By William Wiley, February 14, 2018

Few supervisory responsibilities are less clear than how to write a good critical element. Goodness knows it’s not for lack of “guidance.” The performance management world is full of important-sounding words and concepts: maximizing S.M.A.R.T. performance standards, GEPRA cascading goals, quality/quantity/timeliness. And then we have mandatory generic standards written by somebody in HQ who doesn’t know diddly about how things are done out here in the field and don’t really say anything worth saying: “empowering,” “transparency,” “learning-based approach,” “bottom-up buy-in,” “cascading goals,” and this season’s favorite useless phrase: “promoting engagement.” Aauugghh.

If you’re like most experienced Federal supervisors, you’ve probably come to the conclusion that this performance management stuff is just a bunch of B.S. dreamed up by some overly-intelligent Human Resources specialists to keep us worker bees busy. It all may sound good and worthwhile, but as a practical matter, it does you little good when it comes to actually managing employee productivity and getting the job of government done.

Well, we agree. To a point.

First, let’s start with the law. Whether we think that performance appraisal is worth a bucket of warm spit or not, we have to do it. The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 mandated it throughout government, and there is little likelihood that Congress will be changing that aspect of the law any time soon.

Next, we come to the minimum you have to do. As a Federal supervisor, you are required to create at least one critical element (CE) in each performance plan you write. For each CE, you must create a performance standard by which you will rate the employee either Unacceptable or higher using one or more levels of rating above that. Drafting a usable CE and its standard is your primary responsibility because nothing else works in a performance management program without that.

And there’s the rub. I don’t know about you, but for every good CE I have seen in my career, I’ve seen a hundred that were miserably bad. Even with all those pages and pages of guidance put out by OPM and your own agency, nailing an effective CE is just about the hardest thing a supervisor has to draft each year.

Well, you’re in luck. Here at FELTG, we have devised a method for writing a power-packed, customized CE for every employee in government. It combines a fair amount of judgment with some hard lines in the sand for accountability. We can hardly wait to tell you about the FELTG-Method©, but first, you need to appreciate our bias:

Performance appraisal doesn’t work.

What? How can that be? Would Congress and OPM require federal agencies to spend millions of hours doing something that has not been proven to be an effective management tool? Yes, they would. As the lawyers say when something speaks for itself, res ips. The sad reality is that while annual performance ratings for employees sound like a good idea and are embedded in many organizations, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any academic research that finds that they are worth the effort. In fact, what you’ll find instead are studies that say that annual performance appraisals act to de-incentivize good performance. So, when we say we have a great way to write a CE, we’re not saying that because it’s a magic bullet to fix a non-functional performance appraisal program.

Instead, what we’ve done is come up with a terrific way to write a CE for the purpose for which they indeed are useful: to draw a line in the sand for employees either to keep their jobs or get fired. If you want something that helps you differentiate between Exceptional, Superior, Exceeds Expectations, Outstanding, or any of the other slices of acceptable performance, you’ll need to look elsewhere. However, if you want a CE that you can use easily to make it clear to the employee what she has to do to keep her job, then this approach is for you.

Now that you have the background, look for the other two articles in this edition of the FELTG Newsletter and learn the secrets of a super-duper CE. Once you’ve mastered the FELTG-Method© trick, promise us you’ll use your new powers only for good and not evil.

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