Performance Management as a New Manager: How to Assess (Part III)

This is part 3 of 6 in a series that gives guidance on how to manage employee performance for new product design managers — or those facing performance management situations for the first time.

← Read the previous article: “Performance Management as a New Manager: Who to Involve (Part II)

When you’re managing a team member’s performance, how do you assess the situation in order to understand the severity and urgency? Here’s what you should and shouldn’t do.

Don’t: Make assumptions or jump to conclusions

When you first encounter a situation that looks like it requires performance management, it’s easy to take first impressions as definitive. You may feel obliged to jump into action mode. However, your job is to make sure that what’s being surfaced is both real and relevant, and you’ll eventually need this assessment to create a plan.

Do: Take the time to thoroughly evaluate the situation

Start by asking a few key questions to determine the relevance and severity of the situation. The following prompts will help you gain enough context to decide the importance and urgency, as well as inform the plan.

Is this the first time the behavior or scenario has happened?

If so, this may not be a performance management case, but may simply need feedback. Feedback is an element of performance management, but is also an element of all performance, whether positive or questionable. When it’s the first-time the behavior has occurred, you’ll want to encourage the people involved to give feedback directly, or in some cases, you’ll need to deliver it yourself.

The SBI model by the Center for Creative Leadership is an exceptional feedback model, by very simply articulating the following:

  • Situation: describing the specific situation in which the behavior occurred.
  • Behavior: describing the actual observable behavior.
  • Impact: describing the results of the behavior.

For example, if your team member fails to get feedback and another teammate has to step in to revise, the feedback should be something like: “When you chose not to present in the last two critiques and moved forward without getting feedback, your teammate had to step in for you, causing them to lose momentum on their project, and it was also really frustrating for them.”

SBI Feedback example

This will also give you a chance to learn about the team member’s intent — what they had hoped to accomplish — and what the context was. To learn about this, when you give or follow up on feedback, ask your team member open-ended questions like the following:

  • “What was behind that?”
  • “What was going on there?”
  • “What do you think the cause was?”

Is the situation demonstrating repeated scenarios or patterns of behavior?

Essentially, you’re looking to determine if this is a one off or if it’s something that’s become or is becoming problematic.

Keep in mind that someone who receives a lot of constructive feedback isn’t necessarily an under-performer. Feedback is vital to anyone’s career development, and all of us have areas to grow in. In order to to qualify as a performance problem, a team member will be receiving feedback on the same area, and it will coalesce into a theme. If the SBI model has been used consistently, you’ll find it relatively simple to collect and document feedback instances in the past and any actions that have been taken to determine deeper or broader themes.

In performance management — where a scenario or pattern of behavior is recurring — intent and context are also critical to understanding the whole picture and setting up your team member in a way that makes it possible and motivational for them to succeed. Look for repetition and patterns here as well.

Are there consequences to this situation?

Here, we’re trying to determine how grim the situation is. Consequences could be a wide range of things from social and emotional costs like other people’s reactions, feelings and perceptions to business costs like losing time or revenue.

Using our previous example, a team member who works overly independently and fails to get feedback on progress may cause another teammate to have to step in and revise the solution at hand. This is of consequence because it’s costing not only the time it takes to revise the work, but also the time it takes for the other teammate to ramp up on the problem and solution space, not to mention the cost on team dynamics.

Defining the costs will help you approach your team member and help them understand the implications of the situation, particularly if it continues on. If there are no clear consequences, you may need to explore why the situation has been either brought to your attention or why you feel it is consequential, and you can do so by consulting your advisors or your approvers.

Is it a requirement?

This question is ultimately asking “does this matter?” If you’re fortunate enough to have documented expectations for roles and levels, this may be a simple act of placing the situation in its relevant bucket — what I’ll call “domains”. If you don’t have these articulated, it will be helpful to get something in place. Product designers are generally held accountable for design strategy that leads to business and customer impact, collaboration, communication and other facets of culture, and the craft and process of design.

Example situations and costs with domain

Be sure to look at the domain for both the situation and the cost in order to get a full picture of both the direct and indirect domains affected. Extending the example from above, if your team member has failed to get feedback, you may be looking at a collaboration or design process domain. This might be easy to place, because we know that collaboration and feedback are part of a product designer’s role. Looking at the costs — for example, if another teammate has to step in — the domains are compounded. Now the other teammate has to step away from their project and its associated impact. That teammate might also become frustrated because they’re asked to pick up the slack, which could affect team culture.

On the flip side, beware of situations that don’t have costs or domains. As examples, if one of your team members repeatedly isn’t available in the evenings, uses a colloquial phrase that may seem annoying, or asks a lot of questions; be sure to determine whether there’s cost and if it’s a requirement you can place in a domain. Some things are simply not of consequence or are not required, either in a role or in a level.

Have you checked for bias?

Unfortunately, all of us as humans carry biases, whether they’re conscious or unconscious. As a leader, you need to hold yourself and others around you accountable for bias, prejudice, and extreme-yet-often-subtle acts like bullying. I’d highly recommend reading or listening to Kim Scott’s book Just Work: How to Confront Bias, Prejudice, and Bullying to Build a Culture of Inclusivity to develop expertise. Ultimately, you need to leave space open for what you’re observing or hearing to be only part of the story, and that it may be colored with negative perspective or experience.

Do you have thorough details and context on the scenario?

Whether you’re observing a situation or someone else is bringing it to your attention, you need to make sure you have enough data to synthesize into a plan. One of the easiest mistakes to make is to fail to talk to your team member directly, be sure to do so if you haven’t already!

By completing a thorough assessment of the situation, you’ll be ready to create an effective plan.

→ Read the next article: “Performance Management as a New Manager: How to Create a Plan (Part IV)

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Senior Design Director at Dropbox, Dabbler in Writing, Champagne Enthusiast

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Jasmine Friedl

Jasmine Friedl

Senior Design Director at Dropbox, Dabbler in Writing, Champagne Enthusiast