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How to Improve Employee Performance

By Michelle Gouldsberry
December 13, 2021
9 minute read

Work continues to evolve at dizzying speeds, and technology enables us to become more efficient than ever before. And yet, managing employees’ performance and productivity has never been more challenging.

You can implement processes for improving employee performance, though, and the best solutions are often simple ones. Better communication, clear expectations, and feedback go a long way towards improving work performance. 

But really improving employee performance requires intentionality and commitment to supporting employees in their day-to-day performance. Here’s how to implement measurements, processes, and cultural norms to improve employee performance at your company.

How Do You Define High Performance?

Before you can improve employee performance, you need to set clear goals to reach and develop metrics to measure the employee’s progress toward those goals. Here’s how to define high performance for each role at your company.

Benchmark Employees to Set a Baseline

Improving performance may require developing employees’ skills and competencies. But before you can set learning goals for each employee, you need to identify the human characteristics that drive success in the role.

Identify employees in the role who you classify as high-performing. What makes their performance stand out from that of their peers? How does their output differ from their less productive peers in the same role? Assess these employees to identify the skills, competencies, and traits they’re bringing forward to improve performance.

Look at your top sales representatives, for example. What traits are they bringing to their sales calls that drive better results? High emotional intelligence and active listening may help them pinpoint customer problems, for instance, so they can sell solutions that solve those problems.

Once you’ve identified the skills and competencies needed by each employee to be their best in the role, you can set a baseline for performance and begin to fill gaps through learning and development programs.

Connect Individual Outputs to Strategic Value

To define high performance, you have to first determine the potential impact of a role. Start by reviewing job descriptions to prioritize the essential outputs for each role. Those are the aspects you’ll want to maximize to improve employee performance.

Look at the role itself (not the employee in it) to identify which outputs from the role have the most strategic value. For example, an administrative assistant’s objective is to keep the office running efficiently and effectively. What specific outputs lead to that outcome? 

Once you’ve prioritized each role’s tasks and duties by their strategic value, you can help employees in those roles focus their best efforts on the outputs that drive the greatest value. 

Develop Metrics for Governing Performance

Managers have historically struggled with performance metrics. When charged with evaluating employee performance, many fall back on perceptions and preferences rather than specific performance outcomes.

In the absence of clear metrics, managers can be tempted to micromanage employees to “know” that they’re working. This might prompt a manager to call or email an employee frequently to determine whether or not they’re working or add unnecessary oversight to their work processes. 

Without clear criteria, managers will be left guessing whether employees have performed adequately. This can introduce a bias toward favored employees. For example, in a hybrid work environment, a manager might evaluate an employee that they see in person as a higher performer than an employee who is fully remote, even if their outputs are equal.

To support managers and produce fair performance evaluations, managers must assess performance based on the outcomes achieved. That’s a process that HR should own. 

Once you’ve set a performance baseline and identified each role’s strategic impact, you need to drill down to the specific outcomes each employee in the role must consistently produce to be considered high-performing. If a project manager’s priority is to use resources effectively to deliver projects on time and within budget, those are the metrics their supervisor will review to assess performance.

With clear metrics based on outcomes in place, managers can easily see whether employees are meeting their performance goals. 

9 Steps to Improve Employee Performance

The greatest opportunities for improving performance often come from daily management practices. People generally want to improve, but they need managers to be present in the moment with the support and resources they need to get there. 

Here are nine best practices for improving performance.

Connect Company Values with Performance

A solid basis in company values can act as an anchor for employee decision-making and inspire better performance. But if your values are too vague or abstract, employees won’t recognize how they intersect with their role or how to apply them in their daily performance.

To bring company values home, employees must understand how to live them in their daily tasks. For each role reporting to them, managers should connect specific company values with particular behaviors, actions, or decisions that the role entails. 

Help train managers on how the company values should be enacted on their teams. Start by helping them recognize how to live the values in their own work. If your company values integrity, for example, ask managers to consider how they might practice integrity in their daily interactions with their reports and how that impacts their performance.

When managers can learn to apply the values themselves, they can impart this skill to their teams to improve their employees’ performance.

Define Objectives 

Clear objectives are key to improving employee performance. Employees can’t progress toward their goals if they aren’t confident about those goals. And if those desired outcomes aren’t defined on the front end, employees won’t know how to prioritize their workloads to focus on the tasks that create the most value.

Managers need to help employees define and clarify their performance objectives. Often, poor performance results from poorly defined goals or a misalignment between what the employee perceives as their priorities and what the manager wants them to focus on.

Help managers practice communicating goals and expectations by distilling an employee’s tasks down to their priorities. Implement labels denoting the urgency of each task and the order in which employees should complete them.

Communicate Effectively

Strong communication is key to unlocking improved work performance. If employees can’t get in touch with their managers or communicate openly with them, misunderstandings can create misalignment, resulting in employees focusing their energy on the wrong places. 

To improve employee performance, managers must first improve their communication skills. Managers should engage in regular check-ins and conversations with their reports to build relationships and trust with them. With that foundation in place, managers can address performance deficits with employees in a constructive way.

Have managers set standard communication guidelines among their teams. This should include regular meetings built into each person’s schedule as well as communication preferences for individual team members. Managers can also opt to make use of project management collaboration tools to streamline communication among their teams.

Make Time to Listen

Good active listening habits are essential to improving employee performance at work. Managers must be open to hearing each employee’s perspective and concerns regarding their workload, workflow, and priorities.

The more effective communication is on the front end, the easier it will be to remove roadblocks in the flow of work. If an employee raises a concern before beginning a task, for instance, a manager who practices good active listening will give thought to a solution before the situation becomes a problem.

Sometimes listening to employees requires humility. Managers need to be aware that their role is to enable improved employee performance. There’s no room for ego, a trait in which managers believe they know more about the work than employees do (though that’s rarely the case). 

Train managers to listen to employee concerns and suggestions for improvement before injecting their own perspective.

Don’t Micromanage

Micromanaging can be seen as a sign of distrust in someone’s capabilities, although it’s often simply the result of poor management training. If managers believe the only barometer measuring performance is seeing employees at work or, in the absence of physical offices, micromanaging them, then they’ll end up hovering over their reports.

But micromanaging causes more performance problems than it solves. If employees don’t feel their manager trusts them, they’re more likely to disengage or only put a half-hearted effort into their work. 

Train managers to manage the work based on outcomes rather than micromanaging employees. If each role has clear metrics denoting performance excellence, then managers won’t need to micromanage their reports to confirm the work is being done.

Train and Develop

Employee development is an ongoing necessity for improving performance at work. Circumstances, tasks, and job descriptions change, and employees must be reskilled or upskilled to keep pace. As employees start working on a task, they and their managers should work together to identify skills gaps that could affect their performance, both now and in the long run. 

But it can’t stop there: Be sure that managers can point employees to learning and development resources to help them turn their weaknesses into strengths. Set milestones for learning objectives to help measure the employee’s progress. 

Create a Performance Improvement Plan as Needed 

Even the suggestion of a performance improvement plan is a source of dread for employees. But performance improvement plans are actually a powerful resource for improving performance in a targeted way. Performance improvement plans should be implemented when an employee isn’t meeting their performance goals. 

When executing a performance improvement plan, managers and HR representatives work together to provide clarity around set goals and performance objectives. Managers are more accessible to offer additional support to help employees improve. Frequent check-in conversations are essential for keeping an employee on track.

Performance improvement plans are a viable solution for improving performance, but how you frame that solution to employees matters. If employees believe it’s simply a formality before you see them out the door, they’re less likely to put in the effort required to really drive performance improvement. Make sure employees understand that performance improvement plans are designed to do exactly that: improve performance.

Encourage Feedback

Feedback is crucial to improving employee performance, and it has to go both ways. Managers should provide frequent constructive feedback to employees in the flow of work. At the same time, employees need to provide feedback regarding workflows, processes, or tasks that may be slowing them down.

When managers can communicate effectively, including listening attentively and respectfully to their reports, conversations will naturally become more collaborative. Team members will become empowered to share their feedback, trusting that their manager will take it into account when supporting their performance.

Hold Meaningful One-on-One Check-Ins

The recent oversaturation of meetings may prompt managers to believe that check-in meetings are just another waste of time. But meaningful check-ins focused on the work and what the employee needs to get their work done can build up vital trust. And trust between an employee and their supervisor is the key that truly unlocks employee potential. 

When managers and employees communicate frequently in one-on-ones, they create a foundation of trust that empowers them to communicate honestly and collaborate as equals working toward the same goals.

Top 3 Ways to Improve Work Performance Culturally

The prevailing attitudes and cultural norms present in a company have a huge impact on whether employees feel that they can reach their performance potential. Here are the top three ways to improve performance by reshaping the workplace culture.

Prioritize Transparency

Cultural transparency is an essential component of improved employee performance. It empowers everyone to become a strategic thinker. Employees should be able to get a sense of everyone’s performance at the company, as well as where their own contributions fit in.

An objectives and key results (OKR) framework creates transparency around business priorities so that employees can clearly see how their goals connect to the bigger picture. When employees can see the company’s end goals, they can gain a better sense of their own strategic value as part of the whole. With this perspective, employees become more self-aware and can work with their managers on improving their own performance.

Goal alignment software can help create more visibility into the role each employee plays in driving the business strategy. 

Demonstrate Authenticity

In addition to being transparent, the company culture must support and reward authenticity. People quickly pick up on inauthenticity in leadership. Executives and other leaders need to demonstrate the company’s values in their daily actions. Doing so improves the workforce’s levels of respect and loyalty, which helps with engagement and, consequently, performance.

Additionally, leaders must provide genuine recognition to employees for their high performance. Verbal recognition from leaders in a public forum, for example, can enhance an employee’s pride in their work.

Authenticity supports better check-ins between employees and their managers, too. When employees feel safe accepting genuine constructive feedback or offering it themselves, then managers and employees can collaborate to reach better solutions — faster.

Encourage Moon Shots

Moon shots, or stretch goals, are goals that are extremely ambitious and may even seem impossible. Moon shots move employees out of their comfort zones. By encouraging employees to set stretch goals, employers signal that they believe their employees can take big chances and create big changes.

An essential part of this approach is fostering a culture of learning. Employees at all levels should always be setting ambitious learning goals for themselves. Continuous self-improvement should be baked into performance conversations. 

Moon shots can be risky, but they drive big rewards. By empowering employees to work with their managers to set ambitious objectives, the company demonstrates that it values employee contributions beyond the daily grind. 

Reinvent Performance Management

Improving employee performance requires a reinvention of performance management norms and processes. Employees need to feel supported by their managers and empowered to do their best work. 

Employees are more likely to thrive in a work environment that supports a healthy work-life balance. Micromanaging when an employee takes a short break or forcing them to be always “on,” can impact their mental health and motivation — and, consequently, their performance.

By contrast, managers trained to manage performance positively and proactively will draw the best out of your workforce. Improving performance should be a collaboration among HR, managers, and employees. When HR provides clear performance criteria, managers and employees can gauge their progress. 

The true differentiator between adequate and outstanding performance comes from employees’ relationships with their managers. Trust is built into managers’ daily interactions with employees. Managers need to be open, transparent, and trustworthy to prompt employee loyalty. They need to listen effectively, gather employee feedback, and solve problems that could hold employees back.

By embracing a culture of transparency, authenticity, and belief in your employees, your company can establish the right circumstances to improve employee performance. Employees don’t need someone hovering over their shoulder to reach their peak performance. They need the resources and support to achieve their performance potential.