Making performance improvement stick.
You sit down with Bill to discuss his performance. Again.
You talk at length about what you both need to feel satisfied with the work he's doing. Perhaps you discuss some workplace adjustments to help motivate him, perhaps you offer coaching in some aspect of his job. And you clearly outline your expectations for improvement in his performance.
You both leave the meeting feeling positive, and Bill understands what he needs to do. You head back to your office, confident that, this time, you'll get a good result.
But a few weeks go by, and you haven't seen any improvement in Bill's performance. He just can't seem to follow through and make the improvements you discussed. Before you throw in the towel or take a disciplinary route, what more can you do? Lots!
Conducting a performance interview and providing feedback are only the start – the "front end" tasks of performance management. However, the middle and back ends of this process are just as critical.
It's not enough to simply tell Bill what you expect him to do, and then place the sole responsibility for follow-through on his shoulders. Performance management takes more of a team approach – the person who's doing the work needs to feel supported and encouraged for the duration of the process, just as he or she needs to feel personally held to account for the outcome.
One of the most effective ways of doing this is with a performance agreement. This defines accountability for specific personal and organizational goals. It defines the individual's expectations. It establishes and agrees results-oriented goals that are aligned with the overall objective you want to achieve. And it concludes with the individual's formal, signed commitment to the agreement.
When establishing performance expectations, the overall objective is to come to an agreement that supports your organization's strategy. For individual performance goals, the objective is real, measurable improvement so that the person is in a position to help move the company forward.
Performance agreements must clearly state agreed-upon objectives and how these will be measured. Document these things to help you avoid future disagreements about exactly what you expected the person to accomplish.
Without an agreement founded on the organization's objectives, you may have to rely on defending your directives with "Because I'm the boss." This will probably do nothing to build trust and respect with the person whose performance you're trying to improve. However, with formal agreements in place, managing and leading your staff can become more objective, and simpler.
These are some of the many benefits you can achieve by using performance agreements:
Performance agreements support a management by objectives approach. This is where managers help staff understand how their roles fit into the larger picture of organizational success. From there, each staff member develops specific performance goals and targets that are aligned with the company's strategic goals.
Performance agreements not only ensure that performance is measured, they also set up a great communication system to regularly discuss individual performance. These agreements are essentially a way of making sure that everyone is aware of what they need to work on, and why.
An effective performance agreement:
Follow these steps to put an effective performance agreement in place for your staff:
Clearly identify the behavior that you want to see, explain why that behavior is needed, and identify the goals that need to be achieved.
Mind Tools has two articles to help you with performance improvement expectations and goals. Giving Feedback and Dealing with Poor Performance provide many practical tips on conducting performance interviews.
Identify specific points along the way to ensure that the goal is still relevant and that the person is still on track. The main reason for executing a performance agreement is to maximize success. Do what you can to make success as achievable as possible.
In our above example, someone needing to improve communication skills may need to start by attending an interpersonal communication workshop, and this may have a milestone of completing it by a certain date. After attending the workshop, the person can move on to one-on-one coaching.
If the person doesn't attend the workshop, then the milestone provides an opportunity to ask why. Was there a scheduling problem, or is there a deeper issue to address? Either way, the person can't move on to one-on-one coaching, so the second goal needs to be adjusted.
With a routine performance goal, you need milestones to ensure that things are progressing smoothly. You don't want a surprise when it's time to evaluate a person's overall performance, so build in checkpoints to stay on top of performance before it gets too far off track.
Performance agreements are a two-way street. If you simply dictate what the person will do, you may be disappointed with the outcome. When goals are agreed upon mutually, you're more likely to see progress. Take time to develop goals together, and be prepared to discuss the "whys" at length. This is a joint process – it needs acceptance from both parties for it to work.
Milestones form the basis for accountability. When people know you'll be following up, they'll be much more likely to quickly get to work on the goal. If they think you'll simply forget about it, they probably will too. Schedule regular meeting times to review goals, discuss what's happening, and make adjustments as necessary.
This is the communication benefit of performance agreements. You're much more likely to be involved in your staff's development and performance when you agree to, and commit to, regular performance meetings.
Whenever you put together a contract, the other person probably expects to get something for fulfilling the terms of that contract. With performance contracts, this may be a bonus or reward, or it may simply be continued employment.
Whatever the case, clearly state what happens if the goal is or is not met. This is especially critical for performance improvement agreements, because you need a next step if the person fails to improve within an agreed upon, and reasonable, amount of time.
Make the performance agreement transparent – everyone should understand the consequences of action or inaction. When a formal agreement outlines specific and measurable expectations, it doesn't leave much room for argument. If the person fails to live up to the agreement, then you have a process in place that you can follow.
Because performance agreements are intended to help staff with their development, put in place at least one more chance to meet the expectation. Agreements that are too harsh can seem unreasonable, and they may contradict the spirit of supporting staff efforts to improve and contribute value to your organization.
Of course, if the person fails to meet these agreements, you may have fair and defensible grounds for dismissal. This can make the termination process cleaner for everyone involved – however, that's judged on a case-by-case basis.
Before engaging with this process in full, talk to your HR department. The approach may need to be tweaked to ensure that it complies with local employment law and corporate HR policies.
All that's left is for the member of staff and you to sign the agreement and date it. Well, almost all. Now you have to monitor and enforce the agreement, as well as hold up your responsibilities in terms of follow-up and support.
Here we're talking about using performance agreements to correct people's behavior. Essentially, we're balancing the benefits of using performance agreements to orient people towards desired goals, with the considerable managerial effort needed to draw them up and manage them, and suggesting that they're used only in the most important situations.
However, in some circumstances (possibly in high risk situations, or where a great deal of unsupervised work is needed) it may be worth making performance agreements with all members of your team. If you're thinking of doing this, make sure that members of your team are comfortable with the approach, and ensure that you don't rely on them exclusively to manage performance. Everyone needs good levels of trust, respect, and communication from their boss!
Performance agreements are a great addition to a performance management system. They enhance accountability for both workers and managers, and they establish clear expectations that staff can use to take responsibility for their own performance.
That's really what good performance is all about – providing people with the understanding they need to do a good job and achieve the results that are expected of them. By identifying this information and setting up a contract, you can create a system for success.
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