When we start talking about employee performance, one of the first things people think about is performance reviews. So often managers and employees see this as a process and paperwork that must be completed. On the contrary, from an HR perspective, performance management isn’t about compliance and it isn't just an exercise for managers and employees. The point is to create better performance for all of the people across the organization. Managers and employees generally don't love the process of performance reviews. But if we can make it about something else, if we can change that approach a little bit, then we will impact people's lives and careers in a more meaningful way.

Recently, I talked about “The Top Five Performance Management Practices of High-Performing Firms” in a RiseSmart #SmartTalkHR Webinar. You can view the webinar in its entirety here.

The connection between employee engagement and business success

Last year, my organization did a study of more than 250 employers. We wanted to understand the connection between performance, culture, and how companies perform. As a result of that study, we found some interesting ties between engagement, performance, and even overall company performance.

We asked employers questions about employee retention and engagement metrics and tied those to company revenue. The organizations with a positive trend in those areas, we called high-performers. We found that low-performing organizations were more likely to say that their approach to performance management might actually impede the employee's ability to perform on the job. In contrast, high-performing companies are more likely to say that their approach improves employee engagement, creates a better atmosphere, creates a better work environment, and enables people to do a better job at work.

Through our study, we identified five things that high-performing companies do:

  1. Recognition
  2. Timely manager feedback
  3. Peer feedback
  4. Development coaching
  5. A strengths-based focus

#1 The importance of recognition

High performing organizations are 37 percent more likely to use recognition within the performance management process. One of my favorite quotes from Zig Ziglar says, "Motivation doesn't last, neither does bathing, that's why I recommend both daily." 
 
It's a good reminder that every single thing that we do as leaders and managers has a finite amount of impact. We can be motivating our people to do better work, but it can't be only one time. 

One of the things that I always encourage leaders to do when I'm coaching them is to not fall for the millennial trap. If you go out and you do a quick Google search or take a look at the headlines, you'll see that millennials want recognition, they want feedback, and that you've got to make sure and give it to them. Let me give you a little hint. The rest of your people want feedback and recognition too. I've yet to meet an employee -- whether they're 25 or 55 -- that doesn’t want to know how they're doing, when they’ve done a good job, and when they’re on the right track. Make sure you don't fall for that trap that just one group or the other in your workplace is wanting recognition, because everybody needs it and everybody wants it. 
 

One of the other pieces around recognition is to give employees positive feedback in front of their peers. When other team members hear that praise, they know that their leader actually cares about that piece of the puzzle, that process, and that practice. If you recognize a person for a specific behavior, the other people around them will give you a powerful way to modify behaviors of other team members by letting them know what’s important to you and what you value.
 

Related content: Navigating Generations in the Workplace - How to Avoid Ageism and Bias

 

#2 In the moment manager feedback

High-performers are 29 percent more likely to use in-the-moment manager feedback than low-performers. 

I want to be clear that there are varying degrees of feedback and not all of it is good. When giving feedback, I recommend managers and HR professionals follow these three guidelines:

  1. Avoid the sandwich
  2. Combine expectations and assurances
  3. Keep it fresh

The positive, negative, positive sandwich
One of the things that I would caution to avoid is the sandwich. You've probably read in all the management journals over the years that you should give a positive piece of feedback, then a negative, and end with a positive. The problem with that is that people have been conditioned to expect that. So, when you're giving someone positive feedback, even if you're going to tell them that they did a good job and that's it, they're waiting for the other shoe to drop. I've heard it called a crap sandwich -- no one wants that.

If you’ve got to give someone feedback, whether positive or negative, give it to them and leave it where it is. Don't hem and haw and don't try to soften the blow because they won’t get the insight that they really need. I've heard it said, "to be unclear is to be unkind." And when you're giving someone feedback, it needs to be very clear or they walk away not sure if they got a compliment or a correction.

Related content: How to Give Positive Feedback and Stay Realistic at the Same Time

Give clear expectations and assurances
Help employees to understand your expectations for them while providing assurances that they can achieve your expectations. "I expect more from you," is not the same thing as, "I expect more from you and I know you can do better than this." Make sure employees feel like there's some assurance there and that there is support for them to achieve the expected results. It's critical that these two things go hand-in-hand.

Avoid stale feedback
If you're going to give someone a piece of feedback, do it while its fresh. Give timely advice. Serve it up steaming and hot, right there in front of them, because if you wait and it gets stale, then the impact is not as high. If you wait, they might make the same mistake multiple times before they even get the feedback. Make sure you deliver feedback as quickly as you can so that employees can make corrections and move on. Remember that the point of performance management isn't about, "let's catch someone doing something wrong," it's about, "let's help them perform even better than they are today."

#3 Peer feedback

High-performers are 26 percent more likely to use peer feedback than low-performers. One of the things I always say is make it simple. If this is a 360-degree process with 12 steps, three approvals, and it takes six months to get it all through, then no one's going do it.

Instead, make it as simple as you can to encourage the volume of feedback between and among peers. A study I saw a couple years ago said that managers are responsible for 70 percent of an employee's satisfaction or engagement at work. They're also responsible for 100 percent of someone's reviews and ratings in a lot of organizations. When managers are offering reviews in a vacuum, they’re missing the chance to really give employees feedback from other people that work with them and have insights into their performance. If I work together on a team, my peers see how great I am in area A or area B, but my boss might not be directly managing that team and might not be able to give me an accurate rating for that work.
 
Should peer feedback be anonymous or confidential? First, let’s differentiate the two.

Anonymity is when I give a piece of feedback about a team member, but he/she doesn't know it's from me. If I said, "Jessica's not very professional with her interactions," she has no idea who that's coming from, so she can't fix that communication problem.

The other piece is confidentiality, and I think this is more important. You might get fewer pieces of feedback if it's confidential, but it will likely be more direct and helpful. Confidential feedback happens when one peer shares with another that, "Hey, you know what? In that conversation last week, you kind of blew me off. And I felt like you didn't listen to my ideas. And I didn't feel like I was valued in that interaction."
 
That's a confidential piece of feedback between peers that no one else can see. It’s up to the employee on what to do with that feedback – to work on it or not. The employee can even talk to their manager about it, or not, but it’s their choice when it’s confidential.

When it's anonymous, an employee gets a piece of feedback that might be helpful and it might not. Although you're more likely to get up a higher volume of it, anonymous feedback is not as actionable. If you do anonymous employee surveys, you know what I'm talking about. You get insight back that says, "My manager's not doing a very good job." But if you don't know where that's coming from, you don't know which manager to coach and to give some feedback to.
 
The last piece of that peer feedback is upward feedback. Giving employees the opportunity to provide feedback up the chain, making sure that your leaders and their leaders know what's going on and what's working is a critical piece. When things have a chance to flow back up, that's a good thing for employers. Think about holding focus groups or skip level meetings and things like that. Give feedback quickly to encourage participation.

#4 Development coaching

High-performing companies are 20 percent more likely to do this than low performers. There was a study by Gallup a couple years ago that found that seven percent of the people that took a new job transferred internally - everybody else left the company to go find a job somewhere else. How much time, money, and resources are we investing in people that are going to leave because we're not giving them a very clear development path inside the company?
 
I've always said that if you can't help your employees envision a path inside the company they will envision a path outside of it. When that recruiter calls and they’ve had a bad day with their manager, they're a prime target for recruiting away to the competition. On the other hand, if that same employee has a clearly communicated career path where they understand what the next steps are, and what the development plan looks like, a recruiter call is not going to be as enticing. Employees know that bad days come and go, but having a clear career plan and a manager that wants them to succeed at the company is essential.

One of the practical ways to do this is to keep it very simple. Ask managers to incorporate this during their one-on-ones with their staff -- five minutes once a month. The manager could simply offer up a question like, "What can I do to help you get to where you want to be? What do you see is your next step?"

Employees don’t want you to micromanage their tasks, but if you micromanage their careers, they'll love you for it. Of course, no one wants you to tell them every little step of every little thing they have to do. But if you micromanage their career, you're always looking for ways to give them opportunities to do things that they're excited about, looking for ways to develop them, or looking for ways to grow them.

Related content: How Does Career Coaching Work?

#5 Focus on strengths

High-performing companies are 14 percent more likely to say, "We're going to focus on your strengths versus focusing on your weaknesses." Albert Einstein once said, "Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing it's stupid," If we only focus on the things that someone can't do, then we're always going to see the flaws and think that they're incapable. If we focus on the things they can do, and the things that they can do very well, then we'll get more out of them.

Can you imagine hearing a coach say, "Hey, I know you're the pitcher and your focus should be pitching and you're the best pitcher on our team but I also want you to be really great at short-stopping and batting." No, they say, "You're great at pitching. We're going to shed everything else from your responsibilities that we can so that you can pitch and pitch your heart out to the best of your ability, because that's the thing that brings the most value to us as a team."
 
Think about your own team. Consider the things can people bring of value and how you can try to shed the other pieces so that they are focusing on areas and skills that they are great at.

One of the things to remember - change doesn't happen with your people (especially around something like performance management), it doesn't happen quickly because people have a way of doing things. People have strong opinions about how this should be done.
 
When we surveyed high-performing companies, one of the things that was mentioned in an open-ended question was, "We cheer the progress. We don't just cheer when someone gets to the finish line. If you were running a 5K, how exciting would it be if you didn't hear anyone cheering for you until the finish line?" Not very exciting, right? It's great when you hit the mile mark or you arrivae at a familiar intersection where people cheering you on and trying to help you to do your best. The same thing applies at work - let's cheer them as they make progress towards that goal. We might have the biggest celebration when they reach the end, but let's make sure we're cheering on the progress along the way as well.

Ben Eubanks is a Principal Analyst at Lighthouse Research & Advisory and the author of, "Artificial Intelligence for HR: Use AI to Build a Successful Workforce." He has authored dozens of reports, e-books, and more than 1,000 articles, and maintains a blog that has touched the lives of more than 1 million business leaders since its inception. He also hosts the podcast, "We're Only Human," that examines the intersection of talent and technology in the workplace