Pinning Waves Upon the Sand

I have written previously about how metrics are crucial in the world of performance management. Used well, they create a yardstick by which all employees are evaluated. The very act of measuring the right things can lead to better results.

Though we are reluctant to admit it, most managers do a poor job of objectively measuring performance. Observing and recording employee behaviour is hard work. We can’t watch every member of our team at all times. Our observations and memories drift toward the big wins and the big screwups. We focus on what’s easily measured rather than what’s most important. Keeping track of performance can feel like a herculean task!

The goal is to help every employee improve and grow. Employees can’t do that without good feedback from their manager. Managers, in turn, can’t provide good feedback without solid, objective metrics. Creating these measures doesn’t need to be complex or burdensome, even for so-called ‘soft skills’.

The Manager’s and Supervisor’s guide to performance management, published by Treasury Board, notes that there’s more to performance management than simply what gets done:

“In performance management, competencies make explicit that how work gets done is just as important as what work gets done. An employee may meet his or her work objectives, but if in doing so he or she breaches the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector or professional standards, alienates colleagues, or wastes public resources, problems are likely to arise that can undermine workforce productivity and damage the reputation of the federal public service.” (emphasis mine)

Managers are expected to evaluate their employees’ core competencies on a regular basis as a part of effective performance management. We can’t just measure work outcomes – we have to measure how the work gets done too.

The idea of measuring competencies is daunting. That said, competencies are only the behaviours required of an employee to perform a job successfully. Behaviours are easier to report on – they comprise the words we say, how we say them, our facial expressions, and our body language. Unlike thoughts, emotions, and attitudes, behaviours are always observable.

Some competencies are job-specific, others less so. Treasury Board has defined four core competencies for all employees:

  • Demonstrating integrity and respect;
  • Thinking things through;
  • Working effectively with others; and
  • Showing initiative and being action-oriented.

To measure each competency, decide upon specific behaviours you will look for. Ideally, have a conversation with your team about what effective competencies might look like and what behaviours would demonstrate each competency.

Let’s say you want to measure effectiveness working with others. One element of this competency is active listening. An observable element of active listening is an interruption – when someone starts speaking before the speaker has finished. On the whole, people who interrupt less are listening more effectively than people who interrupt more often.

How might you measure interruptions? It’s simpler than you might think. You could list each employee’s name at the top of a page in your notebook, and start a tally for each employee. Each time an someone interrupts during your staff meetings, add a tick next to the name of the offender.

At the end of the meeting, it might look like this:

To be clear, this shouldn’t be a secret to your team! Tell them exactly what you’re doing and why. If you’re making notes on the number of interruptions, and your team knows that it’s an undesirable behaviour, the very act of keeping the notes will help improve the team’s performance!

After one meeting your tally sheet won’t tell you much, but patterns will emerge over time. You’ll build up data to back up your feedback and performance conversations with staff.

For example, if you find that Tony interrupts twice as often as anybody else, you can provide him that feedback and coach him on interrupting less. You will know, and have documentation, that Tony works less effectively with others than his colleagues. You’ll also have a clear way to measure his improvement over time.

You might argue that you can’t measure every behaviour of every employee – that’s certainly true. Tallying key behaviours, though, can help you to focus your attention and simplify reporting. We can’t record everything that happens, nor are we expected to do so.

Over time, tally sheets can become an informal record of employee performance – one that will make it much simpler to write formal end-of-year performance reviews.

How will you measure your team members’ competencies? If you start recording your observations this week, you’ll make your job much easier at the end of the fiscal year!

Next month I’ll explore how low-tech documentation in a paper notebook can support the high-tech requirements of online performance reporting.

George Wenzel George Wenzel was a journeyman public servant and is now working at a not-for-profit – pursuing his passions in what will be his fifth career. He recently completed a two-year secondment to the National Managers’ Community as the Alberta Regional Coordinator. You can find him online at,, and on Twitter @georgewenzel.


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