As I sat down to write this month’s article, I was reminded of a famous quote (often attributed to Aristotle but more likely the words of author Will Durant writing about Aristotle): “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”
In that spirit, it’s appropriate to delve into employee improvement as we continue our journey down the leadership path. Since we’ve surpassed the halfway point of the calendar year, many supervisors are likely engaged with semiannual performance evaluations, reviews, or counseling for their subordinates. Most public safety agencies have some type of formal evaluation process for employees; however, how many of those programs are used appropriately? Are performance evaluations an effective way to enhance employee performance? What about the manner in which these evaluations or appraisals are completed? Do supervisors take ownership and invest the appropriate amount of time and energy into preparing them? While important for employee development, performance evaluations are only as good as the effort put forth to create them. We can say the same thing about training. Is your agency simply checking a box or going through the motions? Or is your training relevant and developmental in nature?
One factor that sets the tone for how well employees respond to improvement expectations within an organization rests on their level of engagement. In June 2020, Gallup found that “the percentage of ’engaged’ workers in the U.S.—those who are highly involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace” fell to 31%. The same Gallup poll noted actively disengaged employees (those who are miserable at work and spread that misery among coworkers) represented 14% of the workforce and the remaining 54% were “not engaged,” a term Gallup uses to describe employees who put in the minimum effort required. Sadly, the largest decline in employee engagement occurred among those in management or other leadership positions. Gallup attributed the fall in engagement to societal unrest following the death of George Floyd and business uncertainties caused by COVID-19. It’s also possible that remote working conditions took away from the “normal” social structures found within a typical workplace.
Don’t be afraid to solicit input from your subordinates on your performance—just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from your people.
Employee engagement numbers bounce around a little, but since 2000, the percentage of engaged employees as measured by Gallup has remained in the neighborhood of 30%. That leaves a lot of employees lacking an intrinsic motivation to improve their performance. Which, in turn, places the burden to improve employee engagement largely on leadership. One Deloitte University Press study noted how more than two-thirds of millennials rely on management to provide them with developmental opportunities.
It should come as no surprise that employees desire a solid growth path that provides skill development and opportunities for advancement. But how do we create that within the public safety workplace?
It Starts with Training
Public safety professionals have always demonstrated tremendous resilience, even in the worst of times. Austere working environments, challenging schedules, deadly calls for service—these conditions are nothing new to those working the front lines. Despite these challenges, agency leaders have a responsibility to train and develop subordinates. This responsibility transcends a simple set of tasks. It involves a multi-faceted approach that includes monitoring employee engagement, fostering constant communication, leveraging strengths, and identifying weaknesses. Simply put, if you want to get more out of your subordinates, you must equip them with adequate tools that assist them with accomplishing the organization’s mission.
As supervisors, we train our people so they can become better at fulfilling agency goals. The benefits should come as no surprise since training:
- Reduces time spent on direct supervision
- Reduces agency liability
- Reduces the propensity for errors and mistakes
- Is a major responsibility of agency leadership
- Creates a better, more well-rounded, and prepared employee
Subordinate training programs can include multiple levels that are specific to a given employee’s role in the agency.
- For newly hired or transferred personnel, we use orientation training that acquaints employees with other coworkers and the operational environment. At this level, it’s critical that performance expectations are clearly established, and the employee is exposed to standard operational policies and procedures.
- Job task or instruction training is appropriate for exposing subordinates to new tasks or procedures. There should be a level of inspection and evaluation that occurs (think about Field Training Officer programs) and feedback from the subordinate is critical to determine training program effectiveness.
- Finally, career development is used to determine employee knowledge, skills, and abilities, while seeking to enhance those attributes in a way that allows the employee to grow within the organization. Delegation and assumption of specialized duties all contribute to the latter.
Evaluations and Performance Appraisals
Although training is an integral part of the process, employees also rely on a formal evaluation process to identify strengths and weaknesses. In my experience, an often overlooked and neglected part of the employee improvement process involves the formal evaluation component. I’ve seen it all—employees directed to write their own evaluations, leaders copying evaluations from other employees or from previous years, the 10-minute evaluation that’s completed on its due date. We are certainly our own worst enemy. In a laundry list of other tasks, evaluations often rank near the bottom in terms of prioritization. But what message are we sending to our subordinates when we cut corners with such an important part of career development?
While important for employee development, performance evaluations are only as good as the effort put forth to create them.
Keep in mind the evaluation is an instrument used to determine individual strengths and weaknesses across a spectrum of performance dimensions related to an employee’s specific job. In that regard, the evaluation is only as good as the level of effort executed by the supervisor who is making the analysis of employee performance. Another important factor to keep in mind is that evaluations are developmental in nature and should not be viewed as punitive or disciplinary. When used correctly, evaluations can:
- Improve employee performance
- Provide the eyes and ears of management
- Provide a catalyst for planning
- Improve internal selection processes
- Develop and update training procedures
- Improve agency operations
- Develop rapport between supervisors and subordinates
- Identify future agency leaders
Interestingly, in my 30+ years working in public safety and the military, I’ve yet to come across the perfect evaluation instrument or process. If we consider the range of performance review forms and methods, we will likely find strengths and weaknesses in each of them—but the supervisor can make or break a formal evaluation process. Regardless of what tools you’re required to use, invest some time in the procedure and keep these three things in mind:
- No surprises—Regularly communicate with your employees, set clear expectations, and follow up on their performance strengths and weaknesses at least quarterly. Don’t wait until the end of the evaluation period to identify areas for improvement. Your subordinates should never be surprised by any content in their performance review.
- Set aside appropriate time—Don’t wait until the day before the evaluation is due to complete it. Plan ahead and keep track of subordinate performance during the entire rating period, so when the time comes to complete it, you won’t have to try to remember details that happened months ago. And carefully articulate how their efforts measure up to your and the agency’s expectations. The evaluation should be looked at as a dynamic process that changes on the fly as you make observations throughout the rating period.
- Set up a meeting—Don’t just email or hand off the evaluation to your subordinates. Set aside some uninterrupted time to meet in person and go over each dimension. Have an agenda or specific points identified for discussion and save time for questions. Make sure you establish accountability and outline solutions for improvement, if needed. Don’t be afraid to solicit input from your subordinates on your performance—just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from your people. Most importantly, remember that the evaluation meeting is the most important part of the entire process.
In my experience, how well evaluations are regarded, prepared, or accepted is largely dependent on an organization’s internal culture. If leadership fails to take the process seriously or neglects strict standards of accountability across the board, then there’s likely limited developmental potential.
Once you accepted the responsibilities of leadership, you signed on to assist with subordinate career development. A big part of that process involves training your replacement. This requires not only a passion for teaching, but a passion for helping others achieve their goals. Research shows that your people desire a challenge. They want to achieve, and they want to make an impact. Be sure to invest the appropriate time developing the knowledge, skills, and abilities of those under your charge. In the words of Donald McGannon, “Leadership is an action, not a position.”
- Harter J. (2020). Historic Drop in Employee Engagement Follows Record Rise. Gallup. . Accessed 7/6/21 from: https://www.gallup.com/workplace/313313/historic-drop-employee-engagement-follows-record-rise.aspx
- Deloitte Review Issue 16. (2015) Becoming irresistible: A new model for employee engagement. Accessed 7/6/21 from: https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/deloitte-review/issue-16/employee-engagement-strategies.html/#endnote-sup-6