Initially assessing direct reports’ performance should be straightforward. You simply examine the results they are achieving and conduct your assessment. However, it’s not always that simple. Conducting objective assessments of direct reports’ performance can be challenging. A direct report might have tried very hard and yet due to circumstances beyond the direct report’s control, something negatively affected him or her. Or perhaps he or she is new to the role, so it’s difficult for you to assess the direct report’s impact. In a complex environment in which organizations value collaboration and teamwork, it also can be challenging to assess what work the direct report specifically contributed.
What to Assess
Most organizations have recognized the importance of assessing more than results, also looking at competencies or capabilities. At the least, a good assessment of direct reports’ performance should include what they are responsible for delivering, their results, and the behaviors they demonstrated in that effort. Behaviors are defined as what can be seen and/or heard. In the context of assessing, this involves what you see and/or hear from direct reports that contributed to or detracted from achieving their assigned results. Beyond that, a good assessment also can include review organization-wide capabilities or behaviors such as adherence to compliance standards or ethical actions.
If you agree that how the direct report achieved or didn’t achieve his or her assigned results is important to an assessment, then you need to base your assessment on behaviors—things you saw and/or heard the direct report do or say or actions that were absent from his or her effort to deliver results. Are these an objective assessment of performance? Yes! How the direct report achieves the results is just as important as the actual results. If a direct report demonstrated poor behaviors yet still managed to achieve the results, then the likelihood that he or she will deliver the same performance again is slim. The direct report could have achieved even greater results if he or she had demonstrated the correct behaviors.
Three Tips for Assessing Performance
When assessing direct reports’ performance:
1. Routinely review metrics.
In today's data-rich world, you probably have access to several key metrics that indicate the performance of direct reports. Select a few key metrics and then routinely review them with direct reports. These metrics need to reflect the actual results you want them to achieve or at least be important indicators of progress toward that result.
2. Align on specific behaviors.
Have clear alignment with direct reports about what behaviors you are assessing. The behaviors you assess must be important to achieving the results or something that has been organizationally identified as being important. As with key metrics, you can’t wait until the end of the year to provide feedback on behavioral performance. The direct report needs to have a behavioral performance assessment conversation routinely.
3. Set up routine assessment meetings.
Scheduling reoccurring meetings to discuss performance ensures that it happens. At the beginning of the year, if you set up monthly or quarterly meetings to review the direct report's performance—both the key metrics and behavior—these conversations are more likely to happen.
Having a Performance Assessment Conversation
Data and examples are the keys to a good performance assessment conversation. It’s difficult to disagree with your assessment of a direct report’s performance when you support that assessment with numbers, examples, and observations. This allows you to turn a performance conversation from a debate on the assessment to how the direct report can improve or sustain what he or she is doing. Observations are often an underutilized tool for communicating performance. If you have aligned with the direct report on what good behaviors translate into the desired result, then your feedback on the performance against those behaviors is a valid assessment of the performance. One of the key reasons behavior-based performance feedback is so valuable is that it’s often much easier to change a behavior than to immediately affect a result. Besides, if the behaviors you have identified are important to achieving the result, then you are eventually going to improve results. This means you need to conduct routine observations of direct reports. An old-school term for this is “walk-around management,” which refers to a manager spending time with direct reports in their work environment observing and coaching them. You should balance your observations, looking for both positive and constructive areas to assess. If you get a reputation for observing and commenting only on behaviors that they are performing poorly, the direct reports won’t demonstrate their normal behavior when you are with them.
In the current complex business environment, assessing performance requires an examination of both key metrics and the behaviors that are necessary to achieve those results. To make a thorough assessment, you must routinely review key metrics, align on key behaviors that will drive the required results, and set up routine performance assessment meetings. During your assessment meetings, focus the conversation on data and observations you made of the key behaviors necessary to achieve the results. Routinely assessing the performance of direct reports not only monitors their success, but it also allows you to make course corrections that ultimately set up the direct reports for success.