When it comes to performance management and employee development, there is a clear link between the two. Improving employees should be a primary focus of your performance strategy. And yet, too often, that’s exactly what many organisations are missing.

Too many organisations have poor or non-existent performance management policies in place. HR and team leaders have to do better. So the question is simple; how can we enhance performance management, improve employees and create a more effective work culture? Understanding the link between performance management and employee development is a good place to start.

But to understand that, we need to see where the traditional approach to performance is going wrong.

The traditional approach to performance management

We’re seeing organisations starting to change their approach. But there’s been a deeply ingrained, traditional approach to performance management for a long time. One characterized by annual or biannual performance reviews and not a lot in between.

When it comes to the link between performance management and employee development, there is little traditional approaches do to make the most of this.

Traditional, outdated feedback methods are often:

Output focused

Output-focused performance management means you’re only paying attention to someone’s overall performance metrics. Any dip in numbers is bad, regardless of the context.

With this form of performance management, improving employees is about getting them to compete. They’re pitted against each other in the form of productivity metrics. But, in practice, this is bad for morale and disincentivizes teamwork.

Being too output focused also prevents you from seeing the nuances in employee performance. Sure, Jeff’s figures may have dipped this week. But it may actually be because he’s spent a lot of time recently helping colleagues instead.

Don’t confuse this with a results-focused approach. When we talk about being results-focused, we mean it as a good thing. That’s when you focus on employee achievements without trying to control how they approach their work.

In other words, results focus is a key part of employee autonomy. Whereas an output focus has pretty much the opposite impact. Even if they have surface similarities.

Obsessed with efficiency

With efficiency-obsessed performance management, improving employees is clearly on the agenda. But such managers aren’t going about it in the right way. Again, this is far from enabling autonomy.

We’re talking about the kind of managers who time their employees’ breaks to the second. The managers going over their employee’s work habits with a magnifying glass. Just looking for any “lazy” imperfection.

But it’s also about managers constantly trying to “optimize” their team. There are times when shaking up your team’s work routine can snap them out of a rut. But, just as often, it’s a disruption they must adapt to.

So, if you’re constantly fiddling with your team’s routines and work environment in the quest for efficiency, stop and think. Chances are your constant reshuffling is why people aren’t hitting their peak stride.

Negatively framed

According to Gallup, performance reviews actually make employee performance worse about a third of the time. And, prior to the pandemic, nearly half of employees only got feedback a few times a year, or less.

Negative framing is one of the reasons traditional performance management fails so often. Employees are left to dread their review all year. And, when it does happen, it’s often a lot of critical feedback, months after the fact.

Whether you prefer your metaphors with flies, vinegar and honey, or horses, carrots and sticks, one thing is clear. Creating an environment where employees are scared to fail doesn’t work.

It’s not that employees hate critical feedback. But, with outdated performance management practices, negative feedback can feel unwarranted. If your approach to performance management doesn’t seem fair, your team aren’t going to engage with it.

The correct approach to performance management and improving employees

It’s clear we can’t rely on old approaches to performance management. Improving employees requires a more constructive touch. So, if the traditional method is such a dinosaur, how can we do things better

Cultivate new skills and abilities

When we start out in a new role, job training is an essential fact of life. Even if you have lots of experience, you at least need to learn the layout and on-site protocol. And, for fresh-faced recruits, there’s often a host of transferable core skills to learn as well.

But, beyond that, organisations seem to struggle with upskilling and advancing employee education. Which is odd, when you consider that employees are an investment. You’d think increasing their inherent value would be top HR priorities.

And it’s not only about increasing what they can do for you. Employees with access training and personal development are more likely to be loyal.

Take an individualized approach

Employees may achieve results as a team. But they still perform as individuals. That means the one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. One rigid management style isn’t going to get the same response from everyone.

When it comes to performance management improving employees, engaging people personally is essential. Checking in with employees as individuals provides regular opportunities to recognize their contributions.

Employees notice when you notice. And when you don’t. Picking up on hard work and acknowledging it is the best way to motivate people. It’s about building a rapport. When you have that, employees are more likely to be serious when you ask them to critically self-reflect.

Create a supportive, encouraging work culture

The problem with toxic performance management practices is that they tend to be baked into our work cultures. And it’s not only about direct performance management. Improving employees’ capabilities means improving their working lives too.

So, it’s just as much about the areas adjacent to performance management. In particular, employee wellbeing and work/life balance.

Refocusing on achievements over failures is a good first step. But we also need to acknowledge that high job stress is rampant, and that a focus on mental and physical health must come first.

How to get started with effective performance management

So, we know what’s wrong with the old system. And we know what needs to change for things to improve. But it’s a tall job for HR and managers to completely reinvigorate their approaches to performance management. Improving employees’ abilities and motivation, however, is absolutely essential.

Managerial and peer recognition

Don’t underestimate the value employee recognition. Half the time, when people work sub-optimally, it’s because they see themselves as having little impact. And that’s often a reflection of how valued they feel by their employer.

It’s important for managers to take the lead on employee recognition. They are, after all, their team’s chief point of contact for the business.

So, it’s important to take time to thank people personally. Even if it’s just an email (so long as it’s actually personal, and not a generic message!).

But even the most eagle-eyed manager can’t be everywhere at once. Which is why HR also need to enable employees to give each other recognition. This is actually one of the things our employee check-in is designed to support.

As part of their weekly check-in, employees can tag each other in recognition questions. So, it’s easy for them to let you know who’s helped them out or gone the extra mile. Not only does this keep team leaders clued in, it also build social bonds between colleagues.

Mentorship can help employees reach their full potential

Professional life can be daunting, for new and experienced employees alike. Along with your regular responsibilities, you’ve also got to make big decisions about your career. Workplace cultures can seem arcane, and networking opportunities unpredictable.

Mentors can help employees to make sense of all the chaos. And helping them reflect on their working habits is only part of it. While they don’t play a direct role in performance management, improving employees is something that happens naturally.

A mentor is someone who’s been around the block. Someone who knows what it takes to move forward. And they can share the benefits of their first-hand experience.

Mentors are someone in an employee’s corner, to back them up, and even advocate for their career development. Mentors can even experience career development of their own as a result. And that’s because good mentorship is an ideal showcase of leadership ability.

Two-way feedback is the bedrock of performance management

Two-way feedback is another of our founding principles at Zensai. And it’s an essential part of engaging your employees as individuals.

Performance management isn’t just about criticizing your people. It’s about management and HR considering the ways they themselves can do better. If you aren’t doing everything you can to support employees, it’s unrealistic to expect top performance.

But you can’t make these improvements blindly. And not everyone will need the same support measures. That’s why you need to talk to employees. Our employee check-in supports this, with customizable questions around wellbeing, engagement and workplace experience.

It’s not just about equality, but equity. With two-way feedback, you don’t have to take the same approach with everyone. Rather, you can support people more effectively by catering to their specific needs.

Aim for transparency in how you manage people

As noted, one reason people hate performance reviews is because of the perception of unfairness. So, it’s essential to manage people transparently.

Opaque performance review processes leave a lot to the imagination. So it’s important to be upfront about performance expectations and how you’ll judge them. This is another reason why recognition is so important. It allows you to highlight best practice for your team as it occurs.

Performance management is changing

Ultimately, we’re in a transitionary time for workplace culture. It’s partly the times we live in, and partly the changing generational majorities in the modern workplace. So, we’re seeing more of a push for things like regular feedback and job flexibility.

And, on the whole, these changes are for the better. Greater work/life balance via job flexibility can help to reduce stress. But it also broadens pools of potential applicants for recruit-hungry businesses.

The time of performance management as a broad-strokes disciplinary process is over. If you’re serious about improving the skills of your employees, then it’s time to start engaging them as people.