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Performance Management During Hard Times

Posted by Elaine Varelas  July 6, 2009 08:40 AM

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The term performance management has developed a bad reputation. When people hear the phrase, they picture iron-fisted leadership teams squeezing all they can from employees without giving them the tools, time, or guidance to meet their deadlines and goals. Many employees also dread performance review time. The process can feel like a game of “Gotcha!” where managers breeze over what is accomplished and focus on the long list of “didn’t dos” (all with a satisfied, perverse smile on their faces). But many managers would also rather avoid those contentious meetings, especially at a time when the economy doesn’t allow for much wiggle room to reward outstanding work, or to provide the training or development employees need to do their jobs well.

Yet, managing to performance becomes an even more prominent issue during lean times. When companies are flush with capital and growing at a steady pace, they can afford to keep all of their employees—even those who aren’t top-performers. Healthy organizations, subsisting in a vibrant economic landscape, can support under-performers and absorbs their costs. When the economy tanks and cash flow gets tighter, however, organizations must depend on each of their employees to deliver 100%.

Of course, performance management doesn’t have to mean selectively letting go of those people or workgroups who consistently don’t measure up. Performance management strategies can be utilized to help transform under-performers into wholly productive employees.

Performance management can be likened to taking care of your car. Your vehicle will only keep running at its best with regular maintenance. You don’t punish a car when it starts to act sluggish; instead you give it the parts and service it needs to reach peak performance: an oil change, transmission fluid, a tire rotation, or new brake pads.

Similarly, performance management programs also require maintenance. Managers need to look at their teams. How are they successful? Where are there performance issues? What obstacles are in the way of reaching top performance? Managers must meet regularly with members of their teams to set expectations, outline goals, develop a timetable for review, and create an opportunity for feedback. Ideally, the goals and timelines will be so clear that employees will be able to write their own reviews—thus eliminating surprises—or the dreaded game of “Gotcha!”

Employee should be encouraged to be honest about what they need to reach their milestones, and what is standing in their way. In turn, managers must be willing and empowered to help remove those obstacles. They need to work with their teams to determine what is keeping employees from accomplishing their goals and finishing projects on time, and work to solve those issues. Some things may be easy to fix: a new sales person may be struggling because she is still waiting on business cards or another employee may need to trade in his desktop for a laptop so he can be more flexible about where and when he works. Other success-blockers may be more challenging, such as a mainframe that continually crashes during working hours, or a conflict between an employee and a superior. Regardless of the impediment to achieving their goals, employees need to feel that their managers are prepared to give them what they need to be successful.

By involving employees at the start of the performance review process and asking for their input, managers can ensure employee buy-in and accountability. This strategy can also take the stress and anxiety out of performance review meetings, since the outcomes are agreed upon ahead of time, and eliminate excuses (i.e. “I never got Excel installed on my laptop, so I couldn’t work on these spreadsheets at home!”). Employees can also feel confident that they have some control over the process. Instead of walking into a performance review meeting not knowing what to expect, employees can use the opportunity to garner constructive feedback, pinpoint development opportunities, and work on building their careers.

Performance management practices can also help identify those employees who continue to under-perform. If after meeting with their managers, discussing expectations, and being supported with the tools they need to do their jobs well, employees still come up short, the organization may need to act. Organizations can only invest so much in people who don’t return the investment, and it isn’t fair to the rest of the team to carry a person who isn’t a good fit.

Of course, a sound performance review strategy will assure that a majority of people will become top-performers. By taking a proactive approach to performance management, organizations can help employees feel more invested in their work and excited about their jobs so they will want to be more productive for themselves and their organizations.

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Featuring human resources advice and columns from The Boston Globe's On Staffing and Hire Authority writers.