Use Performance Management

Help People Succeed and Improve

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Are you fed up with the return on investment you experience when you subject people to your current performance appraisal process? Are you changing your approach to performance evaluation and review? There is a better way to approach performance management and development. The performance management process can help you create a work environment that helps employees succeed.

You can improve productivity, motivation, and morale by handling performance management in new ways. In this interview with Robert Bacal, the author of Performance Management (McGraw-Hill Professional), we'll help you explore what to do differently.

Susan Heathfield: Robert, in your book about performance management, what do you recommend in lieu of the traditional annual appraisal in which a manager hands out a form to an employee with ratings and a review of the prior year?

Robert Bacal: I can give you several answers to this one. Let's start with basic principles. Performance management is about having everyone succeed and improve. For that to happen, the manager and the employee have to work together in a communication process to identify barriers to success (whether they are from the employee or the system of work) and to build plans to overcome those barriers.

So, in a sense, ANY method that does that will succeed. Ratings and yearly review lack the detail to make this happen unless the manager is excellent. My suggestion is to focus 90 percent of performance management time on performance planning and communication throughout the year. And, move to specific, measurable objectives.

No system is perfect. What we need to do is find ways to make performance better, and sometimes that means the manager and the employee need to figure out the best method to use in their unique situation.

Heathfield: What is the focus of the discussion during a review or evaluation session, or as I would prefer to call it, a performance development meeting?

Bacal: I like this question a lot. The single most important compound question is: What things have made your job more difficult, and what do we need to do in the next year to help you become more productive?

The discussion needs to be forward-looking, and not be restricted to "deficits" of employees but also deficits in things like workflow, work communication, and so on.

Heathfield: How often do you recommend managers hold these sessions with the people who report to them?

Bacal: I recommend that managers have informal short talks once every few weeks - that's like five - ten minute how's it going talks. Hold quarterly discussions that are a bit more organized. Schedule a year-end review that is really just a review.

By the time the year-end review happens everything should have been discussed before. No surprises.

Heathfield: How do you establish a communication system to get top performance and value from each employee, in a workplace climate designed to stimulate greater productivity from both managers and employees?

Bacal: I'm afraid that's what I call a consulting question. That is, it's not possible to offer up a recipe that will fit everyone. The answer is it depends, and without doing a diagnosis of an organization, one can't really suggest anything without ending up saying nothing.

In other words, each organization is different and requires different things since they are also starting from different points.

Heathfield: What is your general philosophy about employee performance management?

Bacal: Be forward-looking. No blame. Problem solve. Hold ongoing communication. No surprises. Forms are trivial and unimportant to the real purpose.

All barriers need to be considered, not just employee-based factors. Flexibility to negotiate evaluation methods on an individual manager-employee basis is important.

That later is part of my newer work which I hope to turn into a book called Value-Added Performance Management. It will outline the logic of flexible systems if I ever get around to writing it.

Heathfield: How would you go about instituting a change in the typical organization's current appraisal system?

Bacal: That's another "it depends." The standard answer and still a good one is that significant changes need to be top down. The CEO uses the new system with VPs. VPs use it with executive directors, and on downwards. And, the CEO holds VPs responsible for replicating the process with their reporting staff, and so on.

The other way, when there is no indication of senior management willingness (and that's common) is to build pockets of success in the middle and bottom of the organization. It doesn't result in a better overall company system immediately, but it's better than having a lousy system pervade the entire organization.

In other words, the strategy is: "We can't get this turned around because we lack the support to do so, so let's see what we can accomplish anywhere where we might find some support."

Heathfield: You share my personal philosophy in this last, Robert. People in organizations tell me frequently that they can't do something or change something because upper-level management doesn't support the change.

I consider this an excuse for inaction. Unless executives are actively working against your proposed changes, or forbidding them, you can always start to make changes in the areas at work over which you have some control.

So, thanks for sharing that. I wish more people believed this. Their workplaces would be better off with more action and fewer excuses. Plus, it would do wonders for their own morale and self-image.


Robert Bacal is a trainer, consultant, and author who speaks regularly at industry conferences and events. Robert provides access to over 1200 work-related articles online at his website. Contact Robert.