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Improving 2016 Office Performance | Commentary

As congressional offices approach the final quarter of 2015, the dreaded topic of “performance reviews” raises its ugly head. The topic is dreaded in Congress for a few reasons that could include: employees perceive it as unfair, a grading of their work akin to a first-grade report card; managers view it as an annoying requirement with no connection to office goals, or; offices avoid them completely, leaving staff frustrated without any clear and meaningful feedback on their work.

A lot of congressional managers feel hamstrung to incentivize due to budget cuts in recent years. (Few Americans know that congressional offices have cut their budgets by up to 20 percent since 2011.) Yet, research both in the private sector and in Congress shows staff often want more than money. Research by the Congressional Management Foundation and the Society for Human Resource Management shows congressional employees crave more feedback on performance. In a survey of more than 1,400 congressional staff, 70 percent of employees noted feedback on performance was “very important” to their work, yet only 22 percent said they were “very satisfied” with the feedback they received. This points to a great opportunity for managers in Congress to enhance worker performance and retention — but not with the “traditional” performance-review system.

The concept of a performance review is undergoing a massive re-think in the private sector, and most congressional offices that don’t do them or follow an antiquated process would be wise to revamp their systems. The whole directional notion of a “review” (looking backwards) is being replaced with proven performance-management concepts intended to establish individual goals, define metrics for achieving those goals and provide employees with honest, regular feedback.

Instead of the once-a-year “grade” or score employees receive (a system developed when “I Love Lucy” ranked high in TV ratings), a significant number of organizations now advocate an ongoing goal-management system for employees — one that ties each individual’s output to the organization’s strategic goals. The consulting firm Deloitte surprised many in the HR community by scraping its lengthy, annual review forms for its employees and replacing it with four questions. A recent front page Washington Post article outlined how the Fortune 500 company General Electric is exploring moving to a system with supervisors scheduling brief check-in meetings throughout the year to review progress.

So, how would such a system work in congressional offices? First, establish a performance-management form not based solely on a look-back but also a plan-forward concept. The form would ask the employee to answer questions such as: “What goals would you set for yourself for the coming year?” “How do those goals connect with the Member’s strategic goals?” “What can the office do to assist you in reaching your goals?” By allowing the employee to help set the standard and metrics for performance, they have not only bought into the process but helped the manager identify the best areas where their contribution can enhance the member’s goals.

After reviewing an employee’s goal/performance-management form, supervisors should offer constructive feedback. Managers don’t need to accept without comment an employee’s suggested goals — this is a collaborative process with leaders and followers agreeing on an individual’s direction. In a one-on-one session, managers should strive to listen and understand what the employee wants to achieve, encourage professional development and growth opportunities and ensure that both parties understand how the employee’s progress will be measured.

The final point is the most important: If managers initiate in this type of thoughtful, engaging and collaborative interaction with employees just once a year, it will fail — and it’s a waste of your time. No kidding. This kind of process builds expectations in the employee that their progress will be reviewed and that honest feedback will be forthcoming. It’s better not to do any performance management at all.

A successful performance-management system requires quarterly check-ins where supervisors and employees review the completed annual performance-management form, assess progress, and briefly discuss corrections. These do not have to be long meetings — 15 minutes will suffice. But that short meeting will cement progress towards goals and help convince the employee her professional development is also an important goal for the organization.

Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, and a former staffer.

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