Helping Supervisors become Performance Managers

Jul 17


Marnie E. Green

Marnie E. Green

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How does your organization prepare supervisors to manage employee performance?Supervisory training and development programs play a critical role in helping supervisors become performance managers. The purpose of this article is to provide five tools that will lead supervisors to become better managers of employee performance.


How does  your organization prepare supervisors to manage employee performance?

What tools does your organization provide to make performance management part of a supervisor’s daily routine? 

How much emphasis does your organization place on performance management? 

If you were able to quickly and easily answer these questions,Helping Supervisors become Performance Managers Articles it’s likely that you have made a priority of helping supervisors understand and embrace the importance of being performance managers.  If you had to think twice about your answers or if your answers were immediately on the negative side, it’s likely that the day-to-day management of employee performance has not been made a priority in your organization.   

Performance management, the process of providing direction, feedback, and recognition to employees, contributes to workplace culture.  It defines what is important to employees and communicates day-to-day expectations.  However, many organizations, public and private sector alike, have become distracted by the crisis of the day and overlook this important managerial function.

 When the management of employee performance is not a priority, employers are likely to see reduced levels of employee engagement and commitment.  A recent study by Watson Wyatt, 2005/2006 Communications ROI Study, found that clear communication leads to greater levels of engagement and higher levels of retention. The study found that most organizations expect supervisors to take on a greater share of the communication responsibilities, but few organizations are providing the tools that supervisors need to communicate more effectively with employees. This study, and probably your own experience, leads us to the conclusion that supervisors need help in managing the performance of their employees.  Supervisory training and development programs play a critical role in helping supervisors become performance managers. The purpose of this article is to provide five tools that will lead supervisors to become better managers of employee performance.

Tool #1:  Help supervisors see the cyclical, constant nature of performance management, using the performance management cycle. 

In many organizations, performance management is thought about once a year—at performance evaluation time.  We know it shouldn’t be a once a year activity although many Human Resources departments foster that approach. The performance management cycle, illustrated below, is a sound model to communicate the cyclical, on-going nature of managing employee performance. 

If messages about employee performance management are issued only once a year, the result will likely be surprised, angry employees and/or unmet expectations.  If the Human Resources department “talks up” performance management on a regular basis by reminding supervisors to address performance concerns immediately, maintain complete and frequent documentation, and have regular, informal conversations with employees about performance, these important activities will remain a point of focus for everyone.  If the topic is brought up just once a year, employees will only focus on it once a year. 

The performance management cycle can also be used as an outline around which to structure performance management training sessions.  Each of the stages in the cycle calls for at least one learning objective and warrants discussion and practice. 

 Likewise, the cycle provides a roadmap for organizations looking to reinforce effective performance management behaviors throughout the year.  One approach is to send monthly or quarterly emails or newsletters to supervisors to remind them of individual steps in the cycle. For example, one month a performance management note may be sent that gives a few tips related to effective documentation techniques.  The next month the performance management note might share the importance of having regular and frequent conversations with employees about performance. 

The performance management cycle provides a sound structure around which to organize communications about performance management.   

Tool #2: Help supervisors clarify their performance expectations. 

When asked, “What do you expect of employees?” many supervisors return a blank stare.  Though employees are asking this question daily in a million different ways, supervisors often struggle with articulating the answer.  Performance management training should help supervisors identify and describe performance expectations so that the expectations can be clearly understood by employees. Here is an exercise you can use to help supervisors articulate their expectations. 

First, ask supervisors to write down the behaviors of an ideal employee.  These can be general behaviors or specific job tasks. Using the “ideal” as a template, ask supervisors to write a list of their “must have” behaviors on the job.  Even though the job description defines the essential functions of the job, each supervisor has his/her own expectations and visions for performance. These expectations often separate the good from the great performers. For example, a common behavior that a supervisor might expect is timeliness.  One supervisor said he expected that everyone on the team would be on time and prepared for meetings. When a new employee joined the work unit, the supervisor gave the employee a copy of his written expectations, which included the need to be on time and prepared for meetings.  Rarely did this supervisor have a problem with late-starting meetings or unprepared employees. 

These kinds of expectations may seem obvious, but when stated clearly by the supervisor, in writing, they become easier to address and reward.  Performance management training should provide supervisors with practical tools for articulating expectations clearly. 

Tool #3:  Help supervisors create documentation easily. 

Written expectations, as described under Tool #2, can help supervisors articulate their goals and visions for employees.  Likewise, written expectations can serve as the first form of documentation the supervisor creates in the performance management process.  Helping supervisors continue the documentation process is the next step. 

Most Human Resources professionals have faced a supervisor who wants to address a performance problem with an employee in the performance evaluation or with discipline, and the supervisor lacks adequate documentation to support the concerns.  When developing supervisors to become performance managers, the training curriculum should include guidance on how to prepare fair and legal documentation in a practical way that will get implemented when the supervisor returns to the workplace.  Here are two recommended training tools that can make the documentation process easier for supervisors:

 A.  Demonstrate the use of a consistent format for maintaining documentation.  Often referred to as a performance log, a standardized form helps supervisors know where to put their notes about performance and can provide a format for writing specific and clear comments. The log can be maintained on paper or in an electronic format.  Most online performance management systems include an electronic performance log system.  When training supervisors in the basics of performance management, it is important to encourage supervisors to use a log of some form to ensure consistency with documentation. 

B.  Provide real life examples of what effective documentation looks like.  One effective approach is to compile a mock “supervisor’s file” that contains 10-15 examples of effective and ineffective documentation.  In a training workshop, supervisors can review each piece of documentation in the mock file and critique each item on its effectiveness.  The conversation that follows the exercise provides ample opportunity to reinforce the importance of keeping fair and legal performance notes. It also illustrates what should be kept in a supervisor’s working file and what should be left out. 

Tool#4:  Help supervisors have frequent and specific performance conversations.

 Typically performance evaluation and performance management training focuses on the mechanics of the performance evaluation system.  Supervisors are taught how to fill out the forms, meet the organization’s deadlines, and interpret the rating scales.  And, while these are worthy topics for a training session, the greatest need of most supervisors is not in the mechanics of the system, but rather in the delivery of feedback to employees. A primary objective of performance management training should be to teach supervisors to have effective conversations about performance.   

Performance conversations between supervisors and employees represent the quality of the entire process and yet, in many organizations, performance conversations happen without much thought or preparation and are often tacked on after the evaluation forms have been deliberated over for days.   

Performance management training should present a conversation model that supervisors can follow when conducting performance feedback meetings and/or when delivering the end-of-cycle performance evaluation.  In addition to providing a model in the training setting, it is critical that supervisors have an opportunity to observe the model via a live demonstration by the facilitator.  Following the demonstration, each supervisor in the workshop should be expected to practice using the model in a role play format.  This basic behavior modeling approach has been proven to be the most effective method for teaching supervisors to have effective performance conversations. 

To help supervisors take the conversation practice to the next level, they should be encouraged to develop their own case study, based on personal experiences.  Then, using that scenario, the supervisors should role play and receive feedback on the real life situation in dyads or triads.  The application of a conversation model to personal situations leads to the most effective outcomes by reinforcing the learning concepts while allowing the supervisors to build confidence around issues that are personally important.

Tool #5:  Help supervisors foster performance-enhancing dialogue with employees.

Performance management training typically focuses solely on the skills and behaviors of supervisors.  However, much progress can be made in developing a performance management-focused culture by reaching out to employees.  Supervisors must involve employees in the performance management process in order to foster increased levels of communication and trust.  It makes sense that training on performance management also includes an element that teaches supervisors to ask the right questions which involve employees in the process. 

Many organizations also offer training for employees to help them better understand how they can participate in the performance management process.  Employee training might include information on how to appropriately maintain personal performance documentation, reinforce the need for clear expectations between employees and supervisors, and help employees ask the right questions to clarify supervisory expectations. 

When we only train supervisors to manage performance, we leave out a critical element of the process.  By not involving employees in the training, performance management and performance evaluations become something that is done TO employees, rather than WITH them.   

Of course, effective management of employee performance doesn’t happen by accident.  It must be modeled by top management and actively supported by the Human Resources function. It must be clearly defined, constantly communicated, and consistently rewarded. Supervisors become strong performance managers when the organization places an emphasis on it via employee development efforts.  The result can be higher levels of engagement and enhanced job satisfaction.