Performance Reviews: A good management tool if used properly

Sept. 1, 2003

Performance Reviews
A good management tool if used properly

Your organization has a limited amount of resources with which to work to accomplish its goals and objectives. I've made this statement in a previous article but the concept is so important it's worth repeating. Each organization, whether or not it's public service, for profit, or privately held, operates under this principle. The successful organizations recognize and operate within the parameters of the concept. The unsuccessful ones do not. The resources for an organization can take on many forms and are commonly referred to as the assets. For organizations in aviation, assets might include aircraft, spare parts inventory, supplies, tooling, hangars, etc. You can probably think of many more but if you build your own list, remember one asset that is vital to every organization - its employees. And in this case, I am using employees as an all-encompassing term that includes all individuals that function under the umbrella of an organization, from the top person all the way down to the new hire.Employees as assets Success or failure is dependent upon the employees of the organization. Even with all of the advantages that automation has brought, people still perform the critical tasks for an organization. For example,
  • The top person or team of executives charts the direction of the organization by determining its goals and objectives. Where would Apple Computers be today if it had decided to offer an open operating system to application programmers?
  • Marketing folks decide how to effectively reach prospects by determining the advertising and selling campaigns. Where would Converse, maker of basketball shoes, be today if it had been as aggressive in marketing and advertising as Nike? Due to Nike's recent acquisition of Converse, we'll be able to watch the new marketing strategies.
  • The technician determines whether or not to replace, repair, or troubleshoot a part during everyday maintenance procedures. How many dollars hinge on the technician's ability to reach an informed decision?

Management goals
Some employees serve as managers within the organization. It is management's responsibility to move the organization toward its goals and objectives while consuming its limited resources efficiently. As mentioned in a previous article, managers do this by performing the four principles of management - planning, organizing, directing, and controlling. While the practice of the four principles is ongoing and can occur simultaneously or separately, I would like to expand on controlling for the purposes of this article and more specifically by discussing an important tool that makes controlling more effective.

One of the major attributes of controlling is measuring. Management can monitor, and adjust if necessary, the progress of the organization by measuring many functions. For example,

  • The financial and accounting managers will use various measurement systems to determine the overall financial health of the organization such as the status of cash flow, the source of outside funds, and the actual performance of receipts and expenditures compared to the budget.
  • The marketing managers will also use a variety of measurements to determine the degree of success of their efforts such as tracking the response rate to specific advertising efforts, monitoring the progress of contacts made by salespeople in the field, and comparing actual sales to the predicted amounts.
  • The aviation manager will also use measurement systems to determine how the department is functioning by monitoring the availability of aircraft, the number of flights made, and the actual maintenance dollars consumed compared to the budget.

Measuring performance
There is no doubt systems of this type are essential to the longevity of every successful organization. But how should an organization measure the performance of its most important and often most expensive asset, its people? How does the organization know if it is using this most vital resource efficiently? How can the organization develop its people to ensure their growth and continued satisfaction? More specifically, what tool does the manager have to direct the employees' activities and measure their performance?

Stated a more simple way, as the manager, how do you get the most out of your people, while ensuring that they are progressing professionally as they desire? Always remember, it's a two-way street. You expect something from employees while they expect something from the organization, whether it's monetary or some other form of satisfaction.

The answer to the question is employee performance reviews. Most of us during our careers have worked for an organization that had performance reviews. And if your experiences were similar to mine, then you probably did not get a great deal of value from the review. Unfortunately and so often, they become a once-a-year, check-off-the-list nuisance for the manager and for the employee they become a sterile but necessary event to find out what the pay raise (if lucky) will be for the next year.

The manager and the employee have missed a great opportunity. As a result, the organization has suffered. The manager has not indicated how the employee can become a more valuable asset to the organization both currently and for the future. Plus, the organization has not learned more about the employee and his or hers needs and desires for growth.

As a new manager or one that wants to make better use of employee performance reviews, what are some things that you may do or be aware of while preparing for or actually conducting a performance review? While there are many nice resource materials available that help you with the basics of performance reviews, I have listed a few points that may not always get mentioned.

1. Recognize reviews for what they really are. An effective performance review is actually a process not a single event. A process denotes a series of activities, two of which are worth mentioning here. First, and at the beginning of the process, you must establish the goals and objectives for the employee. The employee must understand ahead of time what is expected. Discovering what was expected during the formal review is too late and unfair. Second, once you have established the goals and objectives, you should not wait until the formal review to offer feedback and guidance. Offer feedback in a timely manner, not when it is too late. The formal review often is too late.

2. Keep records. If you're like me sometimes it's difficult to remember what happened yesterday. When you finally get to the formal review and you are trying to make a point, it would probably be more meaningful if you could illustrate it with examples. Keep notes on all employees and with the same regularity for each employee. You do not want the perception of bias toward any particular employees. Also, remember that your notes can become part of the court's records in case of litigation. Keep your comments professional.

3. You represent the company. During the formal review and anytime for that matter, as the manager, you are the spokesperson for or representative of the organization. Employees view you as such; therefore it is not the time to become a loose cannon by offering viewpoints that are contrary to the organization's. You need to stick to the expectations of the organization, which should be the subject of the performance review.

4. Avoid emotion. A performance review based upon emotion may work with some folks but it will eventually get you into trouble. You want to stay focused on the goals and objectives of the organization and how the employee fits into that plan.
It is also important not to let a person's personality affect your judgment. Recognize that each person is different. Unless the personality in question is detracting from the accomplishment of the goals and objectives by the employee or others then perhaps it is best to leave it out of the performance review. Otherwise you would be venturing into the review based upon emotion.

5. Use objective comments rather than subjective. As mentioned, you are acting on behalf of the organization. One of your tasks as a manager is to motivate employees to accomplish the organization's goals and objectives. Usually goals and objectives are measurable and therefore objective. This portion of the performance review is somewhat straightforward. However there are aspects of the performance review that are not.

How do you measure attitude or initiative? These qualities are more difficult to measure because they are subjective. Unfortunately, while difficult to measure, they do not diminish the effect they can have on the performance of an employee and those around the employee. Therefore, it's not enough to tell the employee that he or she has a bad attitude. You need to provide specific examples of what you mean. Give the employee something to work on. It is your job to offer constructive criticism so the employee begins to focus on the tasks that are important to the organization. Also remember to have specific examples of a good attitude. You want to reinforce good behavior as well.

6. Use constructive criticism.
If an employee is weak in an area and you want the performance to improve, again so you will accomplish the organization's goals and objectives, then use constructive criticism. It is difficult enough when you have to tell someone that their performance is below standard but you also have to tell them in a way that turns the performance around. Most people respond better to constructive rather than destructive feedback. Take the approach that is honest and offer suggestions for improvement. Also, don't forget that constructive feedback or compliments work to reinforce strong performance.

7. Avoid interruptions.
During the review, find a place where you will not be interrupted. That includes telephone calls and pagers. You are dealing with an important resource in your organization and this is potentially one of the best tools for setting the proper tone for the coming period of time. Not much can send a worse message than if you allow something or someone to interrupt a performance review. Also, give yourself plenty of time to complete the performance review.

8. Be receptive to feedback. The performance review should not be a one-way communication. Employees may have good ideas for improving a process or situation that, in turn, helps you accomplish your goals. They may offer suggestions that could help their career develop further. And, just as importantly, they may offer suggestions that could help you as a manager. It never hurts to listen.

Unfortunately the performance review and all that it entails has too frequently become a misused tool, an exercise without significant meaning. Few employees look forward to the performance review except to learn about the next pay raise. Few managers use the performance review as a tool to make their responsibilities easier by working through the skills and talents of others. Few organizations have recognized the potential of the performance review for turning one of its most important resources into one of its most efficient. Be the exception, the next time the performance review process begins. It's never too late to see how well this tool can work for you.

Brandon Battles is a partner with Conklin & de Decker. He has spent more than 15 years in aviation working with maintenance organizations in the areas of cost collection and analysis, systems review, inventory analysis, and management training.