Performance Management

As head of the department, you want to take stock of your faculty members. You want to ensure that the faculty are performing at their maximum potential. The current system doesn’t seem to have a real handle on performance and, if anything, seems to have led to disenfranchisement. How do you create a system that monitors performance, encourages better performance, but also fits within the departmental culture you want to create?

One of the most difficult tasks in managing people is creating the right culture and the appropriate systems to maximize productivity, while ensuring accountability. Unfortunately, performance management as often performed, can lead to faculty disillusionment and a sense of under-appreciation. The usual approach to performance management is to rate individual performance at an annual meeting in the context of their peers and/or in terms of “exceeded, met, and did not meet expectations”. From a purely statistical view, meeting expectations should be a common or, if not, the commonest rating. However, because no one wants to simply “meet expectations” and everyone has examples where they “exceeded expectation”, the rating of “meeting expectations” is almost always seen as insulting and lacking in appreciation. Furthermore, the source for the review is usually a subjective appraisal by the leader supplemented by anonymous feedback. Feedback from others often reflects popularity rather than performance. Thus, its input into the process is often flawed and the output demoralizing.

An alternative approach is to determine goal(s) of the individual and frame or modify those goals to be consistent with the department and/or institutional goals. The performance management discussion is entirely based on how to help the individual achieve their goals and thereby advance the mission or strategic aims of the department and/or institution. The leader can assist/enhance the discussion by asking individuals to express what the leader needs to do less of, what the leader needs to do more of, and how the leader can help the individual achieve their goals. While annual or semi-annual meetings may be required to revise or articulate goals, the coaching and mentoring needed to achieve the identified individual goals should be on-going, with frequent discussion on progress against goals and brainstorming/advising individuals on how to overcome barriers to success. These meetings should be divorced from the Accountability exercise. Accountability for persistently poor performance should generally be the topic of a separate conversation.

Despite my comments above, poor performance or productivity does require attention. Failure to meet goals should start with an exploration of why goals haven’t been met and strategies to redress or remediate the situation. Strategies might involve permanent or temporary shifting of responsibilities from the individual to others, focusing efforts and time commitment on goals, mentoring of the individual and, occasionally, additional resources. Whenever goals aren’t being met, leaders always need to consider and explore that other issues may be impeding individual success, such as personal, financial or health difficulties.

If poor performance continues despite remediation, the conversation needs to explicitly shift to Accountability. An important step is to clearly document expected performance that hopefully was explicit in the letter of offer (see my previous post on Hiring and Negotiating with New Staff). If there is any disagreement whether expectations have been met, an unbiased often arm’s-length assessment of performance is essential against those expectations. For example, if research output is insufficient, have an evaluation performed by an external individual or internal committee benchmarked against appropriate peers. If the output of that appraisal is that expectations have not been met, a formal written explicit communication of expectations of performance is required, with measures of success, time-lines for achieving those expectations and consequences for not achieving expectations. This process must have legal and/or human resources input. Documentation, as detailed above, and following institutional policies is absolutely vital. The aim of the entire process is successful remediation. However, leaders need to recognize that some individuals cannot be remediated and the process may need to (and through explicit procedures to protect everyone involved) lead to changes in the individual’s roles or separation from the institution.

In summary, performance management needs to be focused on the mission. The role of the leader should be to help individuals develop goals consistent with that mission and assist them in their achievement of those goals.

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