Performance Management 101

With performance management measures in place for every employee, managers need to monitor, measure and document each step of the way.

African American male and white woman discussing a sheet of paper at work.

Employees need to know exactly what is expected and required of them. They also need to know that their performance will be measured based on those expectations and requirements spelled out up front—and on nothing else. The key is always framing expectations in terms of concrete actions the employee can control.

With those measures in place for every employee, the manager needs to monitor, measure, and document every step of the way:

Expectations. Goals and requirements that were spelled out. Instructions given or to-do lists assigned. Standard operating procedures, rules, or guidelines reviewed. Timelines defined. Deadlines set.

Concrete actions. Track each employee’s actual performance: What data is tracked automatically? What have you observed the employee doing while watching? What does the employee say when asked about his actual performance? What do his self-monitoring tools reveal? What does your ongoing review of the work product tell you? What do you learn about the employee’s actions when you ask around?

Measurements. How are the actions matching up against the expectations? Has the employee met the requirements? Did he follow instructions, standard operating procedures, and rules? Did he meet his goals on time?

Performance tracking process

You need a performance tracking process that is simple and easy to use, not cumbersome paperwork that holds you back. Figure out what works best for you.

Most important, tracking gives you the information you need to revise and adjust your regular performance coaching on an ongoing basis:

“You did a great job on A, B, and C. You did every item on the to-do list. You followed all the instructions. You followed all the rules. Great job. Now let’s talk about D. On D, you failed to complete items 3, 4, and 5 on the to-do list. Why? What happened? Let’s talk about how you are going to do items 3, 4, and 5. And now let’s talk about E. On E, you missed the following details. Let’s review the checklist and discuss how you will fill in those details.”

You need to be able to reference your ongoing record of employee performance every step of the way. Make notes before, during, and after every conversation, as necessary. Make notes immediately after the conversation. In between one-on-one meetings, make sure to write down everything of consequence related to that employee’s performance. If you think of something you want to mention in your next meeting with the person, write that down.

How can you hold employees accountable without rewards and consequences?

Often managers ask me: “How do you enforce performance requirements if there are no consequences for failure? How do you incentivize high performance if there are no significant rewards for success?”

How to enforce performance requirements

It’s a whole lot easier to manage performance if you have the resources and discretion (and the guts) to tie specific rewards and punishments directly to concrete actions within the control of the individuals you are managing. Most managers have more discretion and resources than they use, but some have very little.

Sometimes all you have is the ability to ask employees regularly to look you in the eye and give an account of their actions. Even without rewards and consequences, our research shows that you can have a powerful impact on most employees simply by getting them in the habit of giving a regular account of how their performance lines up with expectations and requirements spelled out in advance. You want them to care about what you think of them. You want them to have a hard time looking you in the eye and saying, after you’ve spelled out clearly what is expected of them, “No. I didn’t do it.”

That’s accountability: Simply getting people to behave as if they know in advance that they will have to explain themselves. Nearly everybody performs at a higher level with regular scrutiny and coaching. The impact is much greater, of course, when the coach brings a high degree of credibility, skill, knowledge, and experience; and a relationship of genuine trust and confidence built over time through regular one-on-one dialogue.

You are the performance coach

When it comes to your employees, you are the performance coach. That doesn’t mean you have to speak with any special dose of charisma or passion or that you have to suddenly become the “natural leader” who can inspire and motivate through your infectious enthusiasm. Being the performance coach does mean that you are the one who is talking regularly one-on-one with each individual about steadily improving his performance. That’s it. If you have that ongoing conversation with each person, then you are the performance coach by definition. On the front lines, ongoing continuous performance improvement looks are zeroing in on one opportunity after another to improve productivity or quality. By talking about this in your regular one-on-ones every step of the way, you send the message that regular improvement—-in productivity AND quality—- is expected: “Speed up here. Fix this tiny problem there. Dot this “I” and cross this “t.”

All you need to do is keep talking about the work in a straightforward, effective manner. Your job is to use that bright light of scrutiny to help employees see their targets at work more clearly and aim better at hitting those targets. By shining a bright light on their work, you tell them they are important and their work is important. Best of all, you will help them work faster and better every step of the way.

The most important aspect of performance coaching

The most important aspect of performance coaching is being steady and regularly—reliably persistent. Of course, some people have more natural talent than others regarding coaching. You will get lots of practice if you diligently maintain your regular ongoing one-on-ones. For starters, just keep talking about the work:

  • Focus on specific instances of individual performance
  • Describe the employee’s performance honestly and vividly
  • Offer course-correcting feedback
  • Always describe “next steps” in terms of clear expectations: concrete actions the individual can control with specific guidelines and clear timetables
  • In the next conversation, talk about how the actual performance lined up with the expectations set

You will get better and better at it. You will develop your coaching voice and style over time. Along the way, you will find that most dedicated low performers, even without negative consequences, will want to escape this intensive performance management and leave on their own. For their part, the high performers will do even better with the regular coaching and the recognition that goes along with it, even without additional rewards. Meanwhile, you will help one employee after another practice and fine-tune; become more detail-oriented and more aware of the pace of their productivity; develop the habits of continuous improvement, growth, and development. Doing ever more, faster, and better.