Performance management is under-performing

By David Donaldson

Wednesday November 2, 2016

Performance management is seen by many as a box to be ticked, but done well it’s a useful tool to ensure employees’s actions conform to the agency’s interests by signaling to staff what they need to be doing more of, and where they can improve.

Regular, constructive and forward-looking performance conversations “are among the greatest contributors to performance outcomes”, argues the Australian Public Service Commission.

But if survey results are anything to go by, the managers are the ones who might need to be performance managed. Just under half of federal public servants believe their most recent formal performance management feedback — typically given in a scheduled session — will help improve their performance, according to data released by the APSC.

Most of the rest neither agreed nor disagreed that it helped, but 16% of APS staff who answered the State of the Service survey disagreed.


While 77% of managers believe their feedback helps their staff, only 48% of respondents said their most recent formal performance management would improve their work.
While 77% of managers believe their feedback helps their staff, only 48% of respondents said their most recent formal performance management would improve their work.

There’s a perception gap, too — nearly 80% of managers said the formal performance feedback they provide their staff has a direct benefit.

Not everyone receives formal feedback, either. Around 20% of public servants did not have any formal performance management in the past year. 35% of respondents said they had regular informal feedback — communicated in the moment, through a brief conversation on the job or specific to a particular piece of work.

Concerningly, only 62% said their manager provides them with clear and consistent performance expectations (though there was a gap again, as 85% believed they provided their staff with clear and consistent expectations).

“A series of reports and research findings over more than a ten year period confirm that the effective management of employee performance is a significant and ongoing challenge for the APS,” the commission concedes. “There are discrepancies between the performance management systems in place in APS agencies, which are often acceptable from a design perspective, and the perceived effectiveness of those systems.”

The APSC emphasises that feedback, whether formal or informal, needs to be more than just saying “you’re doing a great job”, and should help employees understand what they are doing well, so they can keep doing it, and what they should do differently.

Many of the practices that support employee performance also impact positively on employee job satisfaction, retention and loyalty. Practices recommended by the APSC include:

  • setting and communicating clear performance expectations
  • giving relevant and regular work-related feedback
  • evaluating performance
  • providing appropriate learning and development opportunities
  • identifying organisational career paths for employees
  • recognising and rewarding good performance
  • managing underperformance.

The key to optimising performance is to ensure that good performance conversations occur regularly between managers and employees, argues the commission. Good performance conversations:

  • are forward looking
  • connect employees to their organisation and other relevant stakeholders
  • highlight the contribution an employee’s performance makes to the organisation’s success
  • are honest and informed about how people are actually performing.

To help improve performance management across the Commonwealth, the APSC is trialing Ripple, an app which asks people a single question about their work every day, covering topics such as how they communicate, their career goals, contribution to corporate objectives, and individual accountability. The trial run will last until December, with plans to roll it out early next year after the results are evaluated.

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