Employee Development Best Practices for Enhancing Job Performance

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Graph upHere’s one of those misunderstood terms: Employee Development. For management, it’s about improved job performance. For employees, it’s something entirely different: positioning them for a promotion, increased compensation, job mobility. If the needs of all constituents aren’t met, even the most well-intended employee development activities won’t achieve any of the desired objectives.

Here are five best practices in employee development for enhancing job performance and promoting career progress:

Get On the Same Page

Before generating development plans for employees, managers need to find out what employees want to achieve. It means asking, not telling. It further requires linking job performance improvements to future options and possibilities. Great questions managers can ask include:

  • What would you like to do more of in your current job? Less of?
  • What are you not allowed to do that you could and want to do that would make a greater contribution to our organization?
  • What new responsibilities or challenges would make better use of your talents and move you ahead?
  • Two or three years from now, where would you like to be professionally? What do you need to achieve now to accomplish this?
  • What new jobs, roles and so forth, would you like to be better at?
  • What experiences, training, certifications, etc. would you like to obtain?

Reality Check: Are managers sufficiently skillful at initiating a development discussion? Provide just-in-time practice in asking questions, [really] listening to the answers, paraphrasing and summarizing.

Synchronize Objectives

So what do managers do if the employee’s answer is “my goal is becoming proficient at Basket Weaving” (or something else that’s just not in the cards)? Negotiate. But that doesn’t mean coercing … uh … persuading an employee to embrace the manager’s goals. In fact, the very statement “the manager’s goals” dooms the negotiation from the outset. Instead, managers who focus on common interests and design options for mutual gain are far more likely to foster reciprocity, ownership, and commitment with employees.

Reality Check: Helping managers to refrain from positional negotiations (“What I want”) is a good first step; training how to perform principled negations will insure that managers are capable and confident when creating reciprocally beneficial solutions.


Setting SMART goals – Specific, Measurable, Aligned, Realistic and Time Phased is great … if there are ready numbers to plug into the description of the agreed upon developmental objectives. But if goals aren’t easily quantified portrayal, struggling to make them measurable is a bad use of brain cells and time. Instead, make goals SVART© — verifiable – everyone is very clear what the target will look like if achieved. Of course, if there’s a relevant number available, plug it in. And, describe the outcome sufficiently so that it’s confirmable and definite. The last thing manager wants is a trust-busting debate about whether results were achieved.

Reality Check: Painting word pictures to create verifiable goals is, alas, not an intuitive skill. By the way, this also ties back into being Specific – creating a description so vivid as to suggest a mental image. As a starting place, go back to 4th grade grammar (groan). Actions must be described with verbs; adjectives are deeply subjective, highly opinionated and should be avoided. While training on the basics may not be lots of fun, the dividends are remarkable – performance appraisals, warning notices and letters of commendation will communicate the change required at the outset or achieved by the end.

Use What You Have

After agreeing upon goals, managers and employees need to track job performance to know if employees are on target toward achieving their objectives. Keep the tracking system simple and accurate. If overly elaborate, the tracking system becomes the focus of discussion, as opposed to the progress toward goals.

Don’t reinvent the wheel — use calendars, reports, and analyses etc. or adapt them to suit the tracking needs.

Establish milestones and checkpoints in advance; modify if necessary. Break bigger goals and objectives into manageable chunks so they’re less daunting. Reinforce success and quickly intervene if adjustments are necessary.

Reality Check: Managers need to keep in mind the tracking is primarily the employee’s responsibility — after all, it’s his or her objectives. An effective tracking method – besides being agreed-upon — is one the employee feels the information yield is worth the effort of gathering the data.

Use What You Have Part II

There’s lots of muttering that performance appraisals systems are irrevocably broken and do more harm than good. Before scrapping performance reviews entirely, consider making a few changes to make them developmental and futuristic rather than unnecessarily retrospective.

Marshall Goldsmith, PhD. is credited with using the term FeedForward™ to apply to employee development. He differentiates feedback from feedforward this way:

Providing feedback has long been considered to be an essential skill for leaders. As employees strive to achieve the goals of the organization, they need to know how they’re doing — is their performance is in line with what their leaders expect? Employees need to understand what they have done well and what they need to change.

There’s a fundamental problem with feedback: it focuses on the past, on what has already occurred — not on the infinite variety of opportunities that can happen in the future. As such, feedback is limited and static, as opposed to expansive and dynamic.

The purpose of feedforward is to provide individuals, teams, and organizations with suggestions for the future to help them achieve positive changes in performance.

After all, if someone needs coaching, training, or other development, how helpful can it be to wait months to bring it up? Or worse — performance appraisals are too often an excruciatingly retrospective view of an employee’s performance. Imagine this: In March, the supervisor gives the employee feedback. In July, the supervisor provides more feedback. In October, there’s another feedback conversation. And then in January (or whenever the annual performance appraisal discussion is held), the three feedback observations are repeated. Again. And it’s surprising many people think appraisal discussions are demotivating? The past is over – and belaboring it is beating the proverbial dead horse.

Reality Check: During an annual appraisal, briefly assess the past (if you must) and then hold in-depth developmental discussions using feedforward:

  • For performance that exceeds expectations: Celebrate successful performance and prevent complacency — encourage top performers to examine why and how they’ve been successful in order to prepare for new challenges and opportunities.
  • For performance that meets expectations: Thank employees for doing so much of the job and review how to close the gap between meets and exceeds expectations.
  • For performance not meeting expectations: Assess causes and make adjustments while there’s still time to improve. A timely discussion about required improvement prevents unpleasant surprises and conflict during subsequent progress review meetings.

In an era of rapid change, it doesn’t make sense to wait for an annual review to tell employees how they’re doing or repeat what they’ve already been told. Feedforward isn’t an isolated, once-a-year developmental event; it’s integrated into the way business is conducted each day, every day.

The collateral benefit is that organizational culture becomes more candid when developmental feedforward is part of day-to-day functioning. In such organizations, feedforward is viewed as a valuable commodity instead of something that supervisors don’t want to give and employees don’t want to hear.

Ready for some developmental steps forward in 2015? Get On The Same Page, Synchronize Objectives, Get SVART© and Use What You Have (Parts I and II). When managers and employees talk about development, they’ll not only be talking about the same thing, they’ll be positioned to harmonize their expectations, fashion collaborative efforts and meet mutual objectives.


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