Setting clear performance standards

“I didn’t know what you expected … Well, no one told me to do it that way!” Have you heard this complaint before? Probably so.

As a manager, you’ve likely had to confront employees when they aren’t doing what they need to—only to have them respond defensively. The best way—maybe the only way—to prevent such frustration is to have clear performance standards that describe the way work must be done to be satisfactory. Without these standards, your workers are not just more liable to make errors or otherwise fall short on performance. They’re also unable to know the difference themselves—meaning more work for you as a manager.

Let’s say part of an employee’s job is to complete a monthly report used by a number of managers and teams. So far, the reports have been adequate, but you’d really like more data that will highlight the patterns that might turn into problems for the enterprise in the future. So you’ve been rounding up and adding that information yourself.

Who loses in this situation? You both do. The employee isn’t doing as good a job as you need, and you spend time doing a task that the employee can handle. In fact, it may be a task that the employee would like to handle, or one that he or she could do a lot better than you do. The solution? Set a clearer performance standard. Here’s what that means:

Describe how you want the work done. A perfor­mance standard tells not “what” but “how”—how much, how soon, how well. It focuses on behavior, not attitudes.

A performance standard should tell workers what they need to know to take charge of their own performance—particularly the things they can’t be expected to already know or figure out on their own. Even skilled and motivated workers may have no idea that they’re not doing a job properly.

Get the employee’s agreement. Ask workers to provide input and insight as you craft standards. Make sure they understand why your standards are reasonable and practical, and why failing to meet them will cause problems. Then put the standards in writing and get the employees to sign off.

Communicate in advance. Don’t ask employees to figure out your expectations for a certain task by trial and error. When new employees come on the job, or when old employees take on new assign­ments, sit down with them. Give them a specific picture of what the task requires.

Say, “Our goal is to complete 50 service calls a day. Would you agree to handle 10 of them?” Or “We allow only two rejects out of 100 pieces produced.” Or “When each job comes in, find out how it needs to be processed and whether we need to bring in outside vendors.” These are all standards that tell workers how to do what you’re asking of them.

Without clear standards, your workers are not just more liable to fall short on performance. They’re also unable to know the difference themselves—meaning more work for you.

Start with the job description. Performance stan­dards are not the same as a job description, which is typically a simple list of tasks. description may sometimes indicate how a task is to be per­formed—for example, that it involves working with others—but it’s unlikely to include the information a worker needs to do the task properly.

For each task on the job description, you need to ask, “How will employees know that they’ve done the work the way they need to?” That answer is the basis of your performance standard.

Make standards easy to understand. Standards should be specific, ideally measurable, and include only factors within the employee’s control.

Make it easy for employees to know they’ve met the standard. “I need six to eight examples listed from at least two different sources.” “Every time a medication is dispensed, record it here.”

A ‘standard’ or an ‘expectation’?

As managers, we often see the words “standards” and “expectations” used interchangeably. Really, though, the words mean different things, and the difference is one that can be of value to us as managers.

A “standard” describes what an employee needs to do. This doesn’t only mean the bare minimum of what constitutes acceptable performance. You can have “standards” that describe and guide employees to performance well above a minimum level.

In fact, you’ll probably need clear performance standards to help workers tackle and succeed at more ambitious tasks and projects. But those standards still refer to what’s required of the employee; they describe the inputs nec­essary to produce a positive outcome.

An “expectation,” on the other hand, refers to what you think an employee can do. It is the positive outcome you’d like to see achieved by following performance standards. Assuming those standards are properly crafted and the work itself doesn’t change, they’re going to remain fairly constant. Your expecta­tions, though, should be constantly evolving, motivating your employees to stretch and excel and come closer to ever more ambitious performance goals.

That’s why the difference between “standards” and “expectations” is important. As a manager, you’ll find that where performance is concerned, you often can only get what you expect. You should expect employees to grow and achieve, to develop their skills and suc­cessfully assume greater responsibilities. Meeting your performance standards, important as it is, will not in itself spur workers toward excellence. That’s where your expectations come in.