Designing a performance feedback system that works

True or False?

Every employer wants his or her people to be as effective as possible.

Employees want to improve their performance, and need timely and honest performance feedback to do so.

Every manager should be setting goals and expectations, providing feedback, and documenting and monitoring progress toward goals.

Employees and managers alike don’t like the performance appraisal process.

In my experience working with leaders, managers, and employees for over 20 years in a variety of industries, the answer is true to all of the above. To learn some tips on how to design a performance feedback system that is based on some proven human resource principles, read on.

When NMC recently revised their performance feedback system, we based it on the philosophy that it is important what someone does (Key Responsibilities) and how they do it (Core Competencies). We also had some clear goals for our system, which included providing a consistent framework for:

Mutual discussion & expectation setting

Performance feedback and improvement

Linking individual performance to college and area goals

Professional development guidance

First, performance feedback is a process where both the supervisor and the employee should have clear roles and responsibilities. It is not something that is done to the employee, but with the employee. The employee must be an active participant, which you will see embedded in the design of our system.

We developed a set of core competencies that are standard for all staff or supervisor positions. These represent the “how” of performance. They include, communication, teamwork, productivity, dependability, ethical behavior, customer service, quality, and problem solving.

You would probably agree that these core competencies are important to just about any job. What was critical to our success adopting these is using an employee group to design the process and to clearly define each competency for NMC. We had some great conversations about what we expect out of supervisors and staff at NMC, and then wrote robust definitions in behavioral terms for all three levels of performance expectations: exceeds, meets, or does not meet. We wanted the supervisor and employee to be able to

“see” clearly what each level of performance looks like.

With these definitions, the supervisor and employee understand from the start each of the performance levels and what it takes specifically to reach each level. The problem with many performance systems is they can be completed very quickly by just checking off a few boxes, require no explanation as to why the rating was given, and therefore offers no specific feedback to the employee to help them improve or build on the strengths they have. The manager would be better off not doing anything than wasting time checking off boxes on a meaningless form.

The “what” of performance factors are the key responsibilities. We believe people who have been in a position for a while know the key responsibilities more than anyone, even the supervisor. We also have the staff person draft the performance standards for supervisor discussion and approval. The reason this approach is so powerful is a vast majority of employees will hold themselves to very high standards, and they have much more commitment to performance feedback when they have designed the “yardstick” by which their performance will be measured.

I don’t believe there is a “perfect” performance feedback system. As long as you’re dealing with human beings, you will occasionally have issues of favoritism, subjectivity, and so on. The point is to try to come up with a consistent system that supervisors and employees can now use to: provide a framework for mutual discussion and expectation setting, improve performance, link individual performance to organizational goals, and provide some professional development guidance.

I have found that employees want to know where they stand so they can do their best, and supervisors want and need a tool to help them manage performance. When you roll something like this out, let people know that it is a “work in progress,” and be prepared to make design tweaks. Make sure you provide support in terms of training to the supervisor and employees on how to use the system, how to give performance feedback and set goals. The management team must support the effort.

Finally, keep the performance levels simple (I think three are plenty!) Be prepared to have some management discussions of what “meets expectations” means, since some folks may believe that this means “perfection,” which is an impossible and demoralizing standard for an employee to try to reach.

People support what they help create. As you design your next performance feedback system, be creative and use the ideas and resources of both management and staff employees. The roll-out of a process they design increases ownership and acceptance, and helps provide a blueprint for each person to contribute to your organization’s success.

Bill Hendry is Director of Human Resources at NMC. His passion is improving organizations through effective HR practices, leadership, and culture change. Email or call 995-1025. BN