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Business Officer Magazine

Keep 'em in the Loop

How am I doing? What else can I be doing? What’s my future here? Those questions run through the heads of most employees. They may never be answered, however, if the environment isn’t conducive to management providing timely and constructive criticism and praise. And when employees feel as if they are working in a vacuum, they are more likely to walk out the door.

Because it is more egalitarian than many other fields, higher education tends to have an aversion to feedback loops, says Alice Miller, a consultant with Witt/Kieffer. Although many college and universities may have a checklist evaluation system for lower-level positions, the effectiveness of such a system is limited. And a college might have no system at all for reviewing the performance of people in higher-level positions—unless institutional guidelines require one.

Model Behaviors

“Institutions must develop an environment in which feedback starts at the top and cascades down [through] the organization,” emphasizes Miller. Without support from a system of honest and open communication, retention strategies—such as coaching and mentoring—cannot take root.

Miller and key institution leaders suggest five actions that can help you develop or strengthen a performance-feedback system that nurtures and motivates staff.

1. Engage in ongoing conversations. Imagine how frustrating it is for an employee to sit down in an annual performance review and be blindsided by the nature of the discussion. If the manager’s assessment is primarily positive, the employee might ask, “Why didn’t my supervisor recognize my accomplishments before now?” On the other hand, negative comments might evoke this thought: “Why wasn’t I informed earlier that I wasn’t meeting expectations?”

Such surprises don’t happen if a supervisor communicates regularly about an employee’s performance, says Mary Jo Maydew, vice president for finance and administration, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts. And that means commenting on an employee’s strengths as well as what is not working for the institution.

Rather than wait for the annual review date to discuss an accomplishment or area of improvement, advises Miller, visit that employee today and start talking. People will appreciate not only knowing where they stand in the organization but also having the opportunity to make adjustments before a situation completely sours.

Keeping employees apprised of their performance, notes Maydew, can also minimize issues with terminations or transfers to other positions, which then come not as a surprise but as the culmination of numerous conversations. “It is expensive to hire and train employees, so we save money by going through this process,” Maydew explains. “It’s worth the trouble [to provide feedback] to retain an employee, even if he or she takes on a new position.”

2. Be candid. When giving performance-improvement feedback, Weldon Ihrig concentrates on being honest with an employee or work team and clearly explaining why he believes something did not go as expected.

Ihrig, executive vice president, University of Washington (UW), Seattle, also watches his words: He and his staff have nearly eliminated the word mistake from the vocabulary used to describe performance. Instead, they use expected outcome and unexpected outcome to describe most work situations. Mistake refers only to situations in which someone lies, cheats, steals, or disrespects another person.

When an expected outcome is achieved, Ihrig and his staff celebrate the accomplishment and move on. When an unexpected outcome occurs, he encourages staff to work together to turn the problem or experience into something of value.

3. Seek evaluation of your own performance. In addition to being continual and honest, performance feedback discussions must be two-sided. In other words, if you give constructive criticism, you also have to be able to take it.

That’s easier said than done, of course. But Ihrig says that exhibiting an open attitude to input and suggestions—and not responding defensively—is the only way to gain the trust of staff. He ticks off other traits a supervisor needs to exhibit for a valuable dialogue to occur: a willingness to listen, an approachable demeanor, and the time to make oneself available for discussions.

To keep up with the issues affecting UW staff at various levels, Ihrig asks his direct reports to pass along the comments and insights that they receive from their employees. He meets regularly with deans—and their administrative assistants—throughout the university to get a sense of what is happening in their departments. With information coming in from a variety of sources, Ihrig feels he has a better barometer for gauging what is going on at the university and what services or resources are needed.

4. Monitor and recognize achievements. Creating a workplace where people are both productive and successful starts with small efforts, says Maydew, such as simply saying “hello” to staff in the hallways.

At UW, Ihrig is quick to act when he receives news of an employee’s success. In Ihrig’s case, giving proper recognition means sending a handwritten note to the employee.

5. Be an information broker for other opportunities. Keeping employees interested in and satisfied with their positions can be especially challenging for educational institutions, where the career ladder may be quite short compared to that of the corporate sector. By suggesting that an employee’s skills and performance may qualify him or her for professional development and personal growth options, you can inspire staff to grow in place. This can sometimes mean taking on new responsibilities in lieu of a new title. Or it might translate into increased satisfaction from being more involved in institutional initiatives.

At Mount Holyoke, for instance, Maydew often asks herself, “Am I working on something that someone else on my staff could be doing?” She looks for growth opportunities or projects that will garner visibility for her employees and recommends letting lower-level staff act as advisors on occasion, so that they can become involved with the decision-making process at the institutional level.

“Be a good delegator and don’t over manage,” Maydew advises. “If you let employees do a project, let them do it their way. Be supportive if you need to, but let them work independently and don’t be a bottleneck.”

One of Ihrig’s techniques is a rather unorthodox form of feedback, which he refers to as a  “counteroffer” strategy—his way of keeping staff energized while preempting them from looking elsewhere for professional growth. His selective use of such measures ensures that top performers know that they are appreciated for their work and contributions to the institution. Counteroffers might include increased responsibilities or opportunities for recognition within the university, in addition to—or in lieu of—monetary compensation. For example, Ihrig might propose that an employee lead or participate in a process improvement project to address a business practice or other internal issue on campus.

“These projects provide a real opportunity for employees to go beyond their current job duties and transform how the university is run,” Ihrig says. His goal, he adds, is to retain and expand opportunities for quality employees; if they are satisfied, they won’t feel the need to look elsewhere for employment.
“If there is an extremely good employee,” Ihrig explains, “our approach is to be there with a plan before one is even needed.”

Time to Move

Ready, Set, Review

In preparation for an employee’s performance evaluation, Mary Jo Maydew typically reviews the following list of questions. The answers help Maydew, Mount Holyoke College’s vice president for finance and administration, better understand an employee’s situation before coming to any decisions about changes. 

  • Is the current position a good fit for the employee?
  • If not, why not? Is it due to a lack of ability, or does the individual need more training?
  • If the individual does not have the right skill set, is this a person who has the skills that the institution wants to retain?
  • If it is a supervisory issue, is more management training needed?
  • If it is a personality issue, how can the team work through interpersonal issues?
  • If it is determined that the position is not appropriate for the individual, is there another position at the institution that might be a better fit?

Ihrig acknowledges, however, that change is inevitable, so managers must accept the fact that high-quality employees will be approached for other opportunities or will take the initiative to look for a better position. In keeping with his philosophy of extending counteroffers to top performers, Ihrig strives for transparency, encouraging employees to inform their supervisors when they are considering job opportunities so the university has a chance to respond. If there is an opportunity at the university that might meet the individual’s goals, Ihrig tries to accommodate the employee’s needs, whether through new responsibilities or a new position. Of course, this can be a risky approach; some employers may penalize employees who look for positions elsewhere. And, there are no guarantees. Counteroffers are considered on a case-by-case basis. As Ihrig observes, “We don’t want employees to think that getting offers from external sources will help them get ahead here.” 

Sometimes, moving on might not mean leaving the educational institution but rather finding a new role within it. Mary Jo Maydew advocates that approach when an employee is valuable but simply not a good fit for his or her current position.

“I try to give folks every opportunity to be successful, and sometimes that means a transfer to a lower-level position,” says Maydew. The key is to help the employee determine what position might better fit his or her abilities, as well as align with his or her desires.

Preparing the Way

If your institution does not currently have a process for evaluating employees’ performance, skills, strengths, and development needs, don’t be discouraged, says Maydew. “A manager should not be controlled by an environment that does not embrace feedback,” she says, adding that employees will come to trust any manager who provides ongoing, quality job evaluation.

The sooner you put a process in place, the better. Cultivating an environment of dialogue and feedback loops will be a definite advantage as the job market grows more competitive, believes Alice Miller. Employees need to know that there is a future in higher education. And, as it becomes commonplace for employees to hop from one career to another, your institution’s ability to evaluate and cultivate individuals’ needs may brand it as an employer of choice.

“Higher education has been relying on happenstance to attract and retain employees, but now institutions must be strategic in their efforts,” Miller says. She recommends that senior leaders engage now in discussions about the future—particularly the direction of the institution and what types of skills employees will need in the next five years and beyond.

Miller would like to see leaders in higher education take their cue from the corporate world, in terms of taking on the responsibility of training the next group of leaders. Providing staff with executive or leadership training, she asserts, can help higher education overcome leadership and succession challenges.

Weldon Ihrig is already a big supporter of providing training opportunities so that his staff can remain competitive in their fields. Staff who have participated in process improvement projects often meet with representatives of other universities to learn about their practices. In fact, exposure to new ideas is one component of UW’s annual review.

In addition to getting people up to speed technically, the University of Washington provides training for non-executive positions, such as helping non-native speakers improve their English skills. Ihrig sees ongoing training—along with related evaluation and feedback—as essential components in the competition for quality employees. 

“Providing an environment that accommodates personal growth,” he says, “is a good business practice for a university.”

Best of all, when an employee asks, “What’s my future here?” you’ll have a ready answer: “Bright.”

ANNA JACKSON, Chicago, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.