Performance
June 23, 2014

Talking about performance

Whether in the public or private sector, a critical role of managers and supervisors is the management of employee performance. The new public service-wide Directive on Performance Management, which recently came into effect, highlights the importance of this role for managers across departments and agencies. Understanding and familiarizing themselves with the new frameworks, processes and templates is not an easy undertaking for busy managers. Change this significant always presents multiple challenges to be overcome.

Many managers find it difficult to discuss performance with their employees. In many cases, they feel unprepared to have the conversations about performance that the new systems will necessitate. These “difficult conversations” are not simply one-offs, but are ongoing, essential parts of completing performance agreements and evaluations and are crucial to the successful implementation of the new Directive.

Talking about performance, especially poor performance, is often not a positive or welcome experience for managers and employees. This need not be the case. The National Managers’ Community (NMC) has developed some useful guidelines and tips to better ensure that these conversations are constructive and worthwhile for both parties.

It is important to keep in mind that there is a range of different types of performance conversations managers need to have with employees, each with its own specific purpose. Conversations aimed at setting performance expectations, acknowledging good performance, identifying performance issues and developing strategies to improve performance are all part of the broader process. Following some simple approaches, neither new nor revolutionary, can greatly improve the conversations that take place throughout the performance management cycle which in turn leads to better employee performance.

Talk frequently
Managers often dread performance conversations and so avoid them. Waiting until major performance issues arise, or until evaluations are due, can make these conversations unnecessarily difficult and uncomfortable for both the employee and the manager. The longer you wait to have performance conversations, the more difficult they will be.

In reality, these conversations do not need to be difficult at all. Building conversations about performance into everyday interactions with employees enables managers to address issues as they arise and, in some cases, even before they become problems. Having frequent conversations with employees about performance concerns enables managers to course-correct employee performance and address minor issues steadily over time. This practice can help prevent major problems from developing.

It is as important to talk about good performance on a regular basis as it is to talk about poor performance. These positive conversations can only serve to encourage good performance and make employees more comfortable talking about performance with their manager.

Set clear expectations
Employees have the right to clearly understand what is expected of them before undertaking any task. Managers must set clear expectations, parameters and deadlines. A shared understanding facilitates conversations around both good and poor performance. Linking performance conversations to key checkpoints in the work cycle allows employees to be prepared and focuses the conversation. For example, managers can offer feedback to employees after each significant task or phase of a project is completed.

When managers and employees make a habit of discussing performance regularly, they can greatly reduce the anxiety some employees feel when receiving feedback on their performance.

Structure the conversation
Performance conversations should follow a common structure or format each time. This does not mean that the conversation should be scripted or excessively rigid in structure. Managers should select a structure that works for them and complements their management style, but is also comfortable for the employee concerned. This can be as simple as working through a set list of questions together.

When trying to develop or select a structure, it can help to consider the specific objectives you have for each type of performance conversation. In this way, the structure of the conversation becomes a roadmap for the manager to follow throughout the conversation. Using a familiar structure can help alleviate some of the pressure felt by both the manager and the employee.

The Directive on Performance Management has stimulated a great deal of discussion among managers about how to have positive, effective performance conversations with employees. The NMC will be facilitating the sharing of best practices and lessons learned as an essential part of developing this capacity among managers. The goal should be to not only make performance conversations less difficult, but to ensure that employees receive the guidance they need to perform to the best of their ability.

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