“Performance management” leads to either disdain or glee in public sector organizations. Both reactions rely on a faulty understanding on how to make it work.
Achieving organizational excellence through management of performance occurs in three simple steps.
Step one: identify, discuss and agree on a vision of what to accomplish and its importance. Process maps and job descriptions are suitable starting points. The office holder normally has a clearer understanding of the process involved and the required outcomes.
Excellent organizations are founded on discussion. Managers need to hear employee perceptions and the challenges associated with the key activities. Two classes of activities exist in every job. The first are the ongoing daily monotonous tasks and activities that produce a steady stream of deliverables. The second are the “new” initiatives that emerge and the improvements to be made. Both need to be addressed.
Managers and staff must be clear about what is to be achieved and how they will determine success. In many cases, a count of deliverables is a good rough measure. In higher-level situations, outcome measures are more difficult to determine: the more complex the job the greater the need to invest time in developing the criteria for achievement and success.
Once objectives are established, the measures identified and the success criteria agreed upon, write everything down. Many performance appraisal systems flounder because managers and staff perceive key points differently. Forget the messages and spin; just stick to the facts: a simple chart with tasks/activities, measures and success criteria provides the basic information.
There are a couple of caveats for step one. Workers know more about their jobs than managers and many will set higher standards and expectations than their bosses. They also know the ways to improve the key processes and will do so if given the chance.
Step two is the action step that differentiates the good organizations from the also-rans. It is an on-going discussion of how things are going. These discussions are fact-based, which means looking at due dates, successes and failures (sorry, these do happen). Actual data needs to be the focus of the scheduled discussions. If you have “stretch targets,” expect that some will not be doing well, which provides the opportunity to adjust expectations.
For managers, a key part of the discussions is identifying how to help the employee. Effective managers create opportunities for employees to succeed and address the barriers that exist to achieving goals; this is as important as providing direct feedback to staff.
Caveats for step two address the behaviour of the parties involved. Both staff and managers need to separate dreaming from factual reality. Come to discussions prepared to address the list of key activities. Be open and honest about what is being achieved or not, and the reasons for the current state of affairs. State the obvious and use common sense, but remember that common sense is not always common practice and what is obvious to you might be a rude awakening to someone else.
Step two is long-term and allows for recognition of the good things happening, the successes being achieved, and the outcomes delivered. Research shows that a simple pat on the back from the manager or senior staff is the most effective recognition available. To achieve an organization dedicated to superior performance, everyone, especially the leaders, must clearly communicate and recognize a task well done. The ongoing discussion provides this opportunity. Do it thoroughly, do it often, and be positive.
Step three checks the progress made, the outcomes and outputs produced and the contributions made. The initial preparation for this is a straightforward check of the original list of key outcomes and deliverables with a simple yes or no evaluation for each item. Fact-based observations and conclusions using specifics provides a fairly straight forward starting point
A key element of this last step is an evaluation of what was achieved and identification of opportunities for the future. Effective organizations build on achievements and seize opportunities. This step summarizes the on-going discussions for step two and may be the most critical and problematic step. Managers and staff need to be aware of the outcomes achieved and the failures that occurred. When outcomes are not in line with expectations, options need to be identified that make use of the skills and abilities of the staff members more effectively. Perhaps an alternative position or enhanced training is an intervention to be considered.
Step three is the starting point for the next cycle of performance discussions. It provides the genesis for moving forward and the opportunity to build on success and create a real culture of performance.
Larry Taylor has over 30 years of public sector experience with Natural Resources Canada, Treasury Board Secretariat, Transport Canada and Alberta Solicitor General (firstname.lastname@example.org).