Helene Vermaak, director at The Human Edge says that culture is one of the most important factors that regulates individual performance. Many companies are conducting performance appraisals as the end of the year approaches. “The culture, values, and belief system of a company may drive or limit performance based on how the organisation conducts daily business,” says Vermaak.

Similar to tablet devices and mobile phones, Vermaak says that each company has a cultural operating system, or COS which guides organisational behaviour.  For example, executives may write cultural mandates that direct employees to take initiative, speak candidly, and act as a team. Yet when observing the employees, it is clear that the unwritten rules are – avoid risk, defer to the boss and stay in your silo.

Vermaak says that when it comes to performance appraisals, the best performing company cultures promote ‘crucial conversations’ when problems arise and encourage employees to provide regular feedback and hold accountability conversations whenever necessary – not only on an annual basis. In the opposite extreme, poor performing cultures show that when problems arise, employees are often silent. When appraisal time comes, that person is often ignored or even transferred to avoid conflict.

Vermaak offers five steps to ensuring a constructive and sustainable performance management system:

1. Manage the ‘hazardous half minute’

The ‘hazardous half minute’ is described as the first few seconds that sets the tone for the rest of accountability conversations. Vermaak says that the way people typically begin an accountability conversation is often designed to create new problems as opposed to correcting them. She encourages managers to ‘rehearse’ the opening statement of any appraisal and focus on encouraging dialogue.

2. Beware of the bad beginning

Don’t start a performance conversation with any of the following:

  • An accusation
  • A statement of emotion
  • Conclusions or judgments
  • Games (“guess what I’m thinking”)
    • Traps or “leading questions”
    • “Hot words”

3. Make it safe

Vermaak says that it is common for accountability or performance conversations to make both employees and managers take a defensive stance. Create and maintain ‘safety’ in the dialogue by sharing your good intent. The idea is to voice mutual intent through statements like, ‘you know that I care about your goals’ and more importantly, mutual respect through statements like, ‘you know that I care about you’.

4. Mind the gap!

It’s vital to be able to define the gap between what was expected of the employee over the period under discussion, versus what actually happened. Vermaak says that a performance problem is the gap between desired results and actual results.  In instances where accountability conversations aren’t held regularly, this gap can come as a surprise to employees. In preparation for the performance appraisals, managers are required to gather the facts and then present these to the employee in a factual manner. Focus on those behaviours and occurrences that are observable and quantifiable and don’t relay any judgement or hearsay.

5. Clarify expectations and agree on a plan

Critical to the performance appraisal process is the creation of a plan to close the gap. Dialogue is crucial in this phase to clarify expectations, ensure both parties understand the gap, as well as the plan. Preparation is therefore critical in steps 4 and 5 to ensure that a manager is clear on what exact areas improvement is expected in.  If the plan is collaborative, and worked on by both manager and employee during the session, the likelihood of success is much greater.

“In many instances, we hear of ‘dejá-vu’ performance reviews in which negative feedback is discussed year after year with little effect on performance. One reason performance reviews are largely ineffective is employees lack the ability to put their performance feedback in action. In fact, the majority of candidates say they left their review without a plan for how to better meet their managers’ expectations,” says Vermaak.

“If you avoid holding others accountable then you’re part of the problem,” continues Vermaak. “If you intimidate when you hold others accountable, you exacerbate conflict and are also part of the problem. Learning to resolve conflict will dramatically improve both results and relationships.”