I bet you have never heard someone shout excitedly: “I love our new performance evaluation forms!” or “Performance appraisal time is our favourite time of the year!” For most people, performance evaluations are stressful, useless, and sometimes even destructive.
This blog will share an approach to performance management that is constructive, helpful, and collaborative rather than destructive, judgmental, punitive. This will be followed by two best practices that can help you turn this mundane supervisory duty into a world class leadership practice, i.e., help you use performance management to make a real difference in enhancing performance, building talent, and driving the business forward.
1. Performance management in a nutshell: a constructive & collaborative approach
2. Best practice: set both performance and learning goals
3. Best practice: every meeting is an opportunity to assess team talent
Performance Management in a Nutshell
Performance management is all about helping employees set and achieve meaningful goals. And coaching is the most direct method of supporting employee achievement.
If you do a good job of coaching, formal performance evaluations will be little more than a summary of the good work you have been doing with your employees all year long: no surprises, no conflicts, and much greater collaboration.
This approach to performance management is clearly not about punishing people, documenting mistakes, or writing “report cards.” Instead, it is a positive coaching approach that goes right to the heart of the matter, namely helping people do a good job for your team and company.
Even if your coaching practices are not perfect, your intentions here will make a big difference. When employees see that you want them to do a good job and be successful, that your job is to teach and guide, not to punish and control, they will almost always respond with much greater openness to feedback and be far less resistant to change. This positive approach reduces stress and conflict, and enhances collaboration. Coaching is something you do with employees, not to them. It also builds greater trust in your working relationships and helps you set up your employees for success.
You need two core skills to apply this positive coaching approach:
- First, you need to be able to identify what success looks like for the employee’s job. This is called performance planning and it involves setting meaningful job goals and concrete metrics for job performance. Employees need clear performance expectations; they need to know what is expected of them and what success in their job looks like.
- Second, you need to know how to help people improve performance and develop new areas of expertise, i.e., you need to know how to coach your employees. Coaching typically starts with on the job training, then helping people master their jobs, and finally, helping them prepare for new challenges, roles, and responsibilities.
In summary: performance planning and coaching are two key skills required for “helping people set and achieve meaningful goals.”
There will be times in your career when you are unable to help an employee do a good job. In those cases you have an obligation to move the employee into a position in which they can shine or out of the company altogether.
If you made a solid effort helping that person “set and achieve meaningful goals,” i.e., trying to help that person succeed before you letting them go, then you can act with a clear conscience.
If this happens to you a lot, however, you should probably re-assess your hiring and coaching practices—maybe you are hiring the wrong people or are doing a poor job of deploying and coaching your talent.
Best Practice #1
Set both performance and learning goals every year, and use performance management proactively to support both goals.
Every year, your employees should have two sets of goals: performance goals (job goals) and learning goals (development goals). You, as the manager, can then coach your employees on both sets of goals throughout the year. This involves discussing progress to plan on both sets of goals, offering feedback and coaching on both, and holding your employees accountable for both.
Think how powerful it would be if every year you were able to help most of your employees improve their performance in a couple of important ways and also help them learn one or two important new skills. Over the course of a few years, this would give your team and organization a powerful competitive advantage.
Two favorite quotes:
- “People are the only long-term competitive advantage and lifelong learning is the only way to fully develop that advantage” (Richard Teerlink, President & CEO, Harley Davidson).
- “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.” (Arie de Geus, Head of Planning, Royal Dutch/Shell).
You can use this practice in a couple of different ways.
1. As already suggested, you can set both performance and learning goals at the beginning of every year when you do your performance planning.
2. You can also use this practice every time someone gets a promotion or a challenging new project or assignment. When you are discussing the new job or project, work out both the performance requirements, i.e., what you expect the person to achieve in the new role, and an important learning goal, i.e., what they should try to learn from this experience, from this important learning opportunity.
The beauty of this best practice is that you can manage both sets of goals at the same time, in the very same discussions, with the very same coaching tools and techniques. When you ask someone how they are doing on their job goals, you can also discuss how they are doing on their learning goals. This best practice enables you to drive continuous improvement in both performance and learning. Now that’s a powerful leadership practice.
Best Practice #2
Every discussion or meeting is an opportunity to assess talent, skill sets, deployment, employee engagement, and development needs.
We all spend a lot of time in meetings. Most meetings with employees focus on performance, i.e., our performance objectives and progress to plan on our performance objectives, i.e., what we should do and how we are doing; how the work is going.
You can double the value of all of your meetings by listening for both performance and talent related issues.
Your everyday discussions and team meetings can yield a ton of valuable information about employee talent: what your employees know and don’t know; how naïve or sophisticated their understanding of the business is; what they can and cannot do; their strengths and weaknesses; gaps in their knowledge and skill sets; where they are most energized and stressed; what they have already mastered and what kinds of opportunities they might be ready for.
Paying attention to the quality of your employees’ ideas, questions, processes, and achievements will tell you a lot about what they need to learn in order to master their current jobs and prepare for bigger challenges. It can also help you assess if people are properly deployed, i.e., are in the best role given their unique talents, and what next role might give them the greatest opportunity for learning.
If you work hard, are good at your job, and pay careful attention to performance, you will get to be very good at managing performance—a crucial management competency.
If you also pay keen attention to talent management, i.e., how well your employees are performing and the quality of their ideas and questions, and how well you are managing the talent on your team, then you will probably become great at managing talent as well—crucial to your success as a leader.
We Learn from Doing
At the end of the day, we learn most from doing, so make both performance management and talent management part of your regular leadership practices:
- have high expectations for yourself;
- set concrete goals and metrics; and
- hold yourself accountable for both the level of performance and the quality of talent on your team.
And perhaps most importantly, stop from time to time to reflect on your success in these two areas: what is working best; what is not working as well; and how you can improve moving forward. It is this critical reflection that turns “being busy” into valuable experience. “Experience is not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you” (Aldous Huxley).
Even if you are not a big fan of your performance evaluation forms, remind yourself that it is not about the forms. Evaluation forms, however flawed, can be great opportunities for important conversation—if you take advantage of that opportunity.
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