2011-03-14 18:14:12

Convince employees to track their own performance

Based on "It's okay to manage your boss" by Bruce Tulgan (Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2010)

After seventeen years of working with leaders in organizations of all shapes and sizes, I can tell you that the most pervasive (and blatant) aspect of under management—in most workplaces— is the failure of managers to monitor and measure employee performance properly in writing on a day to day basis.

Indeed, I spend a large percentage of my time with clients helping HR make the business case for, and then imploring and teaching managers to follow, best practices for documentation. Everywhere I go, it’s like pulling teeth. For any number of reasons, managers often resist.

Then, several years ago, we began trying a new strategy: Instead of just focusing on the managers, we started working also on the issue with employees. We began encouraging and teaching employees to help their managers with documentation by monitoring and measuring their own performance in writing. - Bruce Tulgan


The results have been very impressive

Encouraging and teaching BOTH the managers AND the employees to work together leads to a much higher degree of clear, consistent, accurate and useful documentation. If it’s already extremely difficult to convince managers to consistently document employee performance, then how on earth can you expect to convince your employees to start tracking their own performance?


Here are Eight Reasons that tend to convince employees:

  1. It doesn’t have to be a bunch of cumbersome new paperwork for the employee. Most work can be documented in writing with one or another easy system that will then provide a complete picture of work assigned, expectations set, and work accomplished throughout each day.
  2. Keeping track of performance in writing will help employees add clarity to their working relationship with each manager. Writing down the details of one-on-one conversations with a boss is a good way to avoid misunderstandings about what was said, and when. If employees get in the habit, together with each boss, of tracking one-on-one conversations in writing, then employees and managers are much more likely to stay ‘on the same page.’
  3. Tracking in writing is a very powerful way to create a psychological commitment in both the employee and the boss to the expectations that they agree upon together. The employee and the manager share the experience of creating a written record which can be referred to later so they don’t have to wrestle with competing recollections. Knowing that every expectation is included in a written record creates a lot of pressure on both to live up to the commitments that are made. An important part of that pressure is on the manager to make sure that each and every time an assignment is given, the expectations are spelled out clearly, and the performance being tracked in writing consists of concrete actions within the employee’s control, not simply a bunch of numbers that are disconnected from the day-to-day work.
  4. Written tracking is the key to ongoing performance improvement. Constant evaluation and feedback will help each employee revise and adjust his/her performance, and will help the boss better revise and adjust orders for the employee.
  5. When employees document their own performance, they are in a much stronger position to make the case for receiving more generous rewards or applying for promotions. That’s because they have a detailed written record to help them help their manager make the case.
  6. When employees document their own performance, they are better able to help the boss complete their annual review process in ways that reflect more accurately the employee’s actual day-to-day performance in relation to expectations.
  7. Employees who track their own day-to-day performance very closely have no surprises when the time comes for mid-year and annual reviews.
  8. Employees who are all over the details are powerful because bosses and coworkers consider them self-starting high-performers. That’s because employees who track their own performance have written records going back months or years that reflect their assignments and performance of tasks, responsibilities, and projects. Armed with written tracking records, they are in a position to take on more and more responsibility, make better judgment calls, and take action more effectively in everything they do. They are better able to clarify expectations for themselves and help their bosses set them up for success. They also radically accelerate their ability to increase their own productivity and reduce their error rates even as they take on more and more important work. If things go wrong, they are better able to see exactly where, when and how things went wrong, and demonstrate that they were doing their best every step of the way.


How can employees help managers monitor their performance?

Employees can provide drafts or samples of their work in progress on a regular basis. In the "It's ok to manage your boss" seminars, employees are often told, “If you want to make sure the work you are doing meets your boss’s requirements, don’t wait until a routine review of the work comes along; by then you might discover you’ve been doing a task the wrong way for quite some time.” Even if you have a clear deliverable with a concrete deadline, don’t wait until you deliver the final product to find out if the deliverable meets the expectations. Instead, check with your boss early on to make sure that you are going in the right direction. That means actually showing the boss drafts or samples of what you are doing, not just describing it.

You are much better off having that conversation early and often so that by the time the deadline rolls around for the final deliverable, there will be no surprises.

Any opportunities employees can seize to help their boss spot-check their work will help the employee identify and solve any hidden problems. For example, if an employee manages a database, the employee could ask the boss to walk through some records at random to spot-check them for quality. If an employee writes reports, she could ask the boss to look at early drafts or draft sections. If the employee makes phone calls, he could ask the boss for permission to record the calls and ask the boss to listen to a random sample together to provide guidance and direction. If an employee makes widgets, she could ask the boss to look at some half-done widgets to see how they are coming along.

Another option for employees is simply asking the boss to watch them work for a while. To make absolutely sure an employee is accomplishing a task the way the boss wants it done, especially if the employee is not responsible for producing a tangible end product, one of the most effective ways to get that clarity is to get the manager to watch the employee work. Watching an employee complete a task will give the manager a clear view of what the employee is doing and how the employee is doing it. For example, if an employee is in a customer service role, having the boss watch the employee interact with a customer will tell the boss more about the employee’s customer service performance than any batch of customer feedback surveys. In particular, if an employee is having difficulty succeeding with a specific task, it can be very helpful for the boss to simply “shadow” the employee to see what’s going wrong. If the boss is really good at the task, she might have some good advice for doing it better.

On a day to day basis, employees would be wise to give their boss an executive summary account of their own performance. In every one-on-one conversation with every boss, employees should be providing a full and honest account of exactly what they’ve done on assignments for that boss since the last conversation: “These are the concrete actions I’ve taken. This is what I did and how I did it. These are the steps I followed in order to meet or exceed the expectations we set together.” Once the employee has given a full and honest account, it will be easier for the employee and the boss to clarify next steps. As long as they are engaged in an ongoing, consistent one-on-one dialogue, this element of helping your boss monitor performance will become routine.

Don’t forget self-monitoring tools. Employees can help the boss keep track of their concrete actions by making good, rigorous use of self-monitoring tools like project plans, checklists, and activity logs. Employees should monitor in writing whenever they are meeting the goals and deadlines laid out in that project plan. Employees should make notes and use checklists and report to the boss at regular intervals. Employees should use activity logs, which are diaries noting contemporaneously exactly what they are doing all day, including breaks and interruptions. Each time they move on to a new activity, note the time and the new activity they are turning to.

Finally, employees in the "It's ok to manage your boss" seminars are told, “If all else fails, spread the word about your own success by doing a great job, getting a great reputation, and gathering positive feedback.” Employees can ask customers, vendors, coworkers, and everyone else they work with to give them honest feedback about their performance. Employees should ask, in writing, ‘How am I doing?’ and consider passing the responses on to the boss. Remember, one of the most consistent sources of information most bosses have about the work of their employees is hearsay. People talk. Word spreads. Employees should know what people think about their work and use that data as feedback to help them improve. But this feedback will also be important to pass on to the boss so that the employee has some input in the general hearsay about his/her work.


Teach employees how to document their own performance

We all know that most managers rarely document performance unless they are required to do so. In fact, other than the inadvertent paper trail of automatically recorded data, notes, paperwork, end-product reviews, and, e-mail correspondence, there is a good chance that most of an employee’s day-to-day work is not documented by anyone. The bulk of most of an employee’s formal personnel file probably consists of mid-year and annual reviews, maybe some annually updated development plans, rankings if the company ranks employees, numbers if they are tracked, occasional nominations for bonuses and awards, and, of course, any formal write-ups of misconduct or persistent failure.

Still, in the regular course of business, managers do accumulate random documentation. Take e-mail for example. E -mail messages probably already document the details of much of many employees’ day-to-day performance. When managers and employees use e-mail, especially in dialogue, they create detailed contemporaneous records that may well spell out expectations, evaluate work in progress, and record praise for or criticism of an employee’s work. Employees and managers alike should be aware of that fact and keep their own paper trails of saved e-mails organized in folders.

When do most managers most rigorously document performance? We all know that it’s often not until an employee has demonstrated serious performance problems for some period of time. In such situations, HR provides managers with a formal process for documenting the employee’s problematic performance or behaviour. This formal documentation process is intended to help the manager meet the requirements for taking disciplinary action. The process usually includes a date and time log for recording verbal requests and verbal warnings, as well as a process for written warnings. Usually, after the second or third written warning, the manager can put the employee on what HR professionals call a “PIP,” which stands for “performance improvement plan.”

Here’s how the typical PIP works: The manager and the problem employee meet to spell out in minute detail vividly clear expectations and to work out a plan for what the employee needs to do to improve performance. Goals are broken down into concrete steps and to-do lists with tight deadlines and guidelines, and parameters are put in no uncertain terms. Every week, or sometimes every day, the manager sits down with the employee to evaluate exactly how the employee’s performance has met the expectations in the PIP. In other words, this process actually forces the employee and the manager to engage in the kind of performance tracking they should have been doing together every step of the way!

Instead of waiting for a performance problem to rear its ugly head, every employee should put himself on a PIP. Call it something else if you like. How about a ‘Continuous Improvement Plan’? Whatever you call it, this is the perfect format for employees to help their boss document their performance every step of the way: Together with the boss, the employee should spell out expectations for performance in terms of concrete actions that the employee can control. The employee should keep track in writing as the employee completes each to-do item and meets each requirement, as the employee achieves each goal and beats each deadline. The employee should regularly report to the boss exactly how and when the concrete actions met or exceeded the expectations set together.

Employees need to work out a tracking system for documenting work for every single boss. But the last thing you or your boss want or need is a bunch of cumbersome paperwork that slows everything down. Work out a system that is simple, practical, and easy to use so you and your boss can stick with it.


Whether a paper notebook or an electronic tool is used, the key is to capture certain key pieces of information: 

  • Expectations. Goals and requirements that were spelled out. Instructions given or to-do lists assigned. Standard operating procedures, rules, or guidelines reviewed. Deadlines set and timelines established.
  • Concrete actions. The employee’s actual work as he completes each to-do item, achieves each goal, fulfills each requirement, and meets each deadline.
  • Measurements. How the concrete actions are matching up against the expectations: Has the employee met or exceeded requirements? Did the employee follow instructions, standard operating procedures, and rules? Did the employee meet the goals on time?

Never write down anything personal about a boss, a coworker, a customer, a vendor, or anyone else. Focus on keeping notes about your work, and your work alone. Employees should use specific, descriptive language, such as, ‘Followed Interviewing Guidelines to interview three job applicants,’ or ‘Submitted final report for XYZ project three days before the deadline’. Don’t use vague language or broad “naming” words like ‘slow,’ ‘successful,’ ‘good,’ ‘sloppy,’ ‘incomplete,’ or ‘difficult.’ The key is to stick to clear descriptions of concrete actions in terms of goals, guidelines, and deadlines.

Sometimes employees ask, “When should I document my performance?”  The answer is simple. Document your performance every step of the way. During your one-one-one meetings with the boss, make notes as necessary. Then make notes immediately after the conversation. In between the one-on-one meetings, keep notes of anything of consequence. As you think of things you want to report on or ask about in your next meeting, write them down. Before each one-on-one meeting, check your notes from the last session and make notes in preparation for the meeting. During your one-on-ones, use your written documentation as a visual aid and point of reference.


Reprinted with the permission of Bruce Tulgan, an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management training firm. Bruce is the author of the classic Managing Generation X as well as the best seller It’s Okay to be the Boss, and many other books. His work has been the subject of thousands of news stories around the world. He has written pieces for numerous publications, including the New York Times, USA Today, the Harvard Business Review, and Human Resources. He lives with his wife, Dr. Debby Applegate, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for her book The Most Famous Man in America. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]. His free weekly workplace video is available at www.rainmakerthinking.com.



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