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Time is Ripe for Performance Management Reform

From December PTCMW Newsletter - by Rose Mueller-Hanson

The American public is calling for increased accountability and performance from government. To their credit government leaders have acknowledged this need, and every administration has brought forward its own brand of transformation. Although thus far these efforts have been disappointing at best, the current budget crisis makes now an opportune time to finally get serious about improving performance management in government.

For years human resources practitioners in both government and the private sector have attempted to improve performance management by changing every element of the process: what’s rated, how often feedback is given, what documentation is required, and what rating scale is used. However, none of these changes has had a demonstrable impact on improving individual or organizational performance. Rather, research on what distinguishes high performing organizations frequently highlights the importance of key leadership behaviors as drivers of both employee engagement and achieving organizational results.

For example, a study by the Corporate Leadership Council in 2004 found that high performing organizations had leaders who make expectations clear, help employees find solutions to problems, and provide ongoing and informal feedback, among other behaviors. Google’s internal research on engagement and performance (Bryant, 2011) found that the key behaviors that led to improved performance included being a good coach, empowering team members, helping employees with career development, and having a clear vision and strategy for the team. Demonstrating sound technical skills was 8th on the list in terms of priority.

In looking across these and several other studies the most critical behaviors that emerge in driving performance include:

  • Articulating the organization’s mission for employees and helping them see how their day-to-day work fits in;
  • Setting clear expectations and providing feedback on an ongoing basis – not just once or twice a year – to let others clearly know where they stand; and
  • Providing opportunities for growth and development through real world experiences to help employees build knowledge and skills and operate more autonomously.

Missing from this list are completing performance appraisal forms on time, providing accurate performance ratings, and linking ratings to pay. However, these are the topics that tend to receive the most attention in discussions about reforming performance management. In our desire to improve PM, we have lost sight of what effective PM really is all about: creating a climate of trust and solid relationships that helps people develop their skills and improve performance.

Rather than continue to invest time and money into formal PM systems that have not delivered results, we need more fundamental change to transform performance management. Such change must occur at every level of the organization. It begins by teaching managers and employees how to perform the behaviors that really matter and then holding them accountable for demonstrating these behaviors on a daily basis.

Change must also entail evaluating the current performance management process and looking for opportunities to streamline it. Often formal systems get in the way of informal engagement and honest feedback. For example, written self-assessments are encouraged as a way to give employees a voice in the appraisal process. However, supervisors often rely heavily on employee self-assessments when making performance ratings. This sets up a dynamic between supervisors and employees in which employees are incentivized to describe their performance in only positive terms, and it discourages honest conversation about developmental needs.

The recent Goals-Engagement-Accountability-Results (GEAR) initiative is an important start to transforming performance management in government. In the November 2011 GEAR report, it was noted that the workgroup agreed “to set aside the mechanical elements of the employee performance appraisal system, such as rating levels and awards, to focus on the relational elements that make any system useful, such as clear expectations, frequent formal and informal feedback, and reliable, impartial treatment for good and bad performance” (p. 3).

Despite these good intentions, many of the report’s recommendations are focused on expanding formal systems, such as writing policy statements on culture, implementing cascading goals, establishing a new agency Performance Management Integration Board, requiring new reports, and developing formal performance tools. It remains to be seen whether implementing these recommendations will result in the fundamental culture shift that is needed to drive engagement and performance.

True culture change is not an easy or quick proposition. Educating both employees and supervisors on how to engage in the performance management behaviors that matter is a critical step in transforming the organization. However, training is only the beginning. These behaviors must be reinforced on the job, and supervisors and employees need to be held accountable for performing them. At a fundamental level the behaviors that matter need to be enculturated throughout the organization until they become part of its DNA.

What’s your take on improving performance management? As always, we welcome your input. Please send your comments to president.ptcmw@gmail.com.


Bryant A. (March 12, 2011). Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/13/business/13hire.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 on 12/15/12.
Corporate Leadership Council. (2004). Driving employee performance and retention through engagement: A quantitative analysis of the effectiveness of employee engagement strategies.(Catalog No. CLC12PV0PD). Washington, DC: Corporate Executive Board.
Employee Performance Management Workgroup (2011, November) Report to the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations.

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