The New Manager’s Guide to Performance Management
10 tips for managing performance
If you recently became a manager, you know how hard it is to evaluate and improve the performance of your team.
Thankfully, many other managers have faced the same problem, which means you can learn from their mistakes to speed up your learning curve.
As someone who has had the opportunity to manage teams of 12, 50, and 160 people at various points in my career, I’ve made enough mistakes for both of us. In this article, I’ve attempted to distill what I’ve learned in the past ten years about performance management.
What Is Performance Management?
Performance management is helping each employee do their best work. Effective performance management requires two things:
- Setting clear expectations for team members
- Holding team members accountable to those expectations
It is a simple, yet difficult process.
What Makes Performance Management Difficult?
Setting clear expectations for the team is the foundation of performance management. If you haven’t clarified your expectations, you cannot expect the team to meet your expectations.
Do team members know what you expect of them?
Do they know what great performance looks like?
When they struggle, are you there to provide guidance and assistance?
As a manager, when you share your expectations, you need to confirm that the other person heard what you were trying to say.
Everyone’s mind works differently, so it’s important to confirm that you and the employee have a shared understanding of what they need to accomplish in their role.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” -George Bernard Shaw
Setting clear expectations is not a one-time thing. It is an ongoing conversation as the person’s skills, the team’s work, and your clients’ needs evolve. You should constantly reset and redefine expectations to ensure each team member knows what you expect of them.
Beyond setting clear expectations, the next component of performance management is holding the person accountable to those expectations. Many managers struggle with this step because it can require tough conversations.
As a manager, it’s your responsibility to provide immediate, candid feedback and hold your team accountable for producing great work.
If someone continues to struggle to meet expectations, you need to talk to them and share what you’ve observed.
What Causes Performance Issues?
Every person wants to produce great work. There is not a single employee who desires to perform poorly in their job.
It’s important to approach performance issues from a perspective of understanding rather than judgment. Seek to understand the underlying cause of the problem. Ask questions to gather more information rather than immediately judging the person for doing a poor job.
“For every hundred men hacking away at the branches of a diseased tree, only one will stoop to inspect the roots.”
So, why do people sometimes struggle?
Performance issues are generally related to one of two things: motivation or ability. Either the person lacks the motivation to do their job effectively or they are lacking the ability to perform at a high level.
The two problems have different solutions, as explained below.
Motivation problems are sometimes caused by personal issues outside of work. It’s hard to concentrate if your marriage is struggling, your mom just died, or you’re struggling with crippling depression.
Whenever possible, strive to know your employees well enough to know what’s going on in their personal life so you can help accommodate these things.
Ask yourself questions like the following: How can I determine what is causing their work struggles? How can I support them as a person rather than just as an employee?
However, you also want to protect that employee’s right to privacy. If they don’t want to share personal details, don’t force them to do so. And if you get the hint that the issue could be related to a health or medical problem, advise the employee to speak with your HR team.
Sometimes an employee’s lack of motivation is not connected to any significant life event. It’s possible that they’re simply struggling to overcome laziness or fear.
The point is that you don’t know what is causing a performance issue until you take the time to ask questions and dive in further.
Here are a few ideas for how to overcome motivation problems:
- Connect back to their motivators. Perhaps one of your team members has expressed that they really want to move into a management role, yet they refuse to give direct feedback to their coworkers. You could connect back to their career goals and remind them that feedback is critical to successful leadership, and in order to become a manager down the road, they will need to develop that skill.
- Clarify expectations. Check with the team member to ensure they have a clear understanding of your expectations. It’s hard for employees to be motivated if they don’t understand where they’re heading and why. Clearly articulate your expectations and talk about anticipated roadblocks. It’s much easier for team members to overcome challenges when they’re expecting them and already have a game plan for defeating them.
- Identify demotivators. Ask the employee if you or others have done anything recently that has been a de-motivator for them. For example, it’s possible that you recently micromanaged the employee on a project and made them feel like they had little autonomy to make decisions. Micromanagement is often de-motivating, so it would be helpful to know if that is impacting that employee’s current performance. It’s important to note that you cannot motivate someone else. Motivation is an internal thing. Although you cannot motivate someone to want to do something, you can remove de-motivators that stand in their way.
Ability problems could be a result of poor training, increasing job expectations, mishiring, or misalignment of skill set and job role.
If the person clearly is motivated to work hard and stay engaged, but they’re still struggling to meet expectations, you are likely dealing with an ability problem.
Similar to dealing with motivation problems, the first thing to do is to ask questions and collect more information rather than jumping to conclusions.
Ask the employee questions like the following: Do you feel like you received sufficient training to perform this work? What can I do to help? What aspect of this project is most difficult for you?
In their book Developing Management Skills, authors David Whetten and Kim Cameron suggest a few ideas for how to overcome ability problems:
- Resupply — Ensure the team member has the resources and support they need to do their job effectively.
- Retrain — Offer additional training. It’s possible that you didn’t set them up for success in their role in the first place.
- Refit — Consider rearranging the employee’s job tasks around their unique strengths. You could consider reassigning some of the person’s work to another team member (either for the short-term or long-term) and moving more tasks onto their plate that align with their skills.
- Reassign — It’s possible that the person is a great fit for the company but not a great fit for their current role. If you think that’s the case, start talking to other team leaders to see if it would make sense to transfer the person into a different team.
- Release — Sometimes the best solution is to let the person go. This is the last resort, but it’s occasionally the best choice for everyone involved. You need to create an environment where everyone performs at a high level, and the employee wants to work somewhere where they feel successful. If that’s the case, partner with HR to determine an offboarding plan for the employee.
How to Create a Performance Improvement Plan
If an employee is struggling, you should sit down with the employee to create a plan for improvement.
A performance improvement plan (PIP) is an agreed-upon plan that contains next steps and SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound) for what the employee should complete by when.
When writing a PIP, explicitly state the performance gap you’ve observed and explain what must be done to fix it. As much as possible, it’s important for the employee to own the plan so they can be in charge of their own growth and development.
A PIP is distinguished from normal performance conversations in four ways:
- It is a formal document that you’ll send to the employee.
- It explicitly conveys the seriousness of the performance issues.
- It contains defined steps for improvement in written format.
- It goes into their employee file.
10 Performance Management Tips
1. Don’t wait until there is a problem.
You should have ongoing performance discussions with your team. Don’t wait until something is a big problem before talking about it. Discuss concerns as you have them.
2. Dig deep to understand WHY.
Behind every performance issue is a reason — generally something that comes back to motivation or ability. You want to understand that reason in order to deal with it appropriately.
3. Be candid, kind, and assertive.
It’s important to balance candor and kindness when sharing tough messages. Don’t sugarcoat messages. If an employee is struggling, tell them. Share what you’ve observed.
4. Care for your team members as people.
Find ways to support the “whole person” by learning more about each person’s life, family, hobbies, and passions. Caring for someone does not mean you will never fire them. It does mean that you will first do everything possible to help them succeed.
5. Learn each employee’s strengths and weaknesses.
It’s okay to have weaknesses. Everyone has them. The important thing is to understand them so you can develop them and/or work around them. Knowing someone’s strengths and weaknesses will also help you move people into the right role.
6. Delegate work to develop and determine ability.
Delegating projects can be a good way to determine whether someone’s skills are up to snuff. Consider which tasks you could delegate to the employee to challenge them and develop them.
7. Don’t tolerate mediocrity.
If someone is underperforming and you allow them to continue underperforming, everyone suffers. High performers on your team will become frustrated and may even decide to leave the company. Average performers may think they can slack off because you seem to allow that behavior. You must hold a high bar for success.
8. Trust, but verify.
If someone is struggling with a task, check their work occasionally to verify that it’s being completed to the standard you expect.
9. Eliminate subjectivity.
If you choose to conduct quarterly or annual formal performance reviews with your team, create a rubric with defined criteria for each score. If you include a 1–5 performance scoring system or something similar, define exactly what constitutes a “4” as opposed to a “5.” If possible, provide some type of tangible example for each score. The more clear you can be, the more you will eliminate the subjectivity and implicit bias that negatively affect performance reviews.
10. Give people a chance to improve.
Unless an employee committed an egregious offense that warrants immediate termination, work with them to create a performance improvement plan to help them become more productive and successful.
Remember, effective performance management comes down to two things:
- Setting clear expectations for team members
- Holding team members accountable to those expectations
What can you do today to set better expectations for your team, then help them meet those expectations?