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Create a Winning Team by Leveraging a Performance Management System

To optimize how organizations attract, develop, and retain great IT people, it is critical to evaluate what happens at the line levels of IT and how organizations source, screen, onboard and manage their workforce. TEKsystems’ IT Talent Management Survey series provides insight into what’s on the mind of the IT leaders and IT workers alike.

It’s the middle of the fourth quarter, and the home team just scored a touchdown. As the fans cheer in the stands, the quarterback and his receiver celebrate the play and jog off the field. Immediately their teammates circle them to congratulate them and the head coach gives a thumbs–up sign in acknowledgment. The quarterback’s coach brings his clipboard over to the quarterback to discuss the next play and the wide receiver’s coach asks his player to comment on the route he ran and the coverage he faced.

While the pressure on a professional athlete can be intense, coaches and trainers are united in a solitary goal of ensuring the success of each player and thus, the entire team. The head coach oversees the entire team and develops the strategy to bring the team to the post-season. Specialty coaches manage each functional area and coach players in their specific roles. Professional athletes receive immediate, continuous feedback on their performance to help them achieve their goals and promote teamwork.

This structure is not as common in the corporate world, even though the stakes are just as high. Since organizational success is driven by employee performance, companies need formal processes around setting performance expectations and providing quality feedback.

TEKsystems surveyed more than 2,000 IT professionals and more than 1,500 IT leaders. IT professionals provided specific insight from the employee’s perspective, and the leaders who responded provided their insight from the employer’s perspective. We asked each group to share insights on how important a performance management program is to their organization, what most performance management programs consist of and what exactly makes a performance management program successful.

Studying the Playbook: The importance of effective performance management

Effective teams are unified by a defining goal, such as achieving a winning record or advancing to post-season play, and all activities are aligned to the overarching strategy for success. These teams clearly establish objectives for each player, provide feedback to adjust performance and measure this performance against a benchmark in order to improve. Professional athletes compete on high-performing, motivated teams, where individual goals are tied to team goals and players receive constant feedback to stay on track. Coaches assess a quarterback’s accuracy, agility and decision-making after every throw and make immediate suggestions to improve the outcome of the next throw. The player learns from this feedback and adapts. Players are ranked within the team and their skill set and these assessments are used to manage expectations around playing time, salary and team tenure.

Likewise, IT leaders and IT professionals recognize that organizational success is contingent upon the performance and productivity of the workforce. Ninety-four percent of IT leaders believe performance management efforts are important at their company; 84 percent of IT professionals agree. What’s more, a large majority of professionals, 93 percent and 83 percent, respectively, say that informal and formal feedback–critical aspects of their performance management systems–are important to individual success within their organizations.

These findings are not surprising. After all, performance management systems are the mechanisms by which organizations align, groom and motivate their most variable and strategic assets–their people.

94 percent of IT leaders believe performance management efforts are important at their company.
84 percent of IT professionals agree that performance management efforts are important at their company.

Watching the Film: Room for improvement in performance management

Despite the acknowledged importance of performance management, many organizations fail to execute their performance management systems effectively. According to the survey, less than 50 percent of IT professionals rate their organization’s performance management system as effective in 10 out of 12 performance management goals including aligning employee actions with strategic business objectives, coaching and mentoring, and enabling discussions around employee career paths. Moreover, less than half of IT professionals believe that their managers are great at performance management; 54 percent of IT leaders agree. These findings suggest significant opportunity for organizations to improve—and to attain greater levels of employee engagement as well as organizational performance as a result.

Less than 50 percent of IT professionals rate their organization’s performance management system as effective in 10 out of 12 performance management goals.

Calling an Audible: Recommendations for better performance management systems

Ranking the depth chart: Define performance expectations early

At its core, a performance management system must evaluate and reward employees’ abilities relative to defined expectations. Unfortunately, only one-third of IT professionals report that performance expectations are always or often clearly defined for roles in their organizations. Without clear expectations in place, IT leaders and professionals alike identify inconsistencies in performance standards, poor goal setting and subjectivity as key challenges to their performance management systems.

There are several methods by which IT organizations can improve clarity around employee performance expectations. First, management must define the objectives, skills and behaviors that are most important to organizational success and align these attributes with clear performance expectations for their employees. Managers will then have a framework to measure progress toward team goals and can use these assessments to build career paths and development opportunities for their employees. Next, these expectations must be documented and communicated to each employee, giving employees defined goals to work toward. As 23 percent of IT professionals report that they don’t receive specific examples in their appraisals, managers should rely on these expectations as a benchmark and assess employee performance relative to them. Tying appraisals back to stated expectations can also eliminate the dangerous assumptions around favoritism or unfounded bias that employees may make when faced with negative or surprising feedback.

Managers will have a framework toward measure progress to team goals and can use these assessments to build career paths and development opportunities for their employees.

“There’s a Flag on the Play”: Frequent feedback keeps performance on track

To keep performance expectations on track, managers should use feedback to motivate, educate and reward employees. However, only about half of IT professionals have formal performance reviews once or twice a year, and they typically don’t receive enough feedback in between. Sixty-eight percent of IT professionals would prefer to receive feedback on a quarterly, monthly, weekly or daily basis; 13 percent would like feedback anytime their performance deviates from expectations. Employees also believe that feedback itself has room for improvement, as less than half of IT professionals rate the quality of informal feedback as excellent or good. Fifteen percent claim they don’t receive informal feedback at all.

To encourage these discussions and improve the quality of performance assessments, organizations must prioritize feedback as critical to every manager’s job and hold managers accountable to giving explicit, thoughtful feedback to their employees throughout the year. Employees can feel disheartened or confused if significant feedback-positive or negative is presented only annually or semi annually. They doubt the importance of their behavior if a discussion can be tabled for six months, and they question their manager’s intentions for telling them so late after the occurrence. In contrast, employees feel recognized, appreciated and invested in when their manager takes the time to acknowledge their work—leading to higher levels of motivation. Employees also value the opportunity to act on feedback given, allowing them to make performance adjustments in real time, and avoid potential surprises in scheduled reviews.

68 percent of IT professionals would prefer to receive feedback on a quarterly, monthly, weekly or daily basis.

Hearing the Cheers of the Fans: Prompt feed­back immediately addresses performance

While frequent feedback is key to helping employees develop, feedback should also be targeted towards employee behavior and delivered promptly. One-third of IT professionals say poor performance isn’t addressed effectively at their organizations because it was allowed to go on for too long. Half of IT professionals report it takes at least a quarter before poor performance is addressed and nearly 20 percent think it’s not addressed at all. Great performance also goes unrecognized, as IT professionals identify the lack of timely feedback and the manager’s ability to provide accurate assessments of performance as top improvement areas in their organization’s performance management systems.

Prompt feedback builds trust between employee and manager. It also helps employees correct deviations from performance expectations before minor issues become habitual or increasingly problematic. Conversely, delayed feedback often affects employee morale, namely when teams bear the burden of poor performers or when high performance goes unrecognized.

Of course, it’s best if a manager can deliver feedback as soon as superior or subpar performance occurs. However, it’s not always possible for managers to be so intimately involved in their employees’ workdays. To make timely feedback a reality, managers must build feedback into the operating rhythm of their work weeks.

Scheduled, periodic opportunities to observe employee behavior and to review the status of their tasks and deliverables are critical to ensuring managers and employees connect on performance findings before too much time elapses and the feedback grows stale or irrelevant.

Talking to the Coach on the Sideline: Direct feedback targets behavior

Feedback must be targeted to the specific issue at hand. Nearly one-quarter of IT professionals report that they don’t receive specific examples of poor behavior during performance reviews. IT professionals also cite their manager’s comfort level with giving necessary tough feedback as a challenge with their organization’s performance management system. Eleven percent of professionals claim poor performance is handled by termination in their organizations, implying they either didn’t receive or understand any other warnings, such as informal manager feedback, formal warnings or write-ups.

Direct feedback helps bridge the gap between the manager and employee perception, and there are several guidelines managers should follow when delivering frank assessments. First, there is a misperception that direct feedback equals cruel or impassioned dialogue between manager and employee, when in actuality direct feedback can and should be delivered in a calm, caring manner. Second, whenever possible, managers should initiate face-to-face conversations, as these interactions suggest greater investment by the manager, allow for greater responsiveness and promote open communication. Third, managers should come prepared to cite specific behavioral examples of performance and tie the conversation back to the defined goals and expectations. Doing so shows the employee that the manager is paying attention to their actions and is consistent in their expectations for what high-quality performance looks like. The manager should also be clear in outlining the consequences of the behavior–positive or negative–to avoid surprises and unclear direction. The conversation should conclude with expectations for the future and reinforcement to help the employee succeed, or continue to demonstrate exceptional performance.

Radio to the Booth: Enable two-way communication

According to IT professionals and IT leaders alike, building a good relationship between manager and employee is rated as a top five goal in effective performance management systems. However, less than half (48 percent) of IT professionals say their organizations achieve this goal. The mechanisms by which IT professionals recommend performance management systems be evaluated reinforces their desire for a stronger manager/employee relationship. The top two methods they prefer to evaluate performance management systems involve a two-way dialogue: 51 percent say they want to provide periodic, formal and structured feedback to management and 43 percent say they want to provide informal feedback to management.

To encourage manager/employee relationship building through the performance management system, performance feedback must be both given as well as received by managers. Of course, most employees are not accustomed to providing upward feedback and may initially feel hesitant or uncomfortable. Additionally, many managers may view an open invitation for feedback from their employees as a threat to their authority. However, two-way feedback can be an invaluable tool in creating a high-performance environment. The key is how the two-way feedback is facilitated.

51 percent of IT professionals say they want to provide periodic, formal and structured feedback to management.
43 percent of IT professionals say they want to provide informal feedback to management.

Often it is best to separate the times in which employees receive feedback and those in which managers receive it. Having dialogue about performance for each party simultaneously could lead to a tit for tat situation in which managers and employees feel they need to adapt how they review one another based on the positive or negative issues initially discussed in the conversation. Additionally, simply asking employees to give feedback is an important requirement of management–but not enough to truly achieve a solid, trusting relationship between the two parties. Managers must also respond to feedback provided in a way that clearly indicates their receptivity and appreciation for the employees’ perspective. Managers do not need to do everything an employee suggests; however, managers should address what they will and won’t do and why, so the employee feels heard and encouraged to continue to offer upward feedback. Above all, the manager should thank the employee for the feedback and serve as a role model for the employee. If an employee sees a manager as open, understanding and grateful for his or her perspective, the employee may adopt similar traits when receiving feedback.

Reaching the End Zone: Conclusion

The fans cheer wildly as the clock winds down to the end of the game, and the home team jogs off the field with another victory. After the game, the quarterback and the receiver will field questions in press conferences and hear their coachs’ assessment of the play. Over the next few days, the team and coaches will review film of the game to pinpoint areas of improvement, evaluate plays and make changes to enhance the team’s performance for the next game. For the rest of the evening and throughout the next week, fans, radio hosts and sportswriters will discuss the players’ performance, debate their effectiveness and offer opinions on how the players should prepare for upcoming games. The feedback cycle is continuous and gives each player the opportunity to learn from his actions and improve his performance.

Just as the football team supports each player, a high-performing organization should give each employee the opportunity to develop skills and receive coaching. The most effective teams combine a strong foundation of defined expectations and aligned goals with a commitment to improvement. Management plays a critical role in employee growth and a strong performance management system uses quality feedback to lead employees to success.