Actively managing expectations of high performance and mutual understandings about what it means is a key tool for reaching it.
Yet too often what managers say they require of their staff does not align with how performance is reviewed and achievement recognised. Employees can see this, and it affects the organisation’s operation.
It’s important to ensure everyone is on the same page.
“The ability of performance management systems to support the attainment of high performance requires a clear articulation regarding what high performance looks like,” argue Deborah Blackman, Fiona Buick, Janine O’Flynn, Michael O’Donnell and Damian West in a paper published earlier this year.
This need for clarity and consistency can be broken down into three component parts, they believe:
- Employees must value the attainment of high performance;
- They must believe it is achievable;
- They must trust that those responsible for implementing performance management will manage the process fairly.
The following insights are based on the academics’ interviews with staff at seven Australian Public Service organisations of a range of sizes, spanning policy, delivery and regulatory functions.
Values and goals need to be aligned
It is important for public servants to feel that their work is useful and that it is contributing to people’s lives in some way.
Many middle managers and operational staff said that receiving recognition and undertaking meaningful work were what they valued most, adding weight to previous findings that public servants tend to be driven by normative motives. On the other hand, pursuit of material rewards ranked low in importance for most.
Relating organisational priorities to those individual values is necessary to ensure staff want to perform well. Knowing what your job is and how it fits with what the department and the government are trying to achieve provides staff their own place within the machine. One interviewee said:
“For me, what contributes to that high performing team is very much having a clear vision of where you’re going, what you’re trying to achieve, you have people understanding what their role is and getting that feedback along the way.”
A manager standing up every fortnight and showcasing what’s being achieved and by whom, for example, can help to set the tone about what high performance is and signal that it’s valued.
The researchers found that in self-described high performing teams, “there were clear notions regarding what they were supposed to do and they had clear key performance indicators that were to be achieved within designated timeframes.” This ensures everyone is on the same page with regard to goals. One interviewee explained the importance of providing all parts of the organisation with an articulated role:
“In developing things like [performance agreements], we’ve always got the departmental plan and synthesized that down into a cluster plan, synthesized that down into a group plan, synthesized that down to a branch, and then that flows into your [performance agreement]. So everything that you do is always connected somewhere … it’s extremely effective because it gives people purpose.”
This further emphasises the importance of discussing and agreeing on what high performance means in context — it’s not always obvious how everyone fits in or even what the broader goals are.
It has to be achievable
Having a clear mutual understanding of what constitutes high performance is necessary to ensure performance reviews reflect genuine achievement.
The pride felt in doing well at work is inevitably blunted if your manager doesn’t see it the same way.
Many of those interviewed said working harder would not make a difference to their performance rating, because they were unsure what their bosses thought comprised high performance. They felt performance ratings were arbitrary and inconsistent. Said one:
“The ratings are all subjective … I’ve had different ratings throughout time even though I’ve done nothing different, it’s just because [of] people’s views.”
The strength of relationships between manager and staffer, and the personality of the manager, were commonly believed to influence ratings among those interviewed.
Budgetary and time pressures also mean that identified developmental needs are often not acted upon, leading to missed opportunities to improve performance and employees seeing conversations around development as pointless.
Self-described high performing units actively discussed their expectations, “creating a shared understanding of both high performance and how to achieve it”, the researchers write. “Development was undertaken on a regular basis, with managers and employees adopting cost-effective developmental approaches.”
Peer coaching was one approach used. One interviewee explained:
“If I had a really strong performing [employee] and an [employee at the same level] that wasn’t up there, I would encourage a buddy system … for the lower performing [employee] to learn off the high performing [employee] to compare, “oh so she’s doing it this way, well maybe I just need to put in a little bit more here or a little bit more there,” so that kind of gives me a little bit more freedom to do my own work … [and enables] that [employee] that’s doing really well to start developing some supervisory skills for later when they step up into [the next] level.”
Shadowing middle or senior managers can also be a valuable way for more junior staff to gain a sense of what the organisation is up to and how their own works fits in. But the use of this arrangement was “potluck”, as one put it, with a lack of investment is systematically developing managerial capabilities in most of the organisations surveyed.
Performance ratings need to be fair
There was a perceived gap between performance expectations and reward attainment in each organisation studied.
Staff complained that while a manager might give someone a good performance review, it would be adjusted down further down the line, so that most employees receive a “satisfactory” rating. Although organisations claimed this did not occur, staff believed it to be the case. One employee said:
“There is this rule, unwritten or otherwise … that you are assessed against this bell curve … why tell me I am fantastic … and you’re exceeding my expectations? You’re telling me one thing, numbering me differently, and then the justification is, “oh well you see we have this bell curve, and most people have to sit at the number three” … That is not a way to get a high performing public service.”
Such practices mean there is little incentive to try hard, because it may not be recognised.
Many organisations also tend to use a narrow range of performance ratings, due to perceptions that a low rating means “you’re on the way out” — as opposed to there being room to improve — and a high rating means “you are the second coming of Christ.” As a result, ratings tend to hover around the middle, undermining the usefulness of the system.
Performance bonuses for achieving a satisfactory or better rating had also come to be seen as an entitlement rather than a reward. “It was not seen as necessary to deliver high performance to attain the increment and, consequently, performance management failed to change behavior in a positive way. In fact, it was suggested that the lack of performance-based rewards could, in fact, impede the motivation and morale of higher performers,” the authors write.
The system is essentially not set up to actually promote high performance, said one interviewee:
“I don’t think the current framework is designed to support that sort of high performance culture. I think there’s an expectation of high performance but the system doesn’t give you any opportunity for rewards or incentives for your really high performers. I think that creates a bit of a cycle of apathy with some of them.”
Overall, the researchers argue that the data demonstrate that “the case study organizations would have had more opportunity for success if they had had a shared conceptualization of high performance which they could then integrate into practice and use to frame employee expectations.”
They recommend two ways of tackling the problem:
“First, to operationalize the creation of the role and goal clarity required for a shared view of high performance and, second, to implement a more effective performance management system.”