#279 from Innovative Leader Volume 6, Number 6          June 1997

Improving Performance Management
by James G. Goodale, Ph.D.

Dr. Goodale is senior partner of Philbrook, Goodale Associates (Houston, Texas; phone 713-877-8182; email jgoodale@hbu.edu), consultants in organization management.  He is author of One to One:  Interviewing, Selecting, Appraising, and Counseling Employees (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1992).

“What a disappointment that was!  I went into my supervisor’s office expecting to discuss my job performance and plans, but he did all the talking.  Then he just handed me the evaluation form and told me to sign it.”  

“These 360-degree reports are useless—just a bunch of numbers in distributions of numbers!  What do all the scores mean?  Some of these competencies don’t even apply to my job.  Who are these people who rated me?  How familiar are they with my performance?”

Difficulties in evaluating and discussing employee performance have become so common that many employees complain that feedback from supervisors is inadequate or misleading.  Despite innovations such as “360-degree” and “competency-based” evaluations, surveys continue to indicate that most employees and supervisors find that performance evaluation—more recently known as performance management—often does more harm than good.

What’s wrong?  The answer, and the solutions, require a close examination of why performance management is done, what is evaluated and discussed and how the process is carried out.


Too Much Scoring, Not Enough Discussing and Planning.

Performance management supports two objectives:  1)  to evaluate the past—document the quality of employee performance and results, and communicate decisions regarding salary increases, promotions and so on; and 2)  to plan the future—discuss employee performance and results and set plans for improvement.  But since the vast majority of organizations formally review employee performance once a year, managers try to achieve both objectives in one meeting.

When performance management is an annual event, it becomes an annual failure.  Why?  Because in spite of best intentions to discuss past performance and plan the future, managers find themselves delivering the annual report card and defending the scores that employees object to.  Furthermore, 360-degree feedback methods in which employees receive feedback from not only their bosses, but also co-workers, customers and staff, are already being questioned because they overwhelm employees with scores.

Solution:  Score Annually, but Discuss and Plan as Often as Necessary.

Employees, team members and supervisors discuss the quality of recent performance and then set plans to develop the employee and improve his or her performance as an essential, natural part of their jobs.  “Informal” performance management takes place during day-to-day feedback and discussion as supervisors and team members review work in progress. 

Performance management can also be done in “semi-formal” reviews conducted every few months or at the end of a project.  But when these discussions take place with rating forms, they become too formal and ineffective.  One secret to effective performance management, therefore, is to conduct informal and semi-informal discussions as often as necessary—no forms and no scores (more about how to do this later).   In addition, annual salary review interviews are necessary to sum up the year’s performance and discuss administrative decisions based on employee performance.


Evaluation Forms Don’t Apply to the Employee’s Job.

Because performance evaluation forms are typically created by human resources departments or consultants, supervisors often have difficulty applying them to their employees.  Problems arise when evaluation forms ask supervisors to rate employees on personal traits, such as maturity, attitude, personality, initiative, dependability; or on competencies like interpersonal skill, job knowledge and organizational skill.  First, employees often become defensive when they receive general personal comments like, “you rate only 3 on a 5-point scale of maturity,” or “you have poor interpersonal skills.”  Second, employees often disagree with the supervisor’s ratings because the characteristic being evaluated wasn’t directly observed.  Third, evaluations of employees in vague, subjective terms like personal traits and competencies may lead to charges of discrimination.

Solution:  Give Feedback about Job-related Results and Performance.

One key to effective performance management is to discuss information that employees understand and can use to develop themselves and improve their performance.  Therefore, employees, team members and supervisors should participate in creating the evaluation form (see my paper “Seven Ways to Improve Performance Appraisals, HR Magazine, May, 1993, p. 77).  Useful feedback is behavioral (not personal traits), specific (not general competencies) directly observable, and clearly job related.

Two topics, results and performance, meet these standards.  Supervisors and employees are aware of the results employees achieve.  For example, exceeding or failing to meet sales quotas, or producing or failing to achieve quality assurance standards.  Employees, team members and supervisors can discuss specific results achieved and set targets for the future.

Most supervisors and team members also observe how employees perform specific job responsibilities that enable them to achieve results.  For example, employees may manage time poorly, communicate well, object to changes in procedures and argue with team members.  During feedback and planning discussions, the appropriate parties can discuss how well the employee performed these responsibilities and make plans to improve performance in each of them.


Too Much Top-Down Communication.

Many supervisors dislike performance management because they feel like a punitive parent sitting in judgment.  Unfortunately, annual review meetings force them into this role as they walk in with completed evaluation forms and begin the discussion.  Furthermore, 360-degree feedback reports delivered in hard copy or electronically, are entirely top-down.

Solution:  Listen and Probe First; Talk and Prescribe Later

An obvious way to avoid this top-down style is to encourage employees to talk about their own performance before the supervisor or team members give feedback.  This can be done during day-to-day discussions and in “semi-formal” reviews conducted every few months or at the end of a project.  As stated earlier, these periodic reviews can be done very effectively without evaluation forms and ratings.  It is possible to reinforce positive performance, identify areas of improvements, and set performance goals without scoring employees.

The secret is to draw out the employee’s views of his or her performance and plans for improvement by asking questions.  Supervisors and team members can always add points later in the discussion if the employee doesn’t raise them first. 

This approach can also be used during the annual performance review.  To ensure that employees are prepared to talk about their own performance, supervisors can schedule the performance review ahead of time and ask each employee to prepare for the meeting by considering his or her own performance and results and by setting work goals and developmental plans.  To ensure more two-way communication, the supervisor or team member can invite employee input and provide feedback and ratings at the end of the discussion.

This probing approach can be easily transferred to all types of performance discussions—day-to-day feedback, periodic “semi-formal” reviews, and even the annual event.  Most people are aware of what they do well at work and what they need to improve and, if given the opportunity, they will identify their areas of strength and also constructively criticize their own performance while making plans for improvement.  If they don’t, supervisors and team members can propose ideas for improvement later in the discussion.


An Exercise in Upward Communication

“Constructive criticism” is a phrase commonly associated with performance management, and many supervisors struggle to find a way to tell employees that they are performing a job responsibility poorly and need a different approach, a training course or something else.  Unfortunately, many employees feel personally criticized and become defensive.

The Initiate-Listen-Focus-Probe-Plan technique below provides a powerful tool to avoid such defensiveness.  Try the following exercise with one of your employees or co-workers.  This is not a performance review; it’s just a job-related discussion.  Begin with a general question about his or her performance.

Initiate:  “How would you rate your performance during the last six months?” or “How do you feel about your performance during the last quarter?”

If you get a general response like, “Fine,” or “Pretty good,” or “8 on a 10-point scale,” follow up with a more focused question.  “What in particular comes to mind?” or “What have you been particularly pleased with?”  Your objective is to discuss a positive topic raised by the other person.

Focus:  “You mentioned that you were particularly satisfied with….  Let’s talk further about that aspect of your job.”

How Probe:  “How did you approach…?” or “What method did you use?”

Why Probe:  “How did you happen to choose that approach?” or “What was your rationale for that method?”

Results Probe:  “How has it worked out for you?” or “What results have you achieved?”

Plan:  “Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently?” or “What changes would you make if you worked on this again?”

In hundreds of training courses, about 80% of the people questioned in this way have made specific suggestions to improve their performance in a part of their job that they feel they have done well.  Furthermore, when asked about aspects of job performance to improve, they also set specific plans.  Even more encouraging, after the training, supervisors and team members report more relaxed and positive two-way communication in both “semi-formal” and formal performance discussions.

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2006 Winston J. Brill & Associates. All rights reserved.