If you think you are alone in bemoaning annual performance reviews, or are confused by the array of new performance review feedback apps that offer to solve everything with the single click of a ‘like’ button, take comfort. There are many like-minded leaders who are waiting until the last possible second to write reviews for your team one week before they are due.
Another option that clever managers have figured out is having employees draft their own reviews, edit them, and have them count just the same as if the manager had written it themselves. A big help to leaders who don’t want to hassle with the grueling task of writing reviews; a questionable tactic for actually improving anyone’s performance in any meaningful way.
In our experience, there are five elements critical to elevating any employee’s performance. They are:
- Communicating expectations
- Giving regular and consistent coaching and feedback
- Adjusting performance via mid-cycle check-in meetings
- Committing to the employee’s growth and career development
- Holding an annual review with a discussion of rewards
Regardless of the current Performance Management System flavor-du-jour, these elements are essential to master if you want to be a leader who drives the highest output from your team.
Before we talk about how to clearly communicate performance expectations, it’s critical to understand that performance management is, at its most fundamental level, a communications process. It’s not a communications event, or a moment. It is a process, which means it will require multiple conversations on multiple occasions, even if the expectations stay consistent throughout the performance period. Like any good communication between people, leaders should plan on having multiple conversations over the course of a project, just to make sure the performance messages are being heard, and that the employee has a plan to achieve their performance goals, and to help them calibrate and adjust their priorities and activities as they strive to meet their goals. Without regular, consistent communication, any performance management process is dead on arrival.
Once a leader understands that communication provides the critical foundation for all performance improvement discussions, the first communication element is critical: setting clear expectations of performance. As a minimum, employees should know exactly what is expected of them, by when, and at what quality level. Ideally, they should also know what behaviors are expected, what behaviors will not be tolerated, and what top performance will look like at the end of the performance period. The best leaders will also provide a clear vision about how each employee’s work matters to the company, linking every employee’s contribution to the attainment of the company’s strategic goals.
This communication is quite different from handing an employee a job description and asking if they have any questions about it. An effective performance management approach will include the following components:
- Initial discussion to set performance goals, delivery expectations, fit into business unit/company priorities, and measures of success
- 30-day and 60-day check-in to assess progress and make course adjustments
- 90-day detailed discussion about progress, gather employee feedback & suggestions, provide feedback on performance observations, and provide suggestions for improvement
- Periodic meetings (but no later than at 90-day intervals) to share feedback, make course adjustments, and set new expectations/goals
Many managers balk at this, citing lack of time. We would argue that, as a leader, there is nothing you can do that is more important than to assure that every member of your team understands what is expected of them and how they need to adjust/improve their performance as projects unfold. In fact, it is a leader’s failure to do this that most often causes employees to drift, and eventually leave organizations. After all, if an employee doesn’t know what is expected of them in the first place, and doesn’t know when priorities/expectations change and how they can best adjust, then how can they hope to be successful?
Another key element of making expectations clear is to provide clear, “in-the-moment” corrective feedback whenever performance expectations drop below an acceptable level. Many inexperienced managers make the mistake of waiting too long to deliver corrective feedback. As a result, employee behavior is slow to change. The longer the delay between the event and the feedback, the less impactful that feedback will be. This concept is easy to understand if you are a parent: imagine correcting a child for punching their sibling days or weeks after the actual punch was thrown. This is hardly an effective approach to changing behavior and helping the child understand the expectation of not hitting other family members, or anyone for that matter.
If you aren’t sure that your team clearly understands what is expected of them, just ask them—they will almost always tell you. And, if they aren’t clear, that’s OK. It simply means you need to redouble your efforts to make sure everyone understands what outputs and behaviors are expected of them. It’s never too late to clarify expectations and get everyone on track for improved performance.