Challenging Employee Excellence to Achieve Company Preeminence
When it comes to challenging employees to excel, any company can raise the bar. You don’t need an operation that is large in size--but you do require a clear grasp of the steps and rationale behind attaining the best possible performance from your staff. Accordingly, the following eight steps summarize the basics of continually encouraging employees to perform at their best:
- Clarify job definitions. First you need a clear definition of the requirements and objectives of each staff position and the skills necessary to fulfill them. Only then can you establish a framework and criteria for categorizing, benchmarking, and rewarding staff achievements in a systematic way--the main nuts and bolts of exciting staff to excel.
- Establish or revamp your performance-evaluation system. When reviewing your evaluation criteria, keep in mind the old saying “What gets measured gets done.” The criteria need to be factual, quantifiable, and intelligible (rather than subjective, emotional, and mysterious), because it is absolutely critical for staff to trust your performance-evaluation system and perceive it as valid, transparent, and fair.
Thus, as far as possible, you must eliminate from your system any loopholes that would invite accusations of favoritism, lack of integrity, or rating inflation to make certain people or everyone in general look good. And again for credibility, whatever methodology you adopt must make meaningful distinctions among top, good, mediocre, and poor performers.
- Communicate your performance-evaluation system to your management team. Review not only your performance-evaluation system but also your corporate vision and human-resource objectives carefully with department managers and supervisors. It is vital that they be knowledgeable about all three and feel comfortable applying them.
Otherwise, a performance-evaluation system can merely amount to a Band-Aid solution of rewards and punishments, lacking the depth to be beneficial. And a deeper problem may be staff’s lack of trust in the company and/or management, lack of clarity about the company's vision, or lack of understanding of what staff's own jobs or the jobs of the others they supervise entail. When evaluation-management systems prove unsuccessful, staff commonly blame supervisory incompetence. They feel that their superiors do not or cannot evaluate their work fairly, often complaining that the managers evaluating them don’t even understand the work they do. While most often this perception isn’t factual, it nevertheless drives its own destructive reality.
Managers and supervisors also need systematic instruction on how to evaluate employees in a manner that is supportive and non-adversarial. Workers need to see their bosses backing them up, supporting, encouraging, and coaching them, instead of merely dispensing judgment or blame.
- Communicate your performance-evaluation system to staff. Talk to employees individually to establish personal performance expectations and the specific rewards they can earn. Make sure everyone is aware of his or her own job goals and objectives, including: desired outcome, performance necessary to achieve the outcome, clear plan to achieve the outcome, real benefit to the company, and real benefit to the employee.
Employees also need to know clearly their prospects for professional development in your company. Employers sometimes face the dilemma that a person who is excelling in his or her role can be a strong anchor, so the employer may tend to confine such achievers to their present jobs instead of rewarding them with promotions. But good employees like and deserve to be challenged to do better, acknowledged for their achievements, then challenged again. Admittedly, sometimes such an infinite progression is not possible within the context of a company’s business; and for the sake of justice, both employer and employee need to recognize openly when it is time for employees to move on if they wish to continue progressing professionally.
- Know your people. Assess both existing human resources and potential new hires who can either hit the ground running or who have the aptitude, attitude, and desire to accelerate their careers through training.
Additionally, learn what specifically motivates your employees to excel. Research shows that companies with successful HR strategies provide incentives and rewards that are genuinely meaningful to their staff. After all, there is no point offering what you incorrectly believe are carrots to employees if the employees won’t bite.
Remember that rewards do not always have to be financial; for example, certain people find public recognition even sweeter than money. Or if raises or promotions are impossible, consider job enrichment: making a top performer’s job more interesting or varied, conferring more desired responsibility, or building in more motivators such as autonomy. For example, you might ask your top people to mentor or coach selected juniors—provided you first make sure they have sufficient interest in the task. Alternatively, some top performers might prefer some additional paid time off.
- Set fair & appropriate goals. Indisputably, not all people are equal, and this fact presents a special challenge for supervisors and managers. The primary risk of mishandling employees with differing abilities is that good people may leave the company because they feel they are not being treated fairly.
We saw a prime example recently in an equipment operator who came to us for assistance with a career move. His current employer’s stated productivity objective was to continually decrease make-ready times and increase run speed. This employer was constantly pushing him and other highly capable operators to achieve higher run speeds. As soon as they attained one threshold, they were immediately challenged with a higher one. But at the same time, the employer didn’t even monitor the run speeds of other operators on the same equipment who lacked the same level of proficiency—let alone challenge the inferior operators to improve.
While the capable operators were proud of their achievements, they also felt exploited, especially since less proficient staff were not even admonished for underachieving. In fact, good employees often feel that companies are taking advantage of their expertise (translate punishing them for excellence) rather than rewarding them for it.
Hence, it is imperative not to exploit the cream. Don’t set higher expectations for your prime achievers or exert unfair pressure on them while letting the underachievers coast. Be sure to understand, benchmark, and reward each employee’s present level of achievement appropriately; then set goals for each employee individually that are challenging but achievable.
- Follow through. For the sake of credibility, make sure you do as you promised by implementing not just the rewards but also the corrective measures your performance-management system requires. One you have determined skills gaps among staff, identify and apply the training, coaching, management, or dismissal measures needed to eliminate them.
Again, corrective measures should be supportive whenever possible. For instance, mediocre and poor performers often need clarification of their work standards to rise above their present level. Here job aids like benchmark matrixes, templates and checklists are helpful, because they translate into simple, consistent steps that underachievers can apply immediately in their day-to-day jobs.
- Manage risks when posting, promoting, & hiring
Many hiring managers feel that posting positions internally is valuable, because it demonstrates that their company offers career development to existing staff. A challenge arises, however, if one or more employees apply to a posting who are unqualified or unsuited to the position, or if an external candidate proves more suitable than internal applicants for the role. A major risk in this scenario is that a valued employee will become disgruntled by the hiring episode and leave. Employees frequently tell us (rightly or wrongly but often resentfully) that they feel they have been passed over for promotion without good reason, and their career was hindered as a result.
For this reason, when a position becomes available in your company, instead of posting internally, it may be preferable to select potential internal candidates and manage how they are approached—and how other employees are not—to minimize misunderstandings, accusations of unfairness, and hurt feelings as far as possible. And whatever your recruitment method, it is helpful to make your selection contest as open and transparent as possible to avoid perceived injustices.
Sometimes hiring externally is indeed the most desirable option. Sometimes a role and its incumbent become stagnant, making it necessary to put someone new in the position to infuse it with new adrenaline. (One business consultant we know feels that a company leader should remain in place only for about five years; then it’s time for a revitalized outlook.) But if hiring externally seems impractical or dicey, senior people can instead delegate responsibilities differently among existing personnel to infuse new blood into pivotal roles.
A further consideration is that, although initially an external hire or new transfer must always earn the trust of staff in a new team or environment, the newcomer’s challenges can be greatly exacerbated if the selection process is not well communicated or the new person’s introduction not well handled. In all cases, the solution is always for hiring managers to plan ahead, delineate job requirements and selection criteria clearly, and perform appropriate, proactive damage control when needed.