MSPB Highlights Best Practices in Performance Management

The Merit Systems Protection Board offered advice Wednesday on how best to improve employees’ performance, encouraging managers to provide “continuous” feedback and discouraging micromanagement.

In a research brief, the MSPB said employees are most poised to thrive when offered a “balance of feedback and autonomy.” Although the government primarily operates through annual review process, the agency noted that managers should provide federal workers with much more frequent feedback on their performance, using forward-thinking and specific examples.

“Research shows that general feedback or scattershot feedback may serve to distract an employee from the goal, while feedback that is timely, specific and future-oriented ‘allows performers to diagnose performance problems and to adjust strategies as needed,’” MSPB wrote.

Data from the 2016 Merit Principles Surveys backs up this claim. It found that respondents who received timely and constructive feedback were more than twice as likely to report stronger “performance behaviors” than those who only saw moderate or weak feedback. Frequent feedback also has the effect of reducing the chance that an employee will be caught off guard in an annual review, or feel they were treated unfairly.

Additionally, feedback must not be too prescriptive, lest it be seen as micromanagement, MSPB wrote. If employees feel free in how they approach their job, they will be more motivated to perform well.

“Research shows that, generally, the more freedom employees have to make decisions and to direct their work activities, the greater their motivation to perform that work,” the agency wrote.

As with the data on feedback, respondents to a 2016 survey who reported having strong autonomy were twice as likely to say they had stronger performance behaviors than those who said they had moderate or weaker autonomy.

Autonomy and feedback must happen in balance, however. While too much feedback leads to micromanagement, too much autonomy is also detrimental to employee success.

“One way in which feedback fosters positive outcomes is by providing structure to the autonomy,” MSPB wrote. “Feedback is a way to tell employees that they have ownership. Too little feedback, and an employee may feel frustrated by the lack of direction. Too much, and an employee may feel like an automaton.”

Both autonomy and feedback can be used to produce an overall sense of purpose in an employee, which MSPB said can further improve their performance. The combination of forward-looking feedback and a feeling of being able to direct their own work helps an employee understand how they contribute to an agency’s mission.

“As expressed in the preamble to the Constitution, the purpose of the government includes establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense and promoting the general welfare,” MSPB wrote. “Communications from supervisors can help employees see how they serve that meaning. Conversely, poor managers can create the impression that the work being performed is meaningless to that larger, more important agency mission.”

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