Business owners and leaders have plenty of reasons to be concerned about the future health of their workforce— in terms of their ability to attract talent, as well as the looming threat of economic downturn that could affect their ability to reward high performing employees. These concerns leave many business leaders walking on eggshells when contemplating employee performance and the associated performance management processes.
Performance management is the ongoing process of measuring, optimizing, and improving a workforce’s performance.
Unfortunately, the generally accepted version of this in a business environment is quite outdated. A lot of leaders still believe that effective performance management means a leader, (boss), directing an employee, (subservient) to do or not do certain things. Things that may or may not contribute to the success of the business. This way of approaching the subject places the leader in a directive position as opposed to a reflective position. It leads to overly simplistic conclusions as to why employees are not meeting expectations.
Performance Management Goals for Leaders
This article will explore best practices for performance management most readers will be familiar with. However, they’ll be presented as clear goals leaders can use to manage employee performance without oversimplifying issues, using short-term solutions, or rushing to judgment.
The performance management goals and metrics below are intended for leaders to adopt the performance management strategies that will be most effective for their direct reports.
Goal 1: To Foster a Leader-Employee Relationship
Don’t skip the pleasantries. Be polite, connect with your team, and create an atmosphere of trust.
This may seem unnecessary to say, but you should be greeting your team every day. Say good morning when you walk past people, make direct eye contact, and ask people about their families or interests.
Be genuine with your questions. Put your phone down while you engage with them. If you’re working remotely, use IM or another messaging platform to check in on your team.
Lack of a relationship means employees won’t readily go to their leader with organizational issues and won’t trust the leader to remove barriers.
When a leader is distracted, absent, or acts as if they are in a constant state of crisis, they can never be present. Failing to be with employees makes it seem like the leader does not care about an employee’s day or their personal wellbeing. Appearing too busy to be polite comes off as an act designed to avoid interaction. The message it sends is that the leader can’t be bothered, or that they are overwhelmed and can’t handle their role, or both. The signal to the team is clear; don’t bother me. Why would employees proactively bring issues to a leader who sends this message?
A successful leader builds trust, rapport, and opportunities to hear from their team about the business. Executing this goal builds genuine relationships within teams and fosters opportunities to address challenges before they snowball.
Daily. You should NEVER let a day go by without taking time to connect with your team. Five to ten minutes is all you need to check-in.
If this is a new behavior for you, make it an individual goal. I recommend using your calendar to set reminders for a “coffee break.” Prioritize connection time as a goal, not as an optional pleasantry.
Goal 2: To Define Organizational Priorities, and What Success Looks Like
Have a weekly meeting that only discusses team objectives, metrics, OKRs, and KPIs. Nothing else. This meeting should be mandatory, sacrosanct, and useful. The leader should be prepared to discuss the clearly written objectives (preferably SMART goals), and easily accessible road map that they have provided for the team.
Before setting goals for an individual, team, or organizational level, consider the following:
- All metrics and KPIs tied to goals should be objective, not subjective.
- All performance goals should feed into an important organizational priority.
- Individual objectives should be clearly aligned with the business objectives.
- All goals should exist to promote an employee's individual performance and should not be dependent on successes or factors beyond their control.
- All metrics should exist to identify the key results of an effort and means of improving upon the status quo.
Have you ever brought up a critical issue that you thought the team was working on only to be met with blank stares and confusion? You may not like hearing this, but it’s the leader’s responsibility if the team is confused. As leaders, we often have so many internal thoughts, goals, and deadlines that we think we are being significantly more communicative than we are.
We may share some of what’s driving business decisions and expect the team to connect the dots. In truth, they don’t have the same amount of information to work with.
Imagine several weeks going by with little to no progress toward a company objective, only to find out the team didn’t understand the goal. Imagine the drop in morale when folks need to recalibrate after putting hours into work that was not, in truth, useful.
Many leaders set up team meetings and see them as optional, or unnecessary to fully prepare for. Without preparation, the leader fails to provide a clear status report or feedback. What signal does this send? It screams that the leader, again, is “too busy,” and lowers team confidence in the capabilities of the leader.
Depending on the pace of business, your team may need a daily huddle or a weekly meeting. Make your meeting goal attainable. If you opt for daily keep it under fifteen minutes in length. If weekly is your speed, under 40 minutes is ideal. Remember, this is about metrics and should be highly focused and actionable.
Again, this is a calendar event. Above all else, this event should not be canceled.
As the team gets into the groove, one or two folks might show an aptitude for leading this type of meeting. Consider developing them so that, if you’re out of the office, they can lead in your place and use the opportunity for their career development. Remember, the meeting is for the team, not for you, so make sure it happens and their questions around performance metrics are answered.
Goal 3: To Connect with Every Team Member and Be Part of Their Professional Development
Conduct meaningful 1:1s with team members to track their progress, career trajectory, and employee engagement.
A meaningful 1:1 with an employee begins with the employee scheduling the conversation and coming prepared with topics for discussion. Your 1:1 should be a minimum of 30 minutes and no more than 50 minutes in length, ensuring there is time for genuine connection, metric-related conversation, continuous feedback, and discussion regarding the employee’s goals and development plan.
The 1:1 should always conclude with follow-up actions for the employee and the leader with agreed-upon due dates. Bear in mind this is a mutual working session where both parties are reflecting and taking action items to improve the business and the relationship.
With long-standing teams, it's common for 1:1s to become stale. The cure for this is to ensure that they are always employee-led, with updated development goals and timeframes.
Relationships between leaders and employees can differ radically depending on individual personalities, the nature of the work, experience, and level of comfort engaging on a deep level. But make no mistake, this is a relationship— one that is equally as impactful as some of the closest relationships in our lives.
We spend the vast majority of our waking time with the people at work. As a leader, you have taken on the responsibility to support and develop every single person on your team. I would be hard-pressed to show you a high-functioning respect-based relationship that didn't include a genuine connection fostered by intentionally shared experiences.
Leaders, particularly new leaders, often make the mistake of focusing too heavily on tasks that their team needs to accomplish as opposed to creating relationships with their team members. This approach often introduces dysfunction into a team that could otherwise be high-performing because the leader, though likely inadvertently, has placed themselves in a position of command giver. An inspirational leader, on the other hand, elicits excitement and loyalty from their team.
Show me an excited and loyal team and I'll show you a leader who genuinely cares about the professional development and success of each team member..
Every two weeks. This allows for enough time to pass for the employee to have faced challenges and gives them adequate consideration prior to opening a conversation with their leader.
Have the employees track and schedule this conversation. Include adherence to the every-other-week metric on their annual employee reviews.
Goal 4: Conduct Top Tier, Metric-Driven, and Meaningful Performance Reviews
Include regular, goal-orientated, and outcome-based reviews in your continuous performance management strategy.
A metric should have an outcome, and a deadline. Keep it simple.
For example, Jennie must deliver 80% of her reports by the 15th of the month. By documenting measurable, clear expectations in goal setting, there can be no ambiguity about whether the goal was successfully met or not.
Measurements used to gauge performance goals and competencies should not take a math degree to understand. As a general rule, set goals for individual success should be tied to actions within the employee’s scope of control, influence, and job description.
There is also no value in a constantly shifting definition of success. An employee’s goals should be fixed for at least half of the year.
At least 80% of the metrics in an employee’s performance plan should be objective, meaning there is little to no room for interpretation. Any subjective measurements should be tied to a performance quality that is imperative to the role.
- Objective performance metrics are based on a standard scoring template that has been agreed upon. To this standard belongs a defined "unit" (number of sales calls, deals closed, clients retained).
- Subjective performance metrics are based on subjective standards. Such standards are based on criteria set by individuals (integrity, communication skills, teamwork). Unlike "objective metrics", these standards can change very quickly depending on the situation and scoring methodology.
At most, an individual contributor should be accountable to five performance metrics. The ideal number is three, as this is easier to coach and allows the employee to focus on what’s most important in the business.
Any goal and metric set for an employee should be easy to understand and plainly defined in unambiguous terms.
If a leader wants to address performance that does not meet the goal, they must come prepared with specific, documented cases of the employee’s underperformance. The leader must then also provide coaching on how the minimum requirements of the goal could reasonably have been met. If this is not possible, the goal is either not attainable, or not clearly defined.
When underperformance occurs it must be clearly attributed to one of the following barriers in order to be rectified.
- A lack of effort or input coming from the employee.
- An unrealistic standard or unattainable expectation of their performance.
- A lack of resources or support available to achieve a goal.
- A lack of cooperation or collaboration from the employee’s team or manager.
Clear, concise metrics provide the direction and stability your team needs to be successful. Well-planned goals lead the employee when you’re not personally available. Knowing exactly what is expected of them provides the employee with autonomy to course correct, and creates opportunities for pride in their accomplishments.
Quarterly, bi-annual, or annual review cycles are the best practice. Never conduct performance appraisals more than quarterly, it’s overkill and doesn’t aid in professional development.
If you have a policy of reviewing individual performance for new employees more regularly, keep it to either a 30-day or 60-day review. Any more leads to undue stress and doesn’t improve performance.
Build time into your calendar to adequately prepare. If you need support creating, conducting, and managing performance reviews, consider investing in a dedicated tool. This list of the best performance management software that’s currently on the market is a great place to start.
Goal 5: Creating Individual Training and Career Development Plans
Have regular conversations led by the employee focused on their one, three, and five-year development goals.
Career development goals are separate from the metrics and KPIs designed to support overall organizational needs and strategies.
Employees should have a documented individual development plan which prioritizes their personal development objectives for the next one, three, and five years. These goals need not be tied to advancement in their current organization or line of business.
Aside from the obvious benefits of staying connected to each member of your team on a personal level, conversations around career development will help you as a leader to determine the bench strength within your team. This line of communication will also calibrate you and your employee’s expectations for promotion, and help you backfill important roles well in advance of them being vacated.
This exercise may also surprise you. For example, you may learn that some of your highest achieving employees have absolutely no interest in a promotion or taking on additional responsibilities as leaders in the organization.
These folks, who you may have had on your shortlist for future leadership, likely have alternative goals which take precedence in their life over professional achievement. A great example of this would be a rockstar employee whose one, three, and five-year goals are to increase the amount of time spent with their children and decrease the amount of time spent at work. Knowing this in advance saves you, and them, disappointment down the line when promotion seems inevitable.
Minor conversations regarding these long-term individual goals should occur during each 1:1 session with the employee, with a longer more in-depth discussion occurring every six months. Consider substituting one or two of the employees' subjective performance goals on their annual review for long-term goals if appropriate.
Objectives for Performance Management
Being in a leadership position can be difficult in a number of ways. There is pressure from higher-up in the organization— people who have their own metrics and quotas to meet. There are operational barriers, staffing challenges, and possibly technology issues. Add on top of that the sometimes oppressive responsibility for the satisfaction of your team's working life, and the whole endeavor can seem overwhelming.
If you are deeply invested in being a successful leader, you probably have sleepless nights concerning your team's performance. This is a normal way to feel.
Remember, the objectives of Performance Management are simple:
- Find ways to meaningfully connect and build relationships with each person on your team as an individual.
- Provide that person with clear and concise direction that allows them to sustainably continue achieving and working towards goals, increasing their independence as they develop,
- Don't set yourself apart from your team. You are not Taskmaster or Command Giver. Instead, create opportunities to foster a collegiate and respectful environment— a place of safety for your team to come every day and work hard towards a unifying goal
- Provide your team with every bit of information you are allowed to share regarding the metrics you have assigned for their success.
If you are consistently taking the steps above, the outcome is clear to all and repeatable.
Pandemic and post-pandemic trends such as ghosting, quiet quitting, and the constant threat that their employees will be poached by competing organizations leave many business owners wondering whether tried and true methods of performance management are still relevant.
Leaders and business owners should make no mistake; the employment landscape has fundamentally changed in recent years. Employees expect to be treated with consideration and genuine support. The modern professional has no qualms about leaving an organization, (or boss) that doesn’t meet this expectation.
Thoughtful, well-reasoned, objective performance management styles are, and will continue to be, the most productive. But we must also cultivate an atmosphere of deliberate and measured improvements supported by objective metrics and interpersonal connection.
By integrating the leader standards above you can transform a previously frantic and anxious team into a supportive and high-achieving team. Remember, you’re the leader!