Performance Improvement: Addressing the Real Problems Without Getting Bogged Down in the Most User-Unfriendly Program Around

Existing performance systems do a lousy job of addressing the real problems supervisors face in getting the job done. Fortunately there are other choices available. Here is how to get started in addressing the problem.

Actual performance problems are very rare.

Most of the troublesome problems aren’t likely to be addressed through the convoluted performance-based reduction in grade (they’re kidding, right?) or removal (don’t even think about it!) processes. The most common issues aren’t often related to how well a person does the job overall or meets the standards. Most problems with the way a job gets done relate to not meeting deadlines, cooperating with others, writing effectively, planning work effectively or paying attention to important things.

Existing performance systems do a lousy job of addressing the real problems supervisors face in getting the job done. Fortunately there are other choices available. In these two parts, let’s look at some ways supervisors can ease the pain of poor performance without incurring the greater pain of trying to correct it in a user-unfriendly system.

OK, I know that supervisors must go through the drill that the Agency requires. Suck it up and do what you must. Follow scrupulously the Agency performance appraisal plan; hold mandated progress review meetings (ain’t those fun?); and get your annual ratings in on time (right!). But if you want to address 90% of the problems employees have with their jobs, read on.

What Comes First?

Before you can address a problem with performance, there are some questions you should ask about the organization and the job and the person. Let’s look at the organization and ask:

  • What does it do?
  • What matters?
  • What’s important?
  • Why?
  • How essential is it?
  • What are the effects on the overall agenc
  • Who’s paying attention?
  • How does info flow?

This exercise, if you get it right (reality check your answers with another manager), helps nail down what counts and why. This becomes important in assessing what is a problem and what’s not. Your boss and higher must see an impact before they turn you loose to stir the pot. By that, I mean support your actions.

How Well Do You Know the Employee’s Job?

The exercise above leads to the exercise below. You’re obviously unhappy with somebody’s work or you wouldn’t need to do any of this. Spend some time thinking (yep, that’s what you get paid to do) about the job and forget the person in it while you answer these questions:

  • How important is it?
  • How does it work?
  • What does it produce?
  • Who does it affect?
  • What needs to be known to do it well?
  • Who or what relies on it?
  • Who or what does it rely on?
  • What tools or equipment are involved
  • What happens if it’s done well?
  • What happens if it’s done poorly?
  • Who covers if there are problems?
  • How hard is the job?
  • How stressful is the job?
  • Do any barriers to doing the job exist?
  • Does/has anyone done it successfully?
  • How many? Who? Still at agency?
  • What is specific evidence of success?

If you are absolutely confident that you know the answers to all of the above without some further inquiry, you may be beyond help. Again, a reality check is in order. Talk to someone other than yourself who does or has done the job successfully. Go over the questions with them. You’re now ready to look at the person in the job.

About the Person in the Job…

The person is not the job and vice versa. Despite what psychobabblers might say about the impact of “integral identification with the occupation,” most people who have the kind of trouble we’re interested in are not  in this category. However, most people with problems carry baggage around that affects their ability to be effective on the job. At this point, it’s smart to get together with your human resources advisor for a voyage through the person’s Official Personnel Folder to see if there’s anything that might shed light on current problems.

Look at job history and answer these questions:

  • Is there prior discipline? For What? How long ago? Any relation to current behavior?
  • What are prior performance ratings?  What does the narrative say? If for the same job as held now, do you agree or disagree? Why?
  • Any awards? For what? Group or individual? What does the narrative say?
  • Career progression? How did the person get from the entry level to the current job? Were they hired into the current job?
  • When, how and why picked for the job?
  • Training received? When?
  • History of prior or current medical, family or financial problems?

Look for any clues to the effect of an answer to a question on the current performance problems.

What’s Next?

In Part Two, we’ll look at specifically defining the problem and developing some tools to address it. If there are multiple problems we may need more tools.

FYI, this article represents my views and not necessarily those of the publisher or anyone else for that matter. (As some commentors regularly remind me.)

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.