If the manager of a professional sports team waited until the end of the game, or worse yet, the end of the season to give feedback and coaching to his players, the team would likely fail and the manager would be fired, right? If that approach is deemed irresponsible in sports, why is it still too often the norm in business?
Performance management is a critical business process that focuses on and aligns individual efforts and performance expectations with what is required to achieve organizational goals. Unfortunately, according to Gallup, only 23% of employees strongly agree that their manager provides meaningful feedback. Unclear expectations and lack of meaningful feedback hurt both performance and engagement.
For many organizations, performance management is anchored in an annual review process that crams a year’s worth of feedback into one annual meeting. Limiting your performance management process to an annual review leads to recency bias and holds people accountable for past behavior at the expense of improving current performance. It is an inefficient and frustrating model dreaded by all involved.
Progressive organizations know the importance of frequent feedback, so they prioritize it and implement processes to support good two-way communication about performance. They ensure that every employee understands the performance expectations and how they perform relative to those expectations. These organizations also recognize the power of clear, consistent communication in retaining motivated employees who understand their roles and the roles of others in contributing to the organization’s overall success. As a result, these firms are either supplementing or replacing traditional performance management processes with continuous performance management.
The core concept of continuous performance management is frequent, ongoing feedback throughout the year as opposed to those waiting to provide feedback at a traditional annual or semi-annual appraisal. The idea is to use regularly scheduled 1:1’s to provide continuous feedback, alignment of goal setting, and assistance. These frequent and focused meetings help the employee feel valued and supported and allow the manager to celebrate successes, identify any areas of concern, and support ongoing development.
Regular touchpoints and conversations reduce stress by normalizing the experience of talking about performance. It also shifts the manager’s role from evaluator to coach, working with their people to help them be their best instead of reserving judgment to be shared once or twice a year. Providing effective performance feedback can motivate employees, enhance their performance, and increase their level of engagement.
Five steps to implementing a continuous performance management process:
- The first step is ensuring employees have clear expectations and understand how success will be measured. The OKR methodology is a simple goal-setting process based on defining a measurable objective and a set of critical results that contribute to that objective.
- The second step toward implementing continuous performance management is establishing a regular cadence for 1:1 meetings between the manager and their direct reports. Ideally, this should be every week, but if that’s not sustainable, start with monthly check-ins.
- The third step is to standardize the structure of these meetings. Here are a few tips:
- These meetings have the most impact when the employee owns the agenda. The employee should do most of the talking with the manager asking questions and actively listening.
- These scheduled meetings should be viewed as firm commitments. Therefore, if a meeting must be postponed, it should be rescheduled as soon as possible rather than canceled.
- Agreed-upon actions should be confirmed at the end of the meeting. A status update on these agreed-upon actions should be added to the agenda of the next meeting.
- The fourth step is having the meeting. In advance of each session, the employee and the manager must reflect on and document points for discussion. An example of the reflection questions that can frame the meeting:
- How is the person feeling (level of energy, excitement, stress level, etc.)
- Progress on the action items from the last meeting
- How are they tracking toward their big goals?
- What went well?
- What didn’t go so well, or where is support needed?
- What else do they need to achieve the results?
- The fifth step is the most challenging and the most important. It is the commitment to consistently maintaining the cadence meetings defined in step two and the discipline to follow the process outlined in steps three and four. The power of continuous performance management is that it provides a forum for continual ongoing performance feedback. Having your leaders engage with each employee frequently to have them reflect, document, and discuss their performance (feeling safe doing so) will drive sustained focus that will generate improved results and greater engagement. The benefits are significant but only realized when the process is followed continuously.
As previously noted, it is essential to document what was discussed and the commitments made. Meeting notes provide documentation of successes, areas needing attention, and agreed-upon action steps. These can be tracked and stored in a performance management system, saved in an employee file, or memorialized in a follow-up email.
Recognizing and rewarding good performance is more important than penalizing bad performance.
Rather than punishing bad performance, use these sessions as an opportunity to provide coaching to remediate and address gaps. If gaps persist, they can be addressed with a performance improvement plan (PIP) that is managed by setting clear expectations and providing objective and frequent feedback. A PIP is more directive and prescriptive than a regular ongoing performance conversation, and the documentation of agreed actions is more formal. The outcome of continued non-performance or non-compliance is spelled out in disciplinary terms.
If you have not already embraced continuous performance management, take the first step by being more disciplined around providing real-time feedback on current performance. Doing so will likely drive immediate increases in performance and engagement. However, to avoid the Hawthorne effect and sustain this impact, leaders need to commit to delivering on the “continuous” aspect of continuous performance management. Those organizations and leaders that do will outperform those that don’t, just as the sports coach that provides timely feedback and coaching throughout the season will outperform those coaches who withhold feedback and coaching until the end of the season.