performance management year-round exercise

3-step process leads to employees who support each other, exceed expectations
By Angus Duff
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/09/2012

The first quarter of 2012 is in the books. For most employers, that means the tasks of conducting performance reviews and setting goals are in the rear-view mirror.

But performance management is a year-round exercise and managers need to work with their staff not only to set goals but to coach performance.

Performance management coaching is a subtle leadership behaviour required to guide employees in the successful accomplishment of their goals.

It’s an active relationship between the manager and her team members aimed at developing self-motivated employees to accomplish their work successfully with the guidance and assistance of their leader.

In essence, it’s the development of employees who:

• know what needs to be done

• know why it’s important, both to the organization and to themselves

• are supported in their work

• are guided back on track in a supportive way

• continually develop themselves to be more effective.

The performance management process has a beginning, middle and end, with distinctive requirements at every stage.

When done well, team members perform, support each other and realize outcomes that exceed expectations.

When done poorly, team members “work to rule,” are in conflict with one another and the manager is forced to lead through coercion and consequences, which is painful for everyone involved.

Step 1: Setting goals

At the beginning, the role of the leader is to help clarify the vision for the team and individual employees. This is undoubtedly challenging for leaders.

Because most employees start the new year essentially in the same role they were in the previous year, it’s easy for a leader to assume employees know the goals and they are meaningful to staff. Both of these assumptions are often false.

To make matters worse, goals can often be reset from one year to the next by the leader merely increasing the required performance outcomes. We often hear leaders say, “The bar has been raised.”

Whether the goals change or stay the same, and whether employees know the goals or not, unless employees attach positive meaning to reaching their goals, they will not be self-motivated to do so.

It’s the manager’s primary task to inspire shared meaning in the goals so employees seek to accomplish them on their own.

So, how does a leader inspire shared pursuit of goals?

First, the manager herself must attach positive meaning to the goals. If the manager sees the goals as pointless — either because she considers them unachievable or feels the successful accomplishment of these goals is not valued by the rest of the organization or the clients it serves — it will be next to impossible to inspire a shared pursuit of these goals.

Second, if the manager sees goals as meaningful and achievable, it is her task to engage in active and open communication with her employees to share the importance and value of this work to the team, the company and customers.

It is not enough for leaders to think employees know their work is important — they must know why employees think their work is important.

Third, employees need to be actively encouraged to shape the way they do their work to best accomplish these goals. This transfers both the accountability and satisfaction with goal achievement from the manager to the team member.

Inherent in this third step is team member trust. When a leader communicates she trusts her employees to identify the best way to do the work, she sends a signal to employees their expertise is valued and respected.

More importantly, in doing so, the manager inspires shared pursuit of goals because the employees, not the manager, take ownership of the path to goal accomplishment.

Step 2: Feedback

There is no doubt employees receive informal feedback through the course of the work year whenever the manager and employee interact. However, the mid-point of the year marks a pivotal time for an employee to meet with his manager to receive more formal feedback on goal progress and to refocus attention and energy on year-end goal attainment. As such, mid-year feedback involves two key functions.

The first function is the communication of progress to date (or lack thereof). By meeting at mid-year, even if performance has strayed off course, the extent to which performance has strayed in most cases can be redirected toward goal realization by year-end.

Ideally, a leader should provide accurate feedback in a caring way, with a focus on assisting the employee to identify how to adjust his work performance to achieve year-end results. That feedback should include recognition of the employee for what he has accomplished.

The ideal leader walks into each mid-year meeting with a focus on helping employees realize year-end goals. In doing so, she can work with the employee to identify blockages to goal realization and support solutions to solve these issues.

The second function of the mid-year feedback is to refocus attention on the shared goals set at the beginning of the year. This may involve the recommunication of goals. It may include having the employee suggest and implement ways to accomplish these goals. It may also include direct communication from the manager that says: “I know you can do this and I am here to help.”

Step 3: Performance evaluation

While many people place great importance on the evaluation aspect of performance evaluation, when employees have received effective performance management coaching through the course of the year, the performance evaluation component is actually a very small part of the year-end review.

The evaluation component requires an empathetic and objective leadership approach, where the leader is fully aware of the employee’s performance relative to his goals, and clearly communicates this in an appreciative manner. As such, the evaluation requires a fair assessment of the employee’s performance.

Managers must truly care about and appreciate the employee’s contribution. It is not enough to think: “Well, what’s the big deal? They did what they were supposed to do.”

The big deal is when managers communicate their appreciation for the work people do, it makes workers feel good, which makes them want to keep on doing it.

However, the most important part of the performance evaluation is developmental. It is the time to have employees reflect on the changes they can make to be more effective in the subsequent year, and for the manager to provide support for this development.

It is the time of the year to focus not on what has or has not been achieved but rather why and how things should be changed to make improvements that will pay dividends in the following year.

When the manager supports these changes, she sets the stage for performance, satisfaction and team effectiveness in the following year.

Angus Duff is a lecturer and PhD student at York University’s School of Human Resource Management. His research focuses on employee engagement and innovation. He can be reached at angusd@yorku.ca.

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