How to Improve the Effectiveness of Performance Management and Appraisal by Overcoming the Root Cause of the Problem
By Julie Freeman
Part 2: Details and Application
Part 1 of this article outlined the problems associated with current methods of employee performance management and appraisal. It also proposed a solution that advocated using managers' subjective assessments as an effective and valid alternative to letting employees know how they are doing.
Part 2 provides details about how this solution works. Various suggestions for how the method involved can be applied to meet differing individual or corporate needs are also outlined.
Example of the Method Applied to a Performance Problem
Because of space restrictions, only one example is provided in this article (see the link at the end for others). This example focuses on how the technique is used to address a poor performance issue because this is what managers have the most difficulty in communicating. However, it is equally applicable for positive performance.
Situation: Take a hypothetical employee, Rick. One of the conclusions that Rick's manager has formed is that Rick is a "faultfinder who whines and complains all the time" (negative fuzzy). "Rick finds fault with everything, especially new initiatives, and doesn't contribute anything positive." The manager is tired of Rick's negativity and the fact that it is bringing everyone else down. However, Rick is both sensitive and aggressive and the manager is nervous about confronting him. Besides, whining and complaining do not appear as a category on the formal appraisal form.
Outlined below is how this particular situation would be translated into effective feedback. The technique involves getting the manager to analyze what he has observed the employee do, or otherwise remarked on, that made him form this conclusion. This information is then flipped to describe the opposite situation (i.e. desired performance) using neutral or positive language.
Problem: Finds fault with everything and whines and complains all the time.
What have I SEEN him do (or otherwise remarked on) that makes me come to this conclusion?
When he spots a problem or (or a potential problem), he simply whines and complains to me about it, rather than offering any concrete suggestions as to how it might be solved.
For example: (specific instances) of when this happened)
* When we implemented the new XYZ system he complained that it wouldn't work because….
What I wish he would do instead (described WITHOUT using the word "improve"):
Deal with problems in a proactive way.
What I mean by this is:
When he spots a problem he would think through its ramifications and develop some concrete suggestions about how we might go about solving it before he comes to me.
I hope that having to do this will stop him from bringing minor things up while still giving an opportunity to address any valid concerns.
What makes the technique work so well for these situations is that, with some initial coaching, managers can make the simple mind shift necessary to learn how to structure the feedback in a way that clearly describes their expectations for future desired performance rather than concentrating on what the employee is doing wrong. Focussing on what managers want, rather than on what they do not want, helps to significantly reduce the amount of stress and anxiety caused by the potential for confrontation and hurt feelings that managers and employees traditionally associate with such sensitive issues.
Moreover, in helping managers to define their expectations for performance by forcing them to describe those expectations, it essentially creates standards in the kinds of subjective areas where this has traditionally been hard to do. It also sets the stage for a discussion concerning how the desired performance can best be achieved.
Note that if this had been a positive fuzzy, the analysis would stop with the information on the left-hand side of the table because it would represent specific positive behaviour and could be communicated "as is," i.e. including the specific examples.
When dealing with negative fuzzies, the information on the left-hand side is never communicated to the employee. It only represents the "working document" from which the information on the right-hand side is generated. This is a powerful part of the process because it helps managers really understand why they have come to their conclusions. It is necessary to go through this analysis because if it is not done it is simply not possible to flip the negative information into its opposite - i.e. the desired performance. It is the desired performance that managers provide as feedback concerning their expectations for what they want to see the employee doing in the future.
This approach differs from traditional feedback training in this one way. Traditional training usually advocates a clear outlining of the problem, and this is a mistake in most cases. When presented with a clear description of desired performance ("what I mean by this"), most employees can make the connection between this and negative behaviour that generated it. This private connection is an essential part of the process because it lets the employee save face.
Some people might feel that this approach pussyfoots around the issue and avoids dealing honestly with the problem. I disagree. The whole point of the exercise is not to "rub the employee's nose in it," or to make him or her feel bad about themselves, but to get buy-in to achieve the desired performance. In most cases, when bringing up performance problems for the first time it is more effective to focus on the positive future performance than to risk using words to describe what the employee did wrong and destroying their self-esteem in the process.
Consequently, if it is possible to avoid giving specific negative examples then it should be avoided. It is important that employees be given the benefit of the doubt the first time the manager brings up an issue. However, we have a tendency to assume that employees know that they are performing poorly and are therefore doing it deliberately. Yet, the facts suggest that the vast majority of employees generally don't know when they are not performing to standard and they are desperate for good feedback. They do not want to be confrontational or make the manager's life miserable. Moreover, for the small minority who do, the specific negative examples from the left-hand side of the analysis can always be used if the manager's back is against the wall.
After the analysis is complete, the manager also notes what the positive consequences would be for the employee if he or she could achieve the desired performance. The manager also generates some ideas as to how the employee could achieve this level of p erformance and has these ready if the employee cannot come up with any ideas on his or her own.
When managers actually communicate the feedback, they use the "what I wish the employee to do instead" information to bring up the issue, while the "what's in it for him to change" is useful to get buy-in. The suggestions are used to help the employee figure out how to achieve the desired performance.
Outlined below is an abbreviated example of how this analysis might be communicated. What actually happens before the issue is brought up would obviously be different depending on the context in which the conversation taking place (e.g. is this an isolated conversation or part of a "How am I doing?" discussion).
Bring up the negative issue
This is generally the hardest part of the whole process.
"Rick, one area that I think it would be fruitful to work on would be for you to become more proactive when you encounter a problem. By this I mean, when you spot a problem I'd like you to think through its ramifications and develop some concrete suggestions about how we might go about solving it before you come to me."
Get the employee's reaction
Ask a question such as, "What do you think of that?" (Note: communication techniques such as active listening are reviewed in the training to help managers here). Bring in the positive consequences to the employee of achieving this desired performance.
"You have a talent for spotting potential problems and if you can combine this with some concrete ideas about how to tackle them, a lot of people including myself would appreciate it. By taking this positive approach to dealing with problems you would be showing initiative - something that is essential in being perceived by management as a valued and respected employee. Even if a given problem cannot be resolved, at least you might feel better about having tried to do what you could to solve them."
Discuss how to achieve changes
If the desired performance is attainable, it is better if the employee comes up with the ideas for how to achieve that level of performance. However, and if necessary, the manager can refer to the ideas that were prepared beforehand and put them forward as suggestions.
"What do you think is involved in doing that? Is there anything that I could do that would help you?"
* "For example, I could help you by reviewing your recommendations and giving you feedback on what I think. Would that be helpful?
* What do you think of the idea of me giving you a structure to follow based on what I use to make a simplified business case. It would help you to outline the idea, the pros and cons, and state what would be involved in getting it done.
* When the ideas you have are outside either your or my control, such as with the new system we implemented a few weeks ago, I could pass them on to the appropriate people. This would at least give us the sense that we've done our best to see the problem resolved even if nothing comes of it. What do you think?"
Summarize the action plan and show confidence in the employee to succeed.
In most cases this will not be complicated - in fact try to keep it as simple as possible. Where appropriate, the employee can create objectives together with an action plan if the task is complicated enough to warrant such an approach.
"OK, so we've agreed on a couple of key things that we can do to help you achieve this outcome. Would you please send me an email outlining what we discussed and agreed upon, say by Friday?" So Rick, as I mentioned before, if you can put together ideas for how to solve the problems that you spot you'll become a much more valued employee and I think that everyone would appreciate your initiative. I think that we've come up with a good plan for how to achieve that and I have every confidence in your ability to pull it off."
More on Why the Method/Technique Works so Well
Firstly, regardless of whether the feedback is positive or negative, it forces managers to analyze their conclusions in a very specific, positive, future-focussed way. Specificity is a golden rule of feedback of course, but this approach goes ones step further because conclusions, once formed, are rarely examined and communicated in this way.
Secondly, for negative feedback, the way that a problem is brought up and presented makes it easier on the manager to say and easier on employees to hear, understand, and accept, which decreases the potential for conflict and hurt feelings.
Thirdly, the specificity of the desired performance combined with the discussion about solution options dramatically increases the probability that the process will achieve the hoped-for results.
This technique has further benefits, especially when dealing with performance problems:
* One of the biggest reasons that employees don't perform well is that they do not know that their performance is failing to meet expectations. This is not surprising given the fact that we know that managers avoid giving feedback and most employees are too shy or too scared to ask for it directly. While "star" employees tend to know how they are doing because they get so much positive reinforcement, regular employees only know how they think they are doing. What they don't know is whether this is in line with how they are perceived by management. As stated before, in the absence of honest specific feedback, they have to resort to guesswork to figure out for themselves how they are really perceived.
* When managers hold this conversation with the employee it also enables them to rule out a second possibility for why performance might be poor. Namely, that the cause of the problem is systemic - i.e. it is a result of something in the system rather than originating with the employee. The discussion will quickly bring to light whether the desired performance is outside of the employee's control to achieve and a different course of action is necessary.
Once these two possible reasons for poor performance have been ruled out, then any continued poor performance must be caused either by a lack of desire to perform (motivation issue), or an inability to learn a skill or behaviour (lack of talent issue). How they deal with each one is obviously different and it is critical that managers understand the differences in order to help the employee find the right "fit" in (or out) of the organization. In the follow-up to this part of the discussion, managers must also know what their options are if the employee tries to meet expectations but cannot (i.e. lacks the basic talent, inclination, personality, etc). Managers must also know how to apply the formal discipline process if the employee does not improve but is fully capable of doing so. The training goes into these aspects in depth.
To reiterate a previous point, this explanation has focused on bringing up and resolving poor performance issues because this is what managers have the most difficulty in communicating. However, the technique works equally well for positive feedback because it generates the kind of specificity that is generally lacking when managers say things like "This report was very good" or "You handled that client well", or "You're a good team player". Employees are more likely to continue to perform in the ways that managers want if they know exactly what it is they are doing right. Furthermore, it is generally more effective from a motivational standpoint to spend time telling employees what they are doing right, rather than on what they are doing wrong.
How the Method can Benefit Managers, Employees, and the Organizations
Managers can be taught this feedback technique to:
* Avoid misunderstandings concerning the future by discussing an employee's potential honestly. Is promotion a realistic goal or not?
* Resolve poor performance problems.
* Help employees to develop and become more successful Recogntion of this success improves their morale, self-esteem and their motivation to want to continue to do well.
While, of course, it is not the whole answer, letting employees know what they should continue doing, what they need to start doing, or what they need to stop doing in an honest and helpful way is critical to their ultimate successful fit in the organization. And employee success = managerial success = organizational success.
Why? Everything that we know about motivation, from academic theories to our own common sense, tells us that the most important element of human motivation is related to the need for self-esteem. Employees need to feel good about what they do and for this to happen they need to feel that they are good at what they do. Furthermore, this impression must be validated - they must know that others, particularly "those that matter" (i.e. management), think the same thing.
The one thing that managers can do to build employees' self-esteem on an on-going basis is to help them to be as successful as their potential allows. People need to feel appreciated, valued, and recognized for good performance but managers cannot provide such recognition if it is not warranted. Moreover, good performance brings with it a level of trust in the employee's ability, and this trust results in a tendency for the manager to give more responsibility and control over the work to the employee. When employees do well under these circumstances they are viewed as more competent, and as having more potential etc. All of which adds to their sense of accomplishment and self-esteem, and creates a positive cycle of motivation and continued success.
As outlined previously, the ways that can managers can achieve these results using this method are:
1. Generate a discussion around "How am I doing?" 2. Give employees informal feedback about performance as it happens 3. Improve the quality of an existing formal EPMA method. 4. As a basis for an alternative way to manage and appraise employee performance in a formal way.
Each of these is outlined in more detail below. These applications are customized to align with organization's situation and it's goals for improving EPMA.
1. Discussion: "How Am I (really) Doing?"
* Whether it is done on a formal or informal basis, the discussion is the same. Using the technique outlined earlier, managers break down their mental impressions to tell an employee what they think about his or her:
* What is the employee particularly good at?
* What are the implications of these success areas for the potential of this employee?
* Where is the employee performing at acceptable levels?
* Would the employee benefit at all from further development in any of these areas? Depending on the employee's aspirations, it may or may not be appropriate to discuss how to develop more in these areas.
(Note: since the employee is performing satisfactorily, these would not constitute areas where improvement is required. There is a big difference between an employee who is meeting expectations but who wants to excel for personal reasons, and one who must improve just to meet expectations).
Things to work on
* What is the employee not good at? Where is he/she struggling? What would successful performance look like? How could the employee achieve it?
* What are the implications/possible consequences of improvement for the future?
* What are the options if the employee can't, or won't, meet the new performance expectations?
The beauty of this method is that it works with a manager's natural and intuitive approach to appraisal. It allows him or her to do his or her own thinking, and it can't be "paid lip service to" or otherwise fudged.
By going though this process managers have a much better sense of why they draw the conclusions that they do and employees will get a more truthful assessment of their performance and potential. Moreover, senior managers will also be able to refer to these analyses to see exactly how employees are doing and the kind of feedback that their managers are providing to them.
This approach can be used for all employees or for specific groups (e.g. probationary employees).
2. Informal Feedback
The same analysis and technique can be used on a voluntary basis to give feedback on performance as it happens.
3. Augmenting the Quality of Existing Approaches
Any existing method can benefit from this same technique by using it to generate the kind of quality face-to-face discussion that we typically wish would come out of the process.
When managers know that they can easily explain their conclusions (especially negative ones) regardless of whether they are expressed as a rating, or a competency gap, etc, they are more likely to be honest and to actually do it properly when it is required.
Whatever formal approach is used, managers can learn how to explain any rating (or competency gap or whatever) that they are giving in the context of that particular system. For example, requiring that "Comments" be completed using this method as a base can substantially increase the validity and quality of an appraisal that uses this feature.
Compelling managers to explain their evaluations in the manner outlined also reduces the chance that they can avoid or distort the appraisal in the ways that we have seen. The employee (and more senior management) would see the rationale that was behind the rating as well as the kind of details that support it.
4. Implement the Solution in an Alternative Approach to EPMA
Why Appraise Performance?
Obviously, managers can hold the "How am I doing?" discussion outlined in this section voluntarily, or they can give informal feedback based on this technique at any time regardless of which formal EPMA system is in place. However, to understand how such subjective managerial appraisals would fit into a formal approach to EPMA, it is perhaps worthwhile to review the goals of any such process in order to put it in context. These goals are generally to:
1. Specify performance expectations.
2. Provide a clear link between individual work and corporate goals, and ensure that the two are aligned.
3. Have a built-in monitoring system to ensure that performance stays on track.
4. Provide the opportunity for feedback on performance that also encourages "open and honest discussion" about it.
5. Recognize good performance and correct poor performance.
6. Help employees to develop and find the right "fit" (i.e. help them to reach their full potential) in or out of the organization.
7. Allow for accurate measurement of results (which can ideally be translated into defensible financial rewards).
These goals actually represent all aspects of performance and no one EPMA approach can adequately cover all elements. This is because there are actually two sides to the employee performance coin. One side relates to achieving results on specific tasks over a given time period (the objective measure), while the other side relates to "how the employee is doing" (the subjective measure).
The primarily purpose of the first side is to provide a way for the organization to exert control over the outputs of an individual's work. It is also the main way that it ensures that what a given individual does links to the achievement of organizational goals. The purpose of the second side is related to helping employees develop and become successful in a more general way. In helping individuals "be all that they can be" the organization also benefits in the ways that have been previously discussed.
In the final analysis of course, the two sides of the EPMA coin are intricately linked together because "How we are doing" (our strengths and weaknesses) are enduring and have a big influence on the kind of results we get on specific tasks.
An EPMA system needs to cater to both sides of this coin. It needs to incorporate objective measures where appropriate for short-term control purposes (that can also be incorporated into financial rewards if offered) and it needs to formalize the development side for the longer-term benefits that doing so would provide.
The key word here for objective measures is "appropriate." Where objectives are an appropriate measure, it is not difficult to devise them. When standards are appropriate they are generally already in place or are easy to determine because they make sense. For example, most managers and other professionals who have a fair amount of leeway in their jobs would benefit from pre-defined objectives that help them to know what priorities they should be working on to best meet organizational goals. Some categories of employees must meet critical (or otherwise important) quality, safety, or quantity standards.
For the purposes of formal evaluation and appraisal it is, I believe, more effective to separate the evaluation of the two types of performance (in time as well as "form") when it makes sense to make a clear delineation between them. This is particularly important when results are tied to financial rewards. The "How am I doing" discussion would be the vehicle to achieve this developmental appraisal while measurement against pre-defined standards or objectives would evaluate the results side.
For employees with jobs that are not particularly conducive to objective measurement, the "How am I Doing?" discussion could be used by itself or in conjunction with an up-to-date job description. This approach could more appropriately assess their contribution while avoiding the kind of cynicism (not to mention failure) associated with asking so-called "back-room" staff to write objectives or to be subjected to artificial or otherwise contrived measures of their performance that make no real sense.
What's involved in learning The Basic Technique?
The technique is logical and simple - managers can learn it relatively easily and quickly in a workshop or coaching setting. However, with most new learning, just reading about the theory is necessarily sufficient to be able to apply it effectively. The theory behind the method is relatively straightforward in this case. Nevertheless, both workshop participants and coaching clients find that there is something about being walked through how to apply it in their own situation that seems to make the difference in helping them to look at a situation that they are facing through new eyes. Once they see how the how the theory works in their own case, they tend to "get it" and can then apply it more easily to other feedback situations.
However, just taking instruction is generally not enough. Far too often, we tend to assume that we can send managers to training, or have them learn something on their own, and that they will come back "fixed" or able to apply what has been learned. For the most part this is a fallacy. Stand-alone training (i.e. as a course in a curriculum, versus a systemic application) can work if the person is very motivated for whatever reason. However, in my experience from working with literally hundreds of managers, in various soft-skills courses, the majority of them do not fall into this category.
It is worth bearing in mind then, that in the case of managerial soft skills in particular, it is a waste of time and money to send people on courses unless they:
1. Have a clear understanding of why they are there in terms of what it means for them as well as what is in it for the organization. However, simply understanding in a general sense "what's in it for me" is not enough for the change to happen. Managers might understand that being able to give feedback is a good thing all around but learning how to do it requires effort and applying it requires change. Both of these actions tend to fall by the wayside in favour of the status quo unless there are external pressures on the individual to make it happen.
Therefore, any organization that wants to see results in the majority of the managerial population, and not just the willing few, must be prepared to provide both positive consequences for compliance and negative consequences for non-compliance. For example, "talking with employees about performance" becomes a fuzzy in itself and managers could get feedback on it as something that they do well (recognition) do satisfactorily, or need improvement in. Financial rewards could also be contingent on it being done at least satisfactorily.
2. Assuming the consequences are in place, in order for managers to actually apply the learning requires that they have access to someone who can provide just in time individualized coaching back on the job. This person has to be available when required until the skill, and the confidence to use it, has been cemented.
If coaching is not provided at the critical times, we might as well be flushing the majority of any training dollars we spend on soft skills, down the drain. The ideal way to ensure that coaching is available is to train people within the organization with the skills to provide this coaching on an as-required basis. Providing coaching is more expensive of course, even if it only involves time. However, the question becomes, "If return on investment is the measure of success, then can we afford not to do it?"
In the case of performance feedback, we instinctively know that managers who are not doing it, or doing it badly, are inadvertently causing a huge negative effect on both the financial and human sides of the organization. Given this fact, we can also predict that the payoff for doing it right could be astronomical even if it can't be measured in a strictly objective way.
Part 1 of this article outlined the problems associated with the existing approaches to EPMA. It proposed a solution that challenges conventional wisdom and concluded that it is time to rethink and reexamine some of our ideas concerning EPMA.
Part 2 showed how the solution, a method of assessing performance and giving feedback, based on the use of subjective assessments, could be applied on an individual and corporate level to provide a valid solution to the problem.
This method is effective because it is simple and logical, and works with the natural way that managers already use to evaluate their employees. We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain by trying it.
More information is available at www.performancefeedback.com.
Back to Part 1
Julie Freeman is a training and development professional with over 15 years of experience in the corporate training environment and in consulting. Her primary area of expertise is in the design, development, and delivery of soft-skills training for managers and supervisors.
Julie has a BA in Psychology with a minor in Human Resources, a Graduate Diploma in Computer-Assisted Learning, and an MA in Educational Technology (the training and development degree).
She now specializes in showing corporations, managers, and supervisors how they can finally achieve the kind of "open and honest" communication with their employees about their performance that works in the way that we have always envisioned that it should.
Julie was born and raised in the UK, but has lived and worked in North America for most of her adult life.
Her website is at www.performancefeedback.com.