Managers Could Do A Lot Better At Performance Management

I was excited to see an email from the Gallup Business Journal with this headline hit my inbox recently. Awesome topic! Since Gallup has done so much research on employee engagement, I couldn’t wait to see their analysis and recommendations for managers to get better that this fundamental part of their jobs.

My excitement didn’t last long. Gallup’s list, it turns out, was a series of high-level platitudes:

  • Clarify the organization’s purpose and brand.
  • Remove cultural barriers to performance (executive team misalignment, lack of commitment to change, lack of role clarity, inconsistency in strategy execution …)
  • Study [high performers]… to ensure that strategies for selecting and developing employees are on target.
  • Use predictive analytics to hire for excellence.
  • Align people and processes.

That’s a fine list for top executives crafting an organization’s future. And sure, those things could improve performance management in indirect ways. But what I wanted was insight about helping actual managers get better at managing performance now.

My disappointment in Gallup’s article led me to wonder, “what would be on my list if I wrote an article with that title?” What could help managers do a better job at performance management? Here are four suggestions for your consideration.

  1. Break annual goals into smaller achievable projects. Remember when organizations used to create 10-year plans? I realize I’m showing my age here. In highly “VUCA” environments (VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), the 10-year plan is a laughable concept. The same is true for the annual performance management cycle. Rather than manage against twelve-month performance goals that assume an unchanging set of assumptions, break them into smaller projects with 30- or 60-day timelines that can galvanize employees’ attention and effort and which can be accomplished quickly. Bonus points if you can define “sprint” projects that can be accomplished in a week.
  2. Check in early and often. Performance management issues and conversations typically happen annually or at best quarterly. But opportunities to manage performance are happening every day. Correct a small issue today and it doesn’t become a big problem you need to address in an official review. Schedule short “huddles” with your people to find out how things are going, help them navigate performance obstacles, and keep them moving forward. If that’s too big an ask up front, have your team submit 5×15 reports each week. Use these reports to triage the conversations you need to have. You’ll be surprised by the return you get, both in terms of employee performance and – to use Gallup’s word – engagement.
  3. Catch people doing it right. Management thinkers from Frederick Hertzberg to Peter Drucker to Marcus Buckingham have demonstrated that people perform better when their contributions and strengths are acknowledged. You get a great return on a low-risk, low-effort investment. But that means tuning in to what others are doing well, something few managers are conditioned to do. Here’s a way to get better: for the next week, take five minutes at the end of the day and write down three things that those you manage did well. Keep it simple. They don’t have to be extraordinary. They can be tasks that they were supposed to do anyway. The only requirement is that the actions each person took should have had a positive impact. The next day, let ‘em know what they did and the difference it made. If you need help getting started, here’s a fun tool to help you. “Appreciation Alert!”
  4. Free up time with a “Stop Doing List.” My first 3 suggestions require more of a manager’s time to, well, manage. Not a lot, but most managers have their own accountabilities that dominate their attention. Managing people often falls below the fold. It’s a huge problem in the way work is currently designed. Still, too many managers use their busyness as an excuse for avoiding the people part of managing. If you’re a hands-off manager and aren’t pleased the results you’re getting from your team, that’s on you. But if you actually want to help your people be more effective and can’t find the time, try shifting your focus from your inbox – the stream of inbound issues and emails that other people want you to pay attention to – to your outbox, the results and output you need to achieve. Steve Jobs said that “people think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no” to those things that distract us from what’s truly important. In her lovely book Gift From The Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh invites us to consider the following questions: “What can you do without and still achieve your purpose? What can you leave, what can remain undone?” She encourages us to identify habits, activities, and beliefs we can shed to live a more purposeful life. What can you shed to become a more purposeful manager, to create an hour a day to help your people be more effective? Write those things down and voila! You’ve created a Stop Doing List.

So that’s my list of actions managers can take to get better at performance management. What would be on yours?

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