Clarity in what high performance represents
There are various definitions of high performance and a growing body of literature around the characteristics of high performing organisations in both the public and private sectors. In this project we identified the following characteristics: strategic orientation; vertical and horizontal system alignment; outcome and citizen orientated; cooperative partnerships; capabilities and competences; high employee engagement; continuous improvement; and walking the talk (for an overview see Blackman et al., 2012).
Jupp and Younger argue that understanding what high performance means and, therefore, how to create high performance organisations is a difficult and challenging exercise in both the public and private sectors: “no consistent standard of value has emerged to serve as a reliable guide for governments on their high-performance journey” (2004: p.16).
The findings of our research support this argument, with no consistent or shared understanding regarding what constituted high performance in any of the case study organisations. This is evidenced through the frequency with which participants described certain characteristics of high performance, with 125 different characteristics identified.
The lack of consistency and shared understanding of what high performance looked like meant that many employees did not know what was expected of them in terms of their performance, or the standard that was considered to be high performance in their organisation or group.
There was also no shared agreement regarding what constitutes high, medium or low performance at each hierarchical level, functional area or job type. Data from this project supports the SOSR 2011-12 findings where disparities were evident regarding descriptions of ‘good’ and ‘poor’ performance across the APS, EL and SES levels (APSC, 2012, pp.193-194). The lack of shared agreement between hierarchical levels may lead to managers and employees having very different expectations regarding performance that result in quite different approaches to employee performance assessment. Employees may think they have demonstrated high performance while their manager may believe that their performance merits a ‘fully effective’ performance rating. This finding highlights the need for increased communication of managers’ expectations against each level of the performance rating scale and for increased consistency between managers when evaluating employee performance.
To enable a high performing organisation to develop, there needs to be a clear definition of high performance that can be cascaded through the hierarchical levels. It is important to develop a shared understanding of what constitutes high, medium or low performance for the organisation and at each hierarchical level, functional area and job type, covering both desired results (what is achieved) and behaviours (how it is achieved). What is critical is how these definitions will work together in a high performing system.
A shared understanding of high performance will assist with establishing and managing expectations. It would provide: a mechanism to clarify expectations of individual employees and a discussion point for establishing these expectations; a benchmark for the level of performance required at each hierarchical level to achieve each level of the organisations’ rating scale; clarity as to what it would take to achieve the highest level; and consistency within organisations regarding the provision of ratings as well as a clear basis for establishing when someone was not performing satisfactorily.
What can be seen from the previous section is that clear definitions of high performance will better enable an individual to understand the purpose of their role. Through developing a clear picture of high performance connected to clear goals, it is likely that employees will be more inclined to maintain and improve their performance.
Clear purpose is required in order for an employee to understand what their role expectations are, how they can conform to these expectations, and what the consequences of their actions are likely to be (e.g. what behaviours are likely to be rewarded or punished) (Kahn, Wolfe, Quinn, Snoek and Rosenhal, 1964). A key mechanism for establishing a clear purpose is the performance agreement.
A common approach to developing performance agreements is that of goal setting (Locke and Latham, 1990) which involves developing performance objectives that are specific, clear, measurable, and that include key job responsibilities and competencies. Through providing clear purpose, groups and employees can develop a clear understanding of their role and their managers’ expectations of their performance.
By more clearly articulating performance objectives, accountabilities can be more effectively assigned, measured and followed up. Of critical importance to this is transparency at the organisational level. To develop into high performing organisations, organisations need to have a clear strategic direction, articulation of goals, and implementation plan(s) with well-defined timelines.
The establishment of role clarity and purpose at the organisational, group and individual employee levels is essential for high performance. Our research shows that there are inconsistencies within the APS and until the characteristics of high performance have been clearly defined and communicated to employees at all hierarchical levels, the rest of the framework cannot be successfully undertaken. This is an issue that needs to be clarified at the governance level and then a clear dissemination plan developed. To facilitate the establishment of clarity and purpose, organisations need to communicate their goals and objectives more effectively across all hierarchical levels. They can also use performance agreements as a mechanism to clarify expectations at the group and individual levels. In doing so, performance management can be made more meaningful and purposeful; a key factor in encouraging more active engagement in performance management.