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Managing Employee Performance

Why do so many managers struggle to manage employee performance? They may agree that employees are their organization’s most valuable resource, but few are skilled at dealing with poor performers.

Some managers avoid confrontation by sticking to neutral through positive feedback. Others drop hints or use jokes to make feedback easier for themselves. Some bite their tongue until they can no longer bear an employee’s actions. Then they blow their top, doing more harm than good.

Managers who find it easy to give negative feedback often do so in an abrasive way, thus creating fear and resentment.

Thanks to “management by exception,” problems get most of the attention: what has gone wrong and needs to be fixed. Being under so much pressure, managers readily display annoyance when mistakes are made. Even unintended signs of irritation are a source of negative feedback. Positive feedback is sporadic at best in most organizations.

Further, managers take too much ownership for delivering performance messages, thus leaving employees in a passive role, which is naturally anxiety producing for anyone.

Steps for Constructive Performance Management

  1. Regular, frequent performance discussions.
  2. Balance of positive and negative.
  3. Employee leads the discussion.

1. Regular, frequent performance discussions

Negative feedback is worse when it is sprung on someone because it creates an emotional reaction. It is human nature to react defensively to an unexpected attack, which is why managers prefer to avoid such confrontations.

Conversely, a scheduled discussion allows both sides time to prepare themselves mentally. Frequent performance discussions also help to ease the pain as both sides get used to the process. There is no hard and fast rule regarding the frequency of meetings, but they should be held at least quarterly, ideally once a month.

Similar levels of comfort through repetition are gained for stressful situations like making presentations. The more often you do them, the more confident you become and the easier they get.

Regular performance discussions are only effective, however, when seen as an opportunity, not a chore. Like preventative maintenance, they keep the lines of communication open, make employees feel valued, foster retention and, when done well, help employees achieve at their full potential.

2. Balance of positive and negative

All meetings between managers and employees, performance related or otherwise, should begin with everyone stating what went well since the last meeting. Employees need a chance to highlight accomplishments before the discussion moves onto problems. A better balance is thereby created between success and failure. As it is, problem-focused meetings generate a failure-mentality, which is self-defeating given the manager’s need to motivate higher performance.

This is a great way of celebrating success where every employee gets a chance to shine, not just the exceptional ones. A more positive atmosphere can induce employees to do more before the next meeting to have something to talk about. By gaining an opportunity to tell their manager about their achievements, employees anticipate performance discussions with less fear.

3. Employee leads the discussion

Managers make it harder for themselves by taking all the ownership for delivering messages. Such a one-way discussion naturally puts the employee on the defensive. Viewing their managers as internal customers, employees think more proactively about how to sell themselves in every encounter.

Managers should do more listening and coaching, less talking and telling. Employees should be asked to first review the positive actions they have taken before talking about what has not worked. Over time, as fear of such meetings declines, employees become increasingly comfortable about admitting mistakes.

If an employee avoids talking about a lapse of performance, or is unaware of it, the manager can ask: “How do you think X went? What do you think went well and not so well in that situation?” If the employee blames someone else, the manager can ask: “OK, what could you do differently in future to prevent that from happening?” Asking such questions puts more emphasis on coaching than on judging.

Of course, there will be occasions when managers do need to give some negative feedback but the skillful use of questions and the balance with positive feedback can make it much easier for both sides.

When employees acknowledge a weakness, the manager might ask: “What do you think you can do about it?” This gets employees to work out for themselves what they need to do differently, thus feeling greater ownership for any agreed development plan.

Objections To This Process

Managers may regard more frequent performance meetings as too time-consuming. However, time can be saved through prevention, by dealing with issues before they become serious and by reducing the amount of time wasted fuming over such problems.

Another objection is that many managers simply don’t like having to manage people. They want Human Resources to give them fully competent employees so they can focus on “more important” matters. Many managers like to spend their time DOING things: exciting work like negotiating big deals or making strategic decisions.

Management, for them, means having more authority within their areas of expertise. They don’t see it as their job to be a catalyst, facilitator, coach and developer of people. This attitude is quite widespread because the whole rationale for delegation is to free the manager up to do “more important” things. This is self-serving because managers prefer to deal with strategic issues rather than stressful people problems.

Those who delegate a lot may see themselves as effective managers despite the fact that they spend the bulk of their time doing things. To be more effective, they need to re-think their roles and invest more time helping employees achieve their full potential through regular coaching and feedback.

In summary, performance management can be a lot easier with regular discussions, balancing positive with negative and letting employees lead the meeting in which managers put more emphasis on listening and coaching than on telling and judging.

This article was published in the Canadian Manager, Spring 2011 

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