The best performance reviews are not an event, but an opportunity to help employees set goals and provide feedback to stay on course.
As program manager for the state of Tennessee's performance management system, I sometimes encounter managers' reluctance to assess employees' performance. Common reasons include too little time, ratings appearing meaningless, or discomfort discussing performance. And too often, managers see performance appraisals as a single event at the end of the year.
What is it?
Managers viewing performance management as the final evaluation itself have an unclear understanding of this process, which is fundamentally in conflict with the intent of well-designed appraisal systems. They focus on the single, less important point in time at which the final evaluation occurs, not on an ongoing process of feedback, growth, and improvement. No wonder there is frustration.
How many processes can you think of that work well when you skip critical steps and leap to the end? In these situations, you would probably say to yourself, "Something seems to be missing." And guess what—if this is how you think of performance management, your employees probably think something's missing too.
Managers should think of their employees' performance as an ongoing journey with checkpoints at regular intervals, where some are more formal than others. Managers guide this journey.
Would you wait at a checkpoint for your employee to possibly wander in and then state he did not arrive at this secret location quickly enough? Or would it be better to help the employee plan the route to the appropriate location and provide direction to stay on course at least to the next checkpoint? Don't you think this employee would appreciate and benefit from more specific feedback and additional planning for the next stage of the journey? I am certain he would.
Formal evaluations serve not only to document an employee's performance. They also:
- are the culmination of a thorough process ensuring alignment between the organization, manager, and employee on performance expectations
- provide meaningful, timely, and critical feedback during an evaluation period
- formally document all of this information in a consistent measure supported by objective criteria.
Throughout this process the employee, management, and the organization all may realize success in meeting their goals and objectives.
Implementing a well-designed performance appraisal process will motivate employees to reach their full potential. Why wouldn't managers want employees to succeed? If they have done a good job of linking the organization's goals and objectives to the employee's, it is simple—the more the employee succeeds, the more the organization succeeds.
Common pitfalls include not clarifying expectations or setting the bar high enough, and omitting meaningful feedback. These fall into the often missing procedural steps that occur prior to the final evaluation. Addressing these and conducting the full process provides a more fulfilling experience for all involved. Below you will see some critical actions that should occur prior to a manager's final evaluation of an employee's performance.
Set and share expectations. Discussing and setting expectations is the first and most important step in any well-designed assessment process. If you cannot describe your expectations, how will you measure results? More important, how will employees achieve them? Once you determine your expectations of your employees, tell them.
It is more efficient for employees to know exactly the criteria on which they will be measured. Factor in your organization's mission and strategies. Each employee should be able to see how her responsibilities move the business toward success. Other sources to consider include operation plans, competencies, and job or task inventories.
Once managers have identified key responsibilities and aligned them strategically, they should be able to describe their expectations in specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound statements. This will reduce the ambiguity often found in ineffective performance expectations.
The importance of setting meaningful expectations is not new. Aristotle said, "Man is a goal-seeking animal. His life only has meaning if he is reaching out and striving for his goals."
Keep in mind that you do want your employees to succeed and achieve maximum performance. This is not to say you expect all your employees to be perfect. After all, who can live up to that standard? The intent is to develop and agree to expectations that provide a sufficient challenge yet are achievable with exceptional effort.
By the way, if employees do achieve this standard, managers should recognize their achievements with the appropriate rating. Managers will not motivate them to excel if they tell them only perfection receives the highest rating. Again, their success is management's success.
Also be cautious of setting the bar too low. You cannot correct this at the end by telling the employee he should have done more. The better you determine realistic performance at the beginning of the cycle, the more likely you are to lead your employees to success. Remember, employees will live up, or down, to your expectations.
Provide feedback. To understand how performance is determined, employees require feedback. Timely, objective, relevant feedback is always appropriate even if not always sought out.
Don't think that once managers have discussed their observations and intermediate assessment with employees that they are finished until the final evaluation. Employees must have the opportunity to perform to feedback. After all, the point of providing them feedback is to improve their performance.
As they do perform to feedback, managers will need to continue toobserve. I recommend at least two discussions within any evaluation cycle of up to 12 months. Of course, more frequent discussions are suggested if required. To improve the likelihood that your employees will meet or exceed your expectations, managers need to discuss their performance using timely, meaningful, and objective feedback.
This process helps employees to plan for success. Address roadblocks that hamper progress and jointly consider methods to effectively eliminate obstructions. Work with your employees to identify developmental activities at the beginning of the evaluation cycle, or during the feedback process. Perhaps a resolution requires research, mentoring, or shadowing, as well as or in lieu of structured learning activities. In any case, feedback to explain the need to enhance knowledge and skills and their implementation will be critical.
If you do not provide feedback, you send the message that your employees' performance is not important. How much effort will they likely invest with this perception? This takes us back to the likelihood of their success and yours.
A well-designed evaluation process is like a journey. It has structured opportunities for employees to understand (and provide input to) the expectations to which they will perform, and to receive objective, critical feedback throughout the evaluation period. Then they receive a formal evaluation.
If you have done a thorough job throughout the process, there should be no surprises for the employee. Timely, objective, and relevant feedback is always appropriate.