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Performance Management or Relationship Management?

Debra Sunohara

In an ideal world, a performance management system would be so much more than just a performance agreement, a performance appraisal, a response to budget constraints, doing “more with less”, or reporting transparency.

It would help create a workplace that enables employees to perform at their best and would focus on:

  • Helping resolve performance issues;
  • Aligning employees with strategic objectives and priorities;
  • Motivating employees through goal setting;
  • Encouraging skill development;
  • Valuing employee development;
  • Fostering teamwork;
  • Recognizing quality performance;
  • Rewarding achievements;
  • Coaching for improved performance;
  • Confirming mutual understanding between supervisor and employee;
  • Providing frequent feedback; and,
  • Emphasizing communication – increasing effective, two-way communication between managers and employees.

It is a shift of focus from bureaucracy, process, and control to the improvement of communication and engagement – which is at the heart of what performance management should really be about.

The Treasury Board Secretariat has recently made some changes to their Performance Management Program for Employees page “just-in-time” to help managers meet their PM year-end performance assessments. Some Strategies for difficult conversations are included to help managers deliver performance feedback.

I would argue that contrary to what TBS states, the focal point of performance management should not be the performance agreement and year-end performance assessments, but rather the day-to-day conversations, interactions, and relationships between managers and employees that foster the trust and engagement that must exist in a high-performing organization.

Improving Relationships With Employees

Sustaining a culture of high performance is directly correlated to employee engagement. In turn, employee engagement is highly dependent on the quality of the relationship between the employee and the immediate supervisor/manager.

Improving and increasing communication between you and your employees is the first step to building better and more personal working relationships. Of course, communication is never one-sided, and in order to be a good communicator you also need to be a good active listener.

To be a good communicator you need to:

  • Convey respect for listeners
  • Be open and allow for responses
  • Acknowledge and respect emotional response
  • Avoid ‘games’ and hidden agendas
  • Seek mutual understanding
  • Include ‘I’ statements and ownership
  • Avoid assumptions

Listen to Lead

There are many nuggets of folk wisdom that apply here:

  • Open your ears, not your mouth.
  • We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen more than we speak.
  • Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.

We’ve all heard these, and many more—but that doesn’t make them any less appropriate.

Five Listening Behaviours to Work On

Most of us need to work on our active listening skills. There are five listening behaviours that you can exhibit that will help you on your way to becoming a good active listener: natural response, restatement, questioning, summarizing, and reflection.

You are probably already using some of these intuitively, but here are a few suggestions for how to use these listening behaviours to be both a good communicator and a good active listener.

  1. Natural Response – use it to convey that you are interested and listening or to encourage the person to continue talking:
    “I see.” or “That’s interesting.”
  2. Restatement – use it to verify meaning and interpretation with the speaker, to show you are listening and that you understand what they are saying, or to encourage the speaker to analyze other aspects of the issue being considered and discuss it with you:
    “As I understand it then, your plan is…” or “This is what you have decided to do and the reasons are…” or “If that’s the case, what do you think about…?”
  3. Questioning – use it to get more information about a subject or to be certain you understand what is being communicated:
    “Could you explain more about…?” or “Do you mean that…?”
  4. Summarizing – use it to bring the discussion into focus in terms of a summary or as a springboard for discussion on a new topic or issue:
    “These are the key ideas you have expressed…” or “If I understand how you feel about the situation…”
  5. Reflection – use it to demonstrate that you understand how the speaker feels about the topic":
    “So, you’re saying that you feel…” or “That seems to indicate you were really mad about…”

Becoming a Great Communicator

If you truly want to become a great leader, then you must become a great communicator.

And that begins not with your voice, but with open ears and an open mind.

  • Practice continuous communication – Unbundle and don’t rely on once or twice a year processes to drive performance management.
  • Shift to continuous feedback – foster a culture that values and encourages feedback – from the top down and from the bottom up.
  • Engage your staff.
  • Solicit input and listen to your staff.
  • Encourage open constructive discussion of diverse perspectives.
  • Understand your employees – know what motivates them.
  • Recognize that a one-size-fits-all approach does not meet your organization’s needs.
  • Build employee trust and trust them in return.
  • Make best use of employee talent – employee fit does matter.
  • Realize that creativity, collaboration, and teamwork are needed to produce results.
  • Invest in coaching skills – enable employees to give and receive feedback well.
  • Create a positive work environment.
  • Focus on development – it is a critical piece of the puzzle to solving employee engagement issues.

Once you’ve gone through this list and identified some areas where you think improvement is needed, ask your people if they agree with the things that you have in mind.

But only ask for feedback if you really want it.  Never ask for feedback if you have already made a decision about next steps, as this is a sure way to destroy trust.  And be open-minded about the recommendations you receive – we rarely learn much from the people who agree with us.


Recommended reading:

TBS Performance Management: Hit and Miss?

Key Considerations when Implementing Performance Management in the Public Service 

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