Performance Management at its Best: The Benefits of Ongoing Feedback

May 30, 2024

Ah, May!  The sun’s out, the air’s warm, the beginning of summer is right around the corner.  But wait, along with all those good vibes, there’s something else lurking in May.   May isn’t just about sunshine, butterflies, and baseball – it’s also the month of (cue the scary music) FINAL EXAMS!!!!

Now, I don’t know about you, but I am very thankful that my final exam days are behind me.  No matter how prepared I was, stepping into that exam room always filled me with a sense of dread.  

So, what’s the link between final exams and Human Resources?  Those nerve-wracking final exams are not unlike the traditional annual review process in many workplaces.  When I transitioned into the workforce, that same feeling of dread that I got during final exams followed me into my annual performance reviews. Odd, right?  Even though I consistently got top ratings, those formal annual sit-downs felt awkward, forced, and uncomfortable, despite the positive feedback I got.

I’m guessing I’m not the only one who’s felt this way.  So, what can we do about it?  Let’s spend some time talking about performance management, what it should look like, and ways to make it valuable for all involved.

When doing some initial research for this article, I searched the internet for a definition of performance management.  In answer to the question “what is performance management,” a University of Kansas website provided the following response: “an ongoing, continuous process of communicating and clarifying job responsibilities, priorities, performance expectations, and development planning that optimizes an individual’s performance and aligns with organizational strategic goals.”    Whew! That’s certainly a mouthful (and, on an English final might get flagged as a run on sentence), but it’s a good definition and well worth taking the time to dissect to see what we can learn.

1.  An ongoing, continuous process…

Performance management isn’t about a form or a once-a-year meeting.  It’s about daily feedback – moments where you acknowledge a job well done or offer a gentle nudge in the right direction.  Like watering a plant, consistent care leads to growth.  

To provide a few examples, performance management is pausing to tell an employee “I heard the way you explained that concept to Mrs. Smith.  You made a complicated topic clear.  Good job!”  or “I know you don’t always have access to all the required information when you enter a new client into the system, and that can be frustrating.  You’re probably not aware, but those incomplete files make it difficult for the next person who accesses that client and stalls our client onboarding process. Next time you start a new client record, how about making a list of the missing information, and following up with the producer to gather what is needed and get it into the system?  Try to make this happen within 48 hours of initializing the file.”  

In the moment, feedback does two things.  It reinforces desired behaviors (and increases the likelihood that they’ll be repeated) and, in the case of performance that you want to see changed, it provides employees with the opportunity to adjust their approach before it becomes ingrained.  By reinforcing the positive and remolding the negative, providing “ongoing and continuous” feedback regarding performance can help to maximize performance and avoid serious performance issues that may later be harder to change.

2. …of communicating and clarifying…

Communication isn’t about talking.  It’s accomplished when a message is sent, received, and understood.  It’s a dialogue, not a monologue.  Communication allows for questions and seeks clarification.  Managers need to keep the lines of communication open, providing regular feedback and making sure their team members understand what’s told to them.  

OK, so what are we communicating?

a. …job responsibilities and priorities,

Performance management starts during the onboarding of new employees – setting the stage from day one.  It’s about sitting down with new hires, going over the job description, discussing the job responsibilities, the priorities, and importance of the job.  Employees who have a solid understanding of what they are expected to do and how they fit into the organizational structure are much more likely to do their job properly.   It sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how frequently this doesn’t happen. In the absence of a clear understanding, employees are confused and flounder.  Clear communication helps to avoid confusion and sets employees on the path to success.

At the risk of repeating myself, this communication isn’t “once and done.”  New employees are absorbing a lot of information over the first days and months in a new job.  It’s good to sit down with new employees every month or so to check in on how things are going.  A review of the job description each time will help to reinforce understanding and uncover any areas of the job where your new employee isn’t yet comfortable.

b. …performance expectations,

Your conversation should not focus just on “what” gets done but also on the “how.” Setting clear standards and expectations ensures that everyone is on the same page.

For a Customer Service Rep, one job responsibility detailed on the job description might be “responds to client phone calls and answers questions.”  Performance expectations go beyond the “what” and talk about how this work should be done.  An employee who calls a client back a week after the initial call came in is technically meeting the job responsibility but probably isn’t meeting performance expectations.  It’s important to clearly communicate the “how” in addition to the “what”.  “At XYZ Company, we pride ourselves on immediacy of service.  We strive to return phone calls within 2 hours.  Realizing that that’s not always possible, we set a maximum response time of 24 hours.  If for some reason, this isn’t doable, let me know, and we’ll figure out a plan.”  

3. …and development planning,

Performance management isn’t just about the here and now, it’s also about planning for the future.  What are your employee’s career aspirations?  How can they expand and grow in their current position over time and what can they and the organization do to make that happen? 

Employees are hard to find.  Retention of good employees relies, in part, on an organization’s ability to provide career growth and opportunity.  Ensure that in your discussion about performance, you’re also talking with employees about ways they can grow and expand, both within their current role, and about opportunities that may lie in the future.  Investing in your team pays dividends down the road.

We’re about two-thirds of the way through our definition.  You may be thinking “This sounds like a lot of work.”  And you’re not wrong.  But here’s the thing:  when done right, performance management benefits everyone, as we’ll see in the next section.

4.  …that optimizes an individual’s performance and aligns with organizational strategic needs.

Employees who understand what is expected perform better.  This benefits everyone.  It’s that simple.  Strong performance management ensures that everyone on the team is clear about their role and expectations, understands how they fit into the whole, and greatly increases the likelihood that everyone on the team is rowing in the same direction.  

If you still need more convincing, consider this:  strong performance management has been proven to improve retention, engagement, morale, accountability, and independence; it reduces a manager’s need to micromanage – all things that contribute to a happy, productive workplace and fuel organizational performance. 

Before I close, let’s spend a moment on those annual review meetings and forms.  Should managers still be doing these? 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with them.  It’s good to touch base periodically and summarize what’s been discussed. Maybe this happens once a year.  Maybe it happens quarterly.  But here’s the kicker: there should be no surprises.  Everything you talk about in that meeting should have already been addressed in your ongoing conversations.  If that’s not the case, it might be time to take a step back and reassess your approach.  Has “ongoing and continuous” gotten lost in the “busy-ness” of running the business?  Time to give yourself some feedback and make some adjustments.  Some days the best performance conversations are those we have with ourselves!

At the end of the day, performance management isn’t about checking off boxes or filling out forms.  It’s about communication, building relationships, fostering growth, and creating an environment where everyone can thrive.  So, here’s to leaving those exam room jitters behind and embracing a better way of managing performance – one that’s about growth, communication, and collaboration. 

If your organization is struggling with performance management or anything else HR-related, please contact Herbein HR Consulting. Our mission is to provide top-quality HR guidance and support, while consistently prioritizing the needs of your organization.


Article Contributed by Karen H. DiGioia