Expectations should apply to the role, not the person

Here is one of the fastest ways to begin demotivating your employees with your performance review process.  Rate them according to your expectations of them instead of the role.  This often creates a sliding scale, where getting a “5” (or outstanding) is never possible. It also creates an inequity within your workforce of similar positions.  You expect one person to perform better than another but they both get “3”s on the their performance review.  The fix is simple but not easy and it just might be the best thing you can ever do for your team’s performance, engagement, satisfaction, and your own sanity.  Until you fix it, you might be demotivating your employees and causing yourself more performance headaches than you realize.

No good deed goes unpunished

While the question “does good performance get punished?” might seem silly, my experience has been that it does, especially when the above method of evaluation occurs.  While the punitive measures may not be obvious the best workers are typically held to a higher standard and thus given more difficult or sometimes just more work.  These lucky individuals, who are affectionately called our “workhorses”, have succeeded in becoming more efficient, more skilled at problem solving, and adept at handling more complexity.  As a reward they get the harder tasks, more work, and the opportunity to rescue workers who can’t seem to figure it out.  And while sometimes managers do this under the guise of “providing more challenging work” in reality, nothing has been removed from that individuals plate so in essence they are responsible for more volume AND more challenge.  I had a participant in class once term this as “always working your best horse”.  When I asked for clarification he stated that it is common knowledge among horsemen that you rotate your horses for duty, working your best horse all the time shortens their life and make them more prone to injury.  The outcome is the same for your “workhorses”.  You will shorten their life (with your company) and most likely risk disengaging them at the same time.

The other problem with this system is from that same workhorse, we expect great things.  This is where the sliding evaluation scale starts to kick in.  They have proven to be better than their coworkers on a historical basis so our minimum expectation of them is higher than the rest of the team.  If you employ a Likert scale (1-5, unacceptable-outstanding) style review then the “meets expectations” rating for this exceptional employee is different than it is for your sub-performers.  This is the disengaging part.  If I am the exceptional employee and I KNOW that I am performing at a higher level than another employee and we all pretty much got the same rating, I am less likely to work as hard believing that as long as I work as hard as my (in my eyes) sub-performing coworker than I should still get a “meets expectations.”  But come next year, my manager has recognized I am not trying as hard as I used to, therefore I am not meeting the expectations I have of THEM so I get a “needs improvement”, even though in reality, my performance “meets expectations” of the job.  And even if I do get better, well, that was no less than what was expected of me so I get the same rating as last year even though my performance has gone up.  That is where good employees go downhill fast.

To the Spoiled go the victory

Conversely to the above scenario is the one that causes you performance headaches.  This is when “poor performance gets rewarded”.  Now, I am not talking a reward as in when  you return a lost wallet and they give you $5.  This reward often comes as less or easier work.  If an employee struggles with difficult tasks and never seems to make deadlines, the easy answer is to lighten the load and give them easier things to complete.  Well, guess who they go to?  Yep, your workhorse.  These sub-performers are also being held to a lower standard than their high performing colleagues.  So essentially you have different expectations of each person and they are both meeting them.

The difficult answer in this scenario is the managers ability to coach and develop performance, which sadly, many are never trained how to do.  And since many do not have the skill to raise the performance level of a sub-performing employee they control what they can, which is work assignment.  So managers, I am not necessarily blaming you in all this, you simply weren’t given the skills when you got promoted.  That does not excuse you from the equation, however.  The power is in the realization that you are doing this and making the shift to equalize the playing field for your employees.  There is one thing you can do that will get you started in all this.

Define performance standards

Sounds easy right?  Surprisingly, however, managers struggle with defining “how I know the work is done well enough.” That is the performance standard…the job satisfies the business need. It is not great but it does not need to be done over or corrected in any way.  This is where we either start comparing people to themselves, or to other workers in similar positions instead of objective standards.  If you cannot quantify it or define it in a term of behavior or other defined standard (quality standards or SOPs) then you need to dig deeper.  And yes, somethings are REALLY hard to define in measurable terms – especially things like, “teamwork”, “business savvy”, “professionalism”, or “positive attitude”.

It is possible, however, to define these in terms of behaviors that I can then measure.  As an example, my judgment of someone displaying good team work is based on: they offer to help colleagues without being prompted, they communicate any delays and solicit assistance when project deadlines may be compromised, they express concerns AND present solutions to practices, projects, or ideas, they share expertise and knowledge with coworkers, etc.  While I cannot put a number to it, I can begin creating a checklist.  I can then define either by deficiency in my minimum “standards”, what a “needs improvement” looks like, or by addition of really great behaviors such as “completes tasks for others when time is available and needs dictate without being approached” or “researches team issues outside of normal business duties” what an “exceeds” or “outstanding” looks like.

Go forth and prosper

Once you have defined your performance standards, you can begin equalizing the field.  And don’t wait until the next review, that would be an ambush on your unsuspecting employees.  Tell them as soon as you have them defined so they know what the standards are.  Make it a conversation and get their thoughts and expectations as well.  If you had falsely given a sub-performer a “meets expectations” but they now fall into the “needs improvement” category, coach them on what they need to be doing differently then give them the resources and training to get them there.  90 percent of meeting expectations is knowing what they are and if you aren’t sure how to define them, then your employees certainly don’t either.

This time you spend reaches far beyond your current team and conducting annual evaluations.  The benefits spill over into avoiding micromanagement, delegation, coaching, interviewing, candidate selection processes, promotions, and developmental needs.  In short, this is the cornerstone of your entire employment life-cycle.  If you cannot define what you need someone to do it is hard to do any of those other things effectively.  Spend some time, make it real, and have an impact.


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