“Performance management strikes fear in the hearts of virtually everyone, from the employee, to the manager to the senior leader, performance management is almost universally disliked,” said Tom Fox.
Fox is the Vice President for Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. He told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that in the federal government performance management tends to be way too process driven.
“Federal managers are not nearly as focused on the relationship management and building management aspects that are needed for really effective performance management, they are too focused on the process,” said Fox.
“One the supervisor side of the equation, they think about more often than not having to deliver some bad news because there is a performance issue or in the current fiscal environment, they don’t have a lot of flexibility to offer pay increases or promotional opportunities,” said Fox.
“On the employee side, regrettably too often it’s the case of the black box. They don’t know what feedback they are going to get, so it is the worry that they will get some extraordinarly bad news that they are ill-prepared for,” said Fox.
A new way to manage
The Partnership for Public Service teamed up with the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs to make some performance management changes. “We are not trying to change the performance management process too much because much of that is dictated by rules and regulations that are longstanding. Instead what we focused on was small but really meaningful changes around communication, delivery of feedback and building trust among supervisors and employers,” said Fox.
- Performance management starts with leadership — Creating a new or improved process requires leaders who have the passion, time and capacity to see things through from the initial idea to implementation. Of course, you need a senior leader who wants to improve performance management, but leaders at all levels must be willing to assist with the transformation. SSA and the VA used a set of their Emerging HR Leaders – participants in a year-long professional development program for human resources professionals – to create content, lead workshops, increase employee interest and participation and to solicit feedback around what worked or didn’t work as their pilot project unfolded.
- Leaders need to empower staff—The small SSA and the VA offices taking part in the pilots didn’t rely on their leaders alone to transform their performance management systems. Instead, they worked with employees at all levels. At SSA, a dedicated team interviewed employees to develop new performance management tools and coach supervisors on the best approach to performance reviews. At the VA – where many employees work remotely – they used virtual sessions to engage participants in the conversation. Engaging these employees ensured that they knew why things were changing in addition to what would be changing.
- Pick the right, small team to start the process —New efforts, particularly performance management changes, tend to fail because they are rushed into agency-wide implementation. In this instance, the SSA and VA teams picked groups that were open to change, practiced a new framework, and continuously refined their processes based on experience. Only after you start small can you successfully grow big. After the pilot, the VA integrated their new approaches into the agency’s action plan for the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. At SSA, the team of Emerging HR Leaders began creating an ongoing training program highlighting the customized, soft skills approach to performance management that worked so well in the pilot.
- Realize now that the work never ends—The best performance management approach is the one that is continuously being refined based on supervisor and employee feedback. The offices at the SSA and the VA were committed to gathering feedback throughout the pilots to regularly improve their processes, and they learned that trust between supervisors and employees grew stronger as a result. Employees appreciated their managers’ attention to real performance management and the opportunity to be heard. Supervisors were grateful for the insights and guidance they received from employees about what they really wanted to get out of their performance conversations. As a result, they were able to close the communications divide that too often separates supervisors from employees.
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