The term “performance management” often strikes fear in the hearts of supervisors and employees alike. They tend to think about the dreaded performance appraisal process and the formal system requirements that involve developing detailed standards and documentation. They also think about past conversations that were intended to provide constructive feedback but fell short of being useful.

Supervisors at all levels tend to worry about the process, but frequently overlook the fact that effective performance management has much more to do with building productive working relationships with your employees and less to do with the process requirements. Many employees actually long to have meaningful feedback on their day-to-day responsibilities and a discussion about their long-term aspirations and development.

Given demands for accountability and efficiency faced by federal leaders, we can do better. We need leaders to adopt strong performance management approaches to motivate the workforce, increase productivity and ensure high-quality services are being delivered to Americans. Those approaches, however, are about developing skills and establishing an environment that will engender real two-way communication and collaboration, build trust and provide a focus on the mission.

Ever the optimist, I’m pleased to report that there is hope. During the past year, my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, and PDRI, a talent management firm, worked with units at the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to implement small but meaningful changes around improving communication, feedback and trust among supervisors and employees.

If you and your team are interested in moving beyond the formal process that is focused almost exclusively on rating scales and documentation requirements to something that drives individual and organizational results, you might benefit from some of the lessons learned at SSA and the VA.

  • Performance management starts with leadershipCreating a new or improved process requires leaders who have the passion, time and capacity to see things through from the initial idea to implementation. Of course, you need a senior leader who wants to improve performance management, but leaders at all levels must be willing to assist with the transformation. SSA and the VA used a set of their Emerging HR Leaders – participants in a year-long professional development program for human resources professionals – to create content, lead workshops, increase employee interest and participation and to solicit feedback around what worked or didn’t work as their pilot project unfolded.
  • Leaders need to empower staff—The small SSA and the VA offices taking part in the pilots didn’t rely on their leaders alone to transform their performance management systems. Instead, they worked with employees at all levels. At SSA, a dedicated team interviewed employees to develop new performance management tools and coach supervisors on the best approach to performance reviews. At the VA, where many employees work remotely, they used virtual sessions to engage participants in the conversation. Engaging these employees ensured that they knew why things were changing in addition to what would be changing.
  • Pick the right, small team to start the process New efforts, particularly performance management changes, tend to fail because they are rushed into agency-wide implementation. In this instance, the SSA and VA teams picked groups that were open to change, practiced a new framework, and continuously refined their processes based on experience. Only after you start small can you successfully grow big. After the pilot, the VA integrated its new approaches into the agency’s action plan for the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. At SSA, the team of Emerging HR Leaders began creating an ongoing training program highlighting the customized, soft-skills approach to performance management that worked so well in the pilot.
  • Realize now that the work never ends—The best performance management approach is the one that is continuously being refined based on supervisor and employee feedback. The offices at the SSA and the VA were committed to gathering feedback throughout the pilots to regularly improve their processes, and they learned that trust between supervisors and employees grew stronger as a result. Employees appreciated their managers’ attention to real performance management and the opportunity to be heard. Supervisors were grateful for the insights and guidance they received from employees about what they really wanted to get out of their performance conversations. As a result, they were able to close the communications divide that too often separates supervisors from employees.

These ideas represent a starting point for improving your agency’s or team’s approach to performance management. Of course feel free to share your own stories by commenting below. You can also send me an e-mail at

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

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