Improving Employee Performance: The One Thing Organizations Keep Neglecting

What comes to mind when someone says “performance management?”  Most likely it’s something more negative than positive.  Over the years, I’ve heard people describe their performance management process as “Death by 1000 paper cuts,” “Soul destroying,” and my personal favorite, “Using a stone tablet to document reviews would be easier.”

This bad reputation for performance management has been largely earned as organizations focus on whether or not to eliminate performance ratings or attempt to improve the process with better technology, neither of which solve the underlying problems.  Often lost in these misguided improvement efforts is the primary objective of performance management, which is to improve employee performance.  

What do employees need to perform at their best?  Among the most critical are the following:

  • Clarity about what they are working toward and how it contributes to the success of the organization
  • Understanding of the specific expectations for their performance
  • Professional development to put them in a position to be successful in the near term (in support of their annual performance goals) and long term (in support of their career progression)
  • Knowledge of where they stand (How am I doing?  What am I doing well?  What should I stop doing or do differently?)

Let’s focus on the last bullet.  Why?  In a study of more than 19,000 employees, the strongest lever of increased performance was the fairness and accuracy of the manager’s descriptive feedback.   Employees want feedback, and they want both positive and corrective.  Employees who don’t receive any feedback are more likely to be disengaged than employees who receive corrective feedback by a margin of 2:1.

The impact on the business is well-documented.  Employee retention is 30% higher for managers who have effective feedback practices.   Employees who have managers who excel at people development, particularly providing feedback, perform 25% better than those with managers who struggle at developing others.

I don’t know anyone who believes that providing effective feedback is a bad thing.  Yet so many managers avoid it, whether the situation calls for positive or corrective feedback.  It’s not difficult to understand why.  It boils down to two things:

  • Lack of skill:  Effective feedback, whether positive or corrective, is a skill that many managers haven’t learned, or if they have, put into daily practice.  Here are the critical components of effective feedback:
    • Be prepared.  Think through the content of your message, as well as the tone.
    • Be aware of and manage your own emotions.
    • Be candid.  Resist the temptation to sugarcoat the message.
    • Be specific.  Describe the situation, the behavior you saw or heard, and the impact it had on you or others.
    • Be respectful.  Listen the way you like to be listened to and don’t use inflammatory language (e.g. your meeting was a train wreck).
    • Be fair.  Make sure your message is free of bias, and recognize the employee’s efforts.
  • Fear:  Giving someone corrective feedback is uncomfortable.  Managers anticipate a bad reaction from the employee during the conversation and awkwardness and disengagement after.  But what about positive feedback?  That seems easy enough, but even providing words of praise requires a level of vulnerability in a professional setting that makes many managers uncomfortable.  So how can you begin to feel more comfortable doing it?  Here are my top two tips:
    • Ask for feedback.  Develop the habit of regularly asking others for feedback about yourself.  In the process of getting feedback, we become better at giving it and more inclined to do it.  
    • Flex your feedback muscle daily.  Find ways to integrate feedback into your daily conversations.  Start with opportunities to provide positive feedback in an informal setting.  Make feedback (giving as well as receiving) a part of your daily leadership practice and it will soon become part of your leadership brand.  Then when you do need to have a more difficult conversation, it will feel less threatening to you as well as the person on the receiving end.  

While debates about how to improve the efficiency of the performance management process are not inconsequential, they are not the solution to get people to perform at the top of their game. To get the best out of their people, managers need to invest in their development.  Frequent feedback that is thoughtful and genuine will not only help employees grow professionally, it will help them become better versions of themselves.

Looking for a quick way to get the feedback conversation started? Try these 25 questions.

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