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August 2010 – The Performance Review Issue

Workforce Learning
Alice Waagen - Workforce Learning

Can you teach managers to manage?

Can you explain how to write meaningful and measurable performance goals? Can you show us how to tell someone their work is not up to expectations?

I am asked these questions frequently as I interact with business leaders. Immediately, my brain opens the big mental file folder labeled "Managing Performance."

Whether I am coaching individual leaders, working with a management team, or teaching a class on management skills, nearly everything I communicate falls into this huge knowledge area called performance management.

Why is the job of directing the work of others so difficult? Read on to find out. You'll also learn about a wonderful new book by Sharon Armstrong, a human resources expert and the author of The Essential HR Handbook.

In the News: Speaking of managing managers, Inc. magazine reporter Darren Dahl quoted me in his article published on Aug. 23. "Your company's managers are smart, committed, and passionate. How can you make sure they perform to their potential?" Read the entire article here:

Enjoy the rest of your summer! I'll talk to you again in October.

Alice Waagen, President
Workforce Learning

How to Manage People

By Dr. Alice Waagen

I have been teaching management skills for most of my professional career, and I consider it the most difficult job any professional can undertake. Here's why:

1. Half a century ago, most of the work being done inside a corporation or government organization was routine and predictable. Peter Drucker's 1954 hit, The Practice of Management, was the seminal book of the era, and in it he coined the term management by objectives (MBO). Despite considerable change in the workforce, nearly six decades later, we are still creating performance management systems that are based on MBO philosophy.

Why is this problematic? Because we are using a process designed to track transaction-based work performed by a single individual to govern constantly changing work assignments, which today are performed by collaborative teams. No wonder the annual event called the performance appraisal is such an onerous task.

2. Top-down management processes are another dinosaur of the 1950's that we still adopt in managing performance. The trouble here is that many bosses today don't understand the detailed work being performed by their subordinates. The notion that a manager can define performance objectives for staff – without their input or collaboration – is flawed logic. Not only that, it results in a disconnect between what really is being done and what is being recorded in the performance management system.

Work does not begin and end in neat annual timeframes. Project work can span weeks, months, or even years. Performance reviews need to be tied to a work schedule and not to some fixed point in the year. And yet, we continue to promote annual feedback sessions with occasional mid-year reviews.

3. One-on-one reporting structures have also gone the way of the finned Cadillac. Many organizations today complete work by creating collaborative teams of experts. One individual may serve on six teams simultaneously. So who writes the performance review? A single boss? Only if you want a performance review to be a work of fiction.

How do you upgrade a 1950's performance tool to work in today's hard-charging work environments?

Consider implementing the following more appropriate management strategies:

1. Turn the process upside down. Make every employee responsible for managing their own performance. Stop training managers on how to develop performance objectives, and start training employees on how to document and measure their own work. When you empower employees to self-manage their performance, everyone feels more in control of their destiny and that helps create a happier and more effective team.

2. Throw out the concept of annual reviews. Performance management should be tracked on a short-term basis – weekly, if not daily. Successful management occurs through ongoing dialogues between the staff and the person responsible for signing off on the completed work. To be most effective, teach everyone how to monitor, measure, and document their progress. Then once a year, request a summary of the dialogues for the records.

3. Teach everyone, not just managers, the skills needed to conduct difficult and challenging conversations. In the ideal workplace, everyone should feel comfortable in conveying both positive and constructive feedback upward, downward, and laterally.

The bottom line

Good performance management is so much more than an annual form completion exercise. It is the backbone of a decision support and time management system. Every individual should be using their performance plan as criteria for determining how to spend their time and prioritize their work.

Most importantly, a sound performance management system forms the foundation for building strong interpersonal relationships at work. If staff and management conduct frequent open and honest conversations about work accomplishments and areas for improvement, they create a climate of mutual trust and support that is required for any high performing organization.

Understanding The Essential Performance Review Handbook

Review by Dr. Alice Waagen
Book by Sharon Armstrong

Sharon Armstrong has done the world of management a great service. She has compiled a book that shows us exactly how to develop and deliver top-notch performance appraisals.

As stated in the introduction, the purpose of the book is to "cut through the anxiety and make the process more productive and less unpleasant." That's an admirable goal for a book dealing with the single most dreaded managerial task in the workplace today.

Chapter one of the book describes why performance appraisals are so universally abhorred. To help readers move past their fears, Sharon provides self- assessments to ferret out the grounds for discomfort. The assessments list appraisal best practices, so a low self-rating will immediately give the reader an indication of where they need to focus their learning.

Subsequent chapters walk readers through the components of good appraisals, starting with preparation and planning through conducting the meeting and follow up. Each is packed with relevant quotes from the experts and sample stories of good and not so good practices. Plus, Sharon includes numerous examples of organizations that adapted their performance appraisal process in ways that truly improved on results, such as instituting employee-driven objectives.

I especially liked her "A List" of actions that produce a good appraisal process:

  • Being Active by sharing ownership of the evaluation process with employees
  • Being Accurate in documenting work performance
  • Being Attentive means always keeping goals and plans on the radar screen
  • Being Appreciative by including frequent recognition of goal achievement

The book wraps with a chapter on performance reviews in a changing world. This is perhaps one of the most valuable sections because it focuses on generational differences. With four and sometimes five generations working in the same office today, understanding how each cohort group prefers to give and receive feedback is critical.

If I could give just one book to a first-time manager, it would be The Essential Performance Review Handbook. I believe that this guide not only imparts useful tips and strategies, it lends a sense of understanding and control to a process that can be daunting for a rookie – or even experienced – manager. Any manager will feel calm and confident, which goes a long way toward making these sometimes difficult conversations more pleasant and productive.


A Q&A with HR expert Sharon Armstrong

Author of The Essential Performance Review Handbook

Although performance reviews are actually less popular than a trip to the dentist for most supervisors (see that study below), it's not supposed to be this way. That's why HR expert Sharon Armstrong wrote, The Essential Performance Review Handbook, published in May 2010 by Career Press.

Sharon's goal is to help take the pain out of the performance review process, and as any manager and business owner knows – that's a wonderful idea. Below you'll find a Q&A with Sharon, where you'll find ideas on how to master this important task.

Alice Waagen: Tell us about your new book and what you hope readers will take away from it.

Sharon Armstrong: I do my best in the book to provide advice on how to make the performance review process productive, painless, and effective.

After all, I have been there as a manager and know from firsthand experience that performance appraisals can be one of the most anxiety-provoking aspects of work life–for both supervisors and employees.

Appraisals are meant to clarify and reward, and to be interactive and fair. They take real time, real dialogue, and a real focus on the future, rather than just the previous few months. They need to work successfully for all employees–not just the terrific ones.

Alice Waagen: Why do you think, more often than not, that performance reviews don't work?

Sharon Armstrong: Supervisors often complain they are required to focus on tedious written forms, but don't have enough training in how to use them. They also worry about getting hit with complaints or lawsuits when there's even a hint of discussion in the review about "improvement opportunities." There's also the frustration of measuring intangibles.

What's more, employees often aren't any happier about the performance review process.

Alice Waagen: I'm guessing that employees dread the process, as well.

Sharon Armstrong: Absolutely. In fact, my research shows their reaction ranges from feelings of trepidation to sheer terror. As one employee told me, "The perception of the individual or relationship often dictates how critical or complimentary a supervisor can be."

Alice Waagen: Why is one of the most vital workplace responsibilities so difficult and complicated?

Sharon Armstrong: Let's consider some statistics and surveys to understand the problem. A 2006 survey by the Council of Communications Management confirmed what almost every employee knows–that positive feedback related to their efforts, and recognition for a job well done, are the top motivators of employee performance.

Through formal evaluations and regular informal routes, performance appraisals yield excellent opportunities to motivate. Yet the process is frequently counterproductive or viewed merely as perfunctory.

And, according to the United Kingdom's Institute of Personnel and Development, one in eight managers would prefer to visit the dentist than carry out a performance appraisal.

It's not supposed to be this way. Rather than a painful yearly event, performance evaluation can be viewed as a culmination of small meetings, formal and informal, held throughout the evaluation period.

Alice Waagen: Is there any good news?

Sharon Armstrong: Most definitely. Happily, the elements involved – goal setting, effective observation, practical documentation, and ongoing communication – can all be learned.

Alice Waagen: I especially like that the book is peppered with quotes and ideas from top leaders. In Chapter 9, entitled, "Performance Reviews in a Changing World," Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates shares with us this thought. "What I do best is spread my enthusiasm," he says.

Sharon Armstrong: That's right. And Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer added, "The end point must be exciting enough to stir thousands to uncommon effort."

Alice Waagen: I'm guessing peformance appraisals aren't going to go away any time soon. What do you think will be the future of this process?

Sharon Armstrong: I think that in one form or another, performance reviews will continue to be a fact of our work life. This book is designed to cut through the anxiety and make the process more productive and less unpleasant.

Alice Waagen: Thank you so much for your time, Sharon. I wish you all the best getting this important information out to every manager and leader tasked with doing the important job of conducting performance appraisals. I know your guidance will be helpful to them.

Sharon Armstrong: Thank you, Alice!

About Sharon Armstrong

Sharon Armstrong has over 20 years of experience as a Human Resources consultant, trainer and career counselor. Since launching her own consulting business in 1998, Sharon Armstrong and Associates, she has consulted with many large corporations and small businesses. She has facilitated training, completed HR projects, and provided career transition services for a wide variety of clients in the profit and non-profit sectors.

She is the author of four books, including The Essential Performance Review Handbook.

Published by Inkandescent Public Relations, Hope Katz Gibbs: Editor

© 2010 Workforce Learning