Performance Management: Setting Performance Expectations

Think about the last road trip you took, either with family or friends. I’m betting that you had some idea of where you were going and when you would arrive. You may even have had a map and a specific time-table. Although there are those free spirits who set out without a destination in mind, most of us plan our trips, at least to some degree. As a manager, I’m willing to bet that you do have some goals in mind, a time table, and even specific evaluation points for the activities of those who report to you.

Doing a good job setting performance expectations with those people is akin to sending them on a journey with a map, a time-table, and some end goal in mind. They have a pretty good chance of being able to meet the expectations you have of them because you have set them up for success. But what if you simply handed them the car keys and told them to drive for a while? How would they know where to go, how fast, whether they were equipped to complete the trip successfully, or even when they had arrived at the intended destination? The likely outcomes of these two scenarios is akin to the outcomes managers see when they do a good job, or a poor job, of setting performance expectations for their employees.

Take a moment to think about the best boss you ever worked for. Most people who describe this person mention great communication in one way or another. This should be no surprise when you think about the kind of person you, yourself, prefer to work for. You are looking for someone who gives you reasonable goals, tells you why they are important, provides you support and resources in meeting those goals, and tells you how you did when you are finished. Let’s begin at the beginning.

Without setting reasonable goals, or performance expectations, you pretty much set your employees up for failure. And if they fail, you fail. No one in business today has the luxury of being able to carry inefficient, ineffective team members. All of us are asked to do more with less, so it is more critical than ever before that you do an excellent job of setting performance expectations for your employees. Think about it as giving them a map for the journey.

You, yourself, have undoubtedly been given performance expectations by your management. If you have several direct reports, your next task is to determine who in your group will have responsibility for which parts of your goals. And here’s the first potential stumbling block for many managers. It’s very difficult to let go of the responsibility for completion of a goal for which you are responsible and for which you will receive an evaluation. The reality is that you simply can’t do everything yourself, so it’s even more critical that you develop some real skill in setting performance expectations for others. Remember, if they fail, you fail. You want to set them up for success, not failure.

So how do you know if you’ve done a good job setting performance expectations? Again, think about what you, yourself, need to do a good job in your own work. Assume you have been assigned to create a plan for raising customer service scores for your department in the next 12 months. What do you need to know first? You need to know where scores are today. You need to know what areas are below where you want them to be, and you need to know why. So reasonable performance expectations to pass along to your direct reports could include providing an analysis of customer complaints in the preceding 12-24 months, determining what actions were taken in those cases, looking for the root causes of the complaints, and developing an action plan to address the issues you have uncovered. But if your direct reports don’t understand that the end goal is to raise customer service scores, you have not given them the tools they need to support this goal. If you don’t give them some time-lines, they may wait until September to begin the initial analysis!

In our example, the manager should explain what the end goal is, why it is important, what the intermediate goals should be, both for due dates and deliverables, and some guidance in resources for meeting the goal. The performance expectations need to be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. In other words, if you tell your employees that you want a 50% increase in customer service scores in the first quarter of the year, you probably have not set a realistic or achievable goal. It’s time-bound, measurable, and specific, but that’s not enough. If your stated goal is simply to raise scores, you may well meet that goal—even if it’s by .0001%! The goal is realistic, but not specific. Scores were raised, but how helpful is that increment in meeting the business goals of remaining competitive in an increasingly competitive marketplace in which your customers have other options?

Traditionally, many managers and employees alike dislike the exercise of setting performance expectations. Perhaps that’s because the value of the process is not recognized, or it is just regarded as an exercise and not a living document. Because business conditions and demands change, performance expectations need to be reviewed regularly (at least quarterly) both to re-direct where needed and to make sure progress is being made.

Finally, there are at least two more extremely important reasons to set performance expectations.

Without solid, measurable expectations, you, as a manager, will have a very difficult time making a case that an under-performing employee is actually under-performing. If, however, you can document your direction to that person and the fact that you and he have met several times regarding these expectations, you have the basis for a solid case for disciplining this employee or even terminating him for cause. Secondly, for the employee who is motivated, talented, and has a real future with your company, setting performance expectations and even stretch goals is worth every minute of time you spend on it. These people are your future, and you need to be mentoring and growing them at every opportunity. What better way than to set performance expectations and goals, discuss them, and encourage these people to become even more valuable to you and to the company?

To conclude, remember that you need to use all of your business resources in the smartest, most efficient way possible, and this includes your employees. You can’t do everything yourself, nor should you attempt to! Remember that you want to be the person your employee thinks of when he’s asked to describe the best manager he ever worked for. Do yourself and your employees the favor of becoming a master at setting performance expectations. You’ll never regret it.

Categories Performance Management

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