Taking a look at performance appraisals

March 28, 2002
By: Terry White

If you make continuous feedback part of your managerial style, the annual performance appraisal becomes an affirmation of a positive working relationship.

As our work lives continue to become more complex, many managers are looking for assistance in the ongoing effort to achieve results—often with fewer resources. In the middle of all this, it may be helpful to develop a simpler strategy when attempting to communicate your expectations to employees.

Setting Expectations

First of all, why don't managers do a better job of setting expectations? As managers, we often are strapped for time and don't feel we have any time left to devote to this. We also assume that employees should know what to do—after all, aren't they as committed to the job as we are?

By overlooking or bypassing this vital link to subordinates, managers inadvertently miss a critical opportunity to improve their personal effectiveness as well as that of the company.

Why is setting expectations important? Quite simply, this process can be the cornerstone of improving the motivational climate within your sphere of responsibility. If your employees know what is expected of them, it allows them to focus on results and to monitor themselves against the set standards. Environments in which expectations are not clear, or change from week to week, seldom create high-performing work groups.

The three principles that should drive expectations are clarity, relevance, and simplicity.

Clarity. Expectations should focus on outcomes, not activities. In other words, you achieve clarity when you identify the expected results rather than the method for achieving them. Managers often make the mistake of attempting to direct the process that an employee will use rather than being clear about results. The advantage of identifying the outcome is that you, the manager, focus only on the goal; after all, the employee will develop the method for achieving the desired results.

Defining the objective often requires some thought on the part of the manager because it is easy to fall into the "activities trap." While developing a strategic plan for a department or division is a worthy activity, it does not represent an outcome. In the activities trap, developing a plan is the goal, rather than increasing your market share.

Relevance. The principle of relevance helps define the "why" of the assignment. If your employees have a full understanding of the project's importance, they can make adjustments as unanticipated factors crop up within the process. They probably also will be more committed to the result because they can see more easily how it fits into the big picture and how their efforts impact the company.

This understanding typically is accomplished through dialogue between the manager and subordinate, which allows for a more thorough review of the situation and for feedback and discussion. This process builds good will with the employee and sets the stage for additional responsibilities.

Simplicity. Simplicity creates a sense of grounding for employees as they endeavor to carry out assignments. Conversely, the more complex the message, the less they trust it. If managers identify the work in simple, straightforward terms, employees will find it much easier to follow through on managers' wishes. To accomplish this, a manager must identify the key message in a fashion that the employee can embrace.

Now What?

After setting expectations, the manager should maintain a level of discipline and consistency that can be applied in all situations. The next steps involve monitoring, providing feedback, and, finally, either rewards or consequences depending on the level of achievement. This four-step model can be applied in most managerial situations that involve goal achievement.

Monitoring. Monitoring is the follow-up that the manager provides after expectations have been set.

It can take many forms, from a formal status-review meeting to a casual conversation in the hallway. Regardless of the form, monitoring is the component that indicates that the project or assignment is important to you as a manager and that you are keenly interested in its outcome. It enables you to assess the progress and assist if unexpected roadblocks emerge.

Feedback. Feedback is the process of coaching subordinates as they complete their goals.

During this time it is important to focus on progress, any additional resources that may be required to meet the timeline, and the subordinate's view of the project. It is key to allow employees to debrief their experience during this phase. As the manager, you will be in a better position to evaluate not only their progress on this project, but what future assignments they may be able to undertake.

Rewards and Consequences. The reward or consequences phase involves either positive or negative reinforcement, depending on the outcome and the process.

Certainly, you want to reward a positive outcome. Rewards can take a number of forms, but regardless of the type, they should be timely, specific, and relevant to the employee. Consequences also should be timely and specific while focusing on how the employee can improve performance. While giving negative feedback often is uncomfortable for many managers, on-the-job behavior is shaped by both circumstances and consequences. If there is no downside to poor performance, it is difficult for managers to raise the performance bar for any of their subordinates.

This approach has the advantage of simplicity and—if consistently followed—will yield results for managers as they try to do more with less. While it may appear time-consuming at first glance, the alternatives create more rework and missed deadlines and often are far more expensive in time and resources.

Terry White

Contributing Writer