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Six Steps to Effective Performance Management


Copyright © 2006 Marion Stone
Used with permission of the author:
Author: Marion Stone
Cornerstone Connections
10 May 2007




Some years ago, companies fought the competition on the battleground of efficiency and the tight control of resources. Now that efficiency has become a given, competitiveness rests on being effective, which is about working smarter.

The first step to unlocking performance is to engage your people through an effective performance management process.

Many organisations have a process, but what makes the difference between performance management that is a once a year, tick-in the-box paperwork exercise and a process that is alive and drives improved performance?

It is not a bad assumption to make that people want to do a good job, but you are doing them a disservice if you are not telling them what your expectations are within that job. In the absence of articulated expectations, people will do whatever comes across their desk. But how do you know that what comes across their desk is actually important and will help you achieve the business objectives. By not setting objectives, you are setting up your employees for failure.

If you want a performance management process that makes a difference, it should include the following elements –

1) Commitment from the top (The process is alive!)

Performance management is for everyone in the organisation. The minute it looks like senior managers are somehow ‘exempt’ from the process or are not interested in the outcomes, the process will lose credibility.

To prevent this it is essential that managers lead by example and go through the process themselves. They should also be held accountable for leading the process with their employees. A simple way of doing this is to include effective performance management as one of their objectives.

A good quality performance management process provides useful information and therefore the process should be audited in some way so that senior managers can monitor progress. Statistics such as number of forms completed have limited use but data such as trends in development needs and employee issues can give the senior team a useful heads up and a chance to be proactive and demonstrate their commitment to the process.

2) Clear objectives

Objectives should describe desired outcomes rather than tasks. Tasks are the way in which you achieve the outcome and may change whereas the outcomes remain unchanged unless the business priorities shift. Let us explore this in more detail. If I ask you to sweep the floor, dust the surfaces and clean the windows of a room, I am giving you a list of tasks. However if I ask you to clean the room so that all surfaces are free of dirt, I have described an outcome and you would then complete the previously described tasks in order to achieve that outcome. Outcome language is important because it explains what the desired future state is.

So how do you know which outcomes are important? The answer is straightforward. It is those that support the department or business unit goals, which in turn should support the business strategy. One of the reasons that employees will feel engaged in their job is when they understand how their work adds value. If they know that they are making a difference, they will feel motivated and want to perform at their best.

Employees will also feel ownership for objectives that they have had a hand in preparing. It is a mistake to believe that the manager alone knows best. They may have a broader perspective and certainly that is important in order to make sure that objectives are relevant, but the employee understands the details of the job and both viewpoints are important for the development of clear objectives.

Another way to set up your employees for success is to ensure that objectives are written in such a way that the individual can influence the outcome. If the outcome is the result of the work of a team, it is still essential that the objectives reflect what the individual contributes to that team. This information will be needed in order to assess whether the performance targets have been reached or not.

To ensure that objectives are clear, they should be written in ‘SMART’ format: 

S  Specific (Define the results to be achieved)
M  Measurable (In terms of quantity, quality or cost)
A  Achievable (Challenging yet achievable; can be influenced by the individual)
R  Relevant (Objectives support business goals)
T  Time bound (By when will the objective be achieved?)

SMART objectives clarify expectations for employees and make the performance review process at the end of the year more transparent and open.

3) Balanced feedback

Feedback is essential information that tells the performer what to do more of or less of in order to improve their performance. To have the desired impact on performance it should be given immediately or as close to the situation that warrants feedback as possible. It should NOT be stored up during the course of the year and presented as evidence for a poor performance rating. Not only is this demotivating for the employee, it also represents a list of missed opportunities for performance improvement as well as missed opportunities for reinforcing good behaviour.

Statements such as “Good job!” are certainly encouraging and good for the self-esteem, but they do not give the performer any information on exactly what they did well. Good feedback is specific and describes the action the performer took and the impact it had e.g. “You were late in providing us with the data and so we had to work long hours the following day in order to meet the project deadline.” The description should focus on something the performer can act upon and change and NOT on the person. Personal feedback will guarantee a defensive response e.g. “You are so untidy!”

Research1has shown employees to be receptive to feedback for improvement if it is fair and accurate; employees will expect managers to be prepared and knowledgeable before providing feedback. Also, managers who work on their relationships with their team and create an environment of trust will have more credibility when delivering difficult feedback than those who manage from behind closed doors.

There is a temptation to dwell on feedback for improvement during performance discussions and this will have exactly the opposite of the desired effect. Emphasis on performance weaknesses to the exclusion of other feedback is a performance killer, decreasing performance by as much as 27%2. It is imperative to balance feedback for improvement with positive feedback.

4) Regular progress reviews

Any activity considered important will be reviewed in order to ensure that it happens. Imagine managing a project without review meetings? How do you know that you are still on track a few months down the line? How do you take into account changes in priorities? How do you know what progress has been made? What support will you need and when? For the same reasons, employee objectives and development plans must be reviewed on a regular basis.

Without reviews, performance management will be a once-a-year paperwork exercise. A year down the line, the objectives that were written at the start of the year will have changed focus, gone up or down the priority list or even been dropped altogether so having progress reviews are essential. We have already examined the need for a performance management process to be considered fair for it to be successful and the only way to ensure this is for employees to know what they are being assessed against. If the objectives are not up to date, how will you give an objective assessment of performance?

There is much debate over how often reviews should take place. Many organisations feel that one midyear review is sufficient. My response to this is "How confident are you that employee objectives are relevant during the rest of the year?" If the answer to this is "Not very", then I would suggest incorporating additional reviews.

Reviews should take place at least once every quarter and they should cover the following:

  • Progress against objectives
    • Feedback (positive and developmental)
    • Adjustment of objectives in line with changes in the business priorities
  • Review of the development plan
  • Support required to move forward

Reviews need not take a long time. The above agenda can be covered in 1 hour. In fact, review meetings are likely to get shorter, the more often you stay in touch and communication is always more effective "little and often" rather than in big doses. Think about the cost of 4 hours of your time for performance reviews vs. the cost of losing your employee altogether!

Also, it is not necessary for every review to take place face-to-face. In today’s work environment with travel and remote working being the norm, teams have had to find innovative ways of keeping in touch and these can be used for performance reviews too. There is no doubt of the benefit of a face-to-face meeting and challenging feedback should not be delivered in an e-mail, but it is possible to cover much of the basics via telephone and e-mail and save the really important topics for the meetings in person.

Reviews should not require a lot of paperwork, just somewhere to record any amendments made. Any performance management process that makes it difficult to adjust objectives to take in account environmental changes should be simplified. Being able to review and update objectives is the essential component of building a performance management process rather than a performance management event.

5) Development plans

Part of improving performance is establishing where the shortfall is and finding a way to close the gap. Not only that, but you might be expecting employees to take on greater responsibility or new tasks (perhaps the job has changed or new technology has been implemented). Their performance reflects on you and it is logical that you would put a development plan in place to ensure that they are able to cope with the new challenges. Longer-term development goals not only increase employee motivation but also make good business sense, as it is more cost effective to grow your own skills rather than recruiting them in.

So, in summary, effective performance management should include development plans that address: 

  • Shortfalls in performance
  • Plans to equip employees with the skills to complete their objectives effectively
  • Long term development goals

Easier said than done! How often do development discussions take second place to the discussions on objectives and overall performance? Managers expect employees to take the initiative to drive their development plans and employees either do not want to or do not know how to do it. The result is that nothing gets done and another whole year swings by with a development plan that gathers dust and is then swiftly glossed over at review time. Sound familiar? 

What can you do about it? The secret lies in WIFM (what’s in it for me). Development plans should support the achievement of objectives (manager WIFM) and incorporate employee development goals (employee WIFM). (For more information on this subject, refer to my article entitled Building a Successful Development Plan.)

The development plan should be a live document that is referred to at progress reviews and amended as needed exactly like the objectives. The development plan may belong to the employee, but the manager has a crucial role in supporting the employee by removing obstacles and providing resources as appropriate. Development is never a solitary activity; it requires both the employee and manager to work together.

6) Capable managers (with the right skills)

The best process will fail if managers do not have the skills to have effective performance management discussions. A productive discussion where employees feel listened to and part of the process will encourage employees and spur them on to achieve their objectives and more. On the other hand an inadequate discussion where employees feel ignored and treated unfairly will demotivate them and at worst persuade them that there is nowhere else for them to turn leading to resignations and high cost turnover.

It is important to remember that employees experience company culture in the way that their managers manage them. It is not the company vision and values that influence their experience – often these are too remote from the average employee. It has been said that people leave managers and not companies!3Managers need to live the company vision and values in the way they manage.

So, what do managers need to do in order to have a successful performance management discussion?

The skills required for this look very much like other effective communication skills: 

  • Active listening
  • Clarifying (open questions)
  • Summarising
  • Encouraging

In addition, the following skills are essential:

  • Providing feedback including the ability to: 
  • Respectfully challenge wrong thought processes
  • Manage expectations
  • Coaching - asking the right questions so that the employee finds their own solutions
  • Encourage involvement in the building of objectives and development plans without removing responsibility

Managers can improve these skills through training but the best way to refine these skills is through practice and by receiving coaching and feedback from their own line managers.

A tall order? But what replaces performance management? Is it really good enough to assume that people know what is expected of them in their jobs? I have heard it many times before… "They are professionals, they know what to do!" Have you asked? Do your business results reflect that your employees know what to do?

If you want to unlock performance, good performance management is the first step. 

Remember, the structure and design of your appraisal documentation is not as important as making sure that:

  • Senior managers are committed to the process
    • Objectives are clear
      • Feedback is balanced
        • Progress is reviewed
          • Development plans are included in the process
            • Managers have the right skills to support the process



1 Corporate Leadership Council “Building the High Performance Workplace” 2003
2 Corporate Leadership Council “Building the High Performance Workplace” 2003
3 Buckingham, Marcus “First Break all the Rules” 1999 Simon & Schuster UK Ltd



Marion Stoneis an experienced training and development consultant with over 10 years of experience both nationally and internationally. Her comprehensive understanding of training strategy and practice has been acquired in various sectors including manufacturing, FMCG, construction, media and travel. Her work has focused predominantly on middle managers although she has worked with various levels within the business from the shop floor to senior managers. Marion holds a first degree in chemistry (UCT) and an MSc in Strategic Training and Development (University of Surrey Roehampton). She is accredited by the South African Board of Personnel Practitioners as a Chartered HR Practitioner. Her diverse background ensures a practical approach to development activities that are joined up with organisational goals and processes. She can be contacted at marion@cornerstoneconnections.co.za.For regular newsletters from Marion click on 'Subscribe to newsletter' on www.cornerstoneconnections.co.za.

Cornerstone Connectionsbuilds connections between the organisation and it’s employees and between managers and their teams. Consultancy and training are offered in the areas of: 

  • Talent retention
  • Personal and career development
  • Performance management
  • Coaching and feedback
  • Team effectiveness 



Short description
The first step to unlocking performance is to engage your people through an effective performance management process. This happens through management commitment, clear objectives, balanced feedback, regular progress reviews, development plans and capable managers.

Keywords and relevant phrases
Accountability, business results, commitment, communication skills, development plans, employee motivation, engagement, feedback, information, managers, objectives, outcomes, performance, performance management, progress reviews, review, skills development, values, vision.  

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Gary Watkins

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