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Engineering Success for the Productive Employee

This Advisor column was originally published in November 2007.

In looking back over our MRSC articles for the last couple of years, we found that our focus in the articles has oftentimes been on the same employee that most managers and supervisors are focusing on – the problematic employee. This is understandable since it is that employee that can cause disruption to the team and the organization and who can be the most challenging to deal with.

Often, the supervisor, manager, and ultimately the Human Resources professional, spend an enormous amount of time focused on the performance of the difficult or demanding employee. In doing so, we may be missing the opportunity to create or “engineer success” for the good employee who quietly performs his or her job, but is seldom recognized. We often forget that productive and consistent employees represent on average 26% of our workforce and are the backbone of organizations. Since they do not demand attention, they often get little to no attention at all.

We need to find ways to support and reinforce the work of our productive employees. Yet many managers and supervisors argue that there is simply not enough time or money to invest in those employees when they are already performing well. We would contend that failure to invest the time now will often result in a bigger and less positive time investment later, and that many of strategies for supporting the employees take very little time or money. Failure to give attention to our productive employees can result in those employees experiencing less job satisfaction, disenfranchisement, and ultimately, a decision that their skills might be better suited to another organization where their achievements are recognized. Finding suitable replacements in this tight job market is difficult and time consuming. So, how do we challenge and motivate productive employees? The following recommendations may assist you in engineering success for the productive employees in your organization.

Do Performance Evaluations

Give all employees a meaningful performance evaluation at least once per year and provide ongoing performance feedback throughout the year. Studies routinely show that the most meaningful form of recognition is to let employees know where they stand by recognizing their performance and by reminding them how their performance supports the overall mission of the organization. When we limit performance feedback to those employees who are struggling, we miss a great opportunity to reward and motivate the productive employee. In addition, even the best employee has areas upon which they can improve, and failure to address those areas through performance feedback can deny him/her the opportunity to strategize about and find resources for supporting improvement.

  • Meet with the employee at the beginning of the evaluation cycle to discuss his/her ideas for that year’s goals, expectations, and professional development.
  • Review the employee’s job description with the employee to ensure that it continues to accurately reflect the essential job functions being performed by the employee.
  • Keep a record of employee performance throughout the year. For example if the employee receives a commendation, a copy should be retained in the supervisor’s file. Similarly, if the employee does work on an important project, notes should be kept about the project and results. By retaining information about employee performance throughout the year, and including examples from that retained information in the performance evaluation, you limit the tendency to have more recent events dominate the performance rating. You also illustrate to the employee that you have been attentive to his/her performance achievements all year long.
  • Allow the employee to do a self-evaluation or to provide input about accomplishments during the year. In particular, the employee should be encouraged to remind you of projects or tasks that went well, or that did not go as expected. You can then spend time together analyzing those projects and tasks to celebrate those that went well, and to consider whether adjustments need to be made the following year for those projects or tasks that did not go as expected.
  • Make sure the Department’s mission and core values are made clear to the employee, and tie employee performance back to the mission and core values. Employees want to know their job fits into the bigger picture.
  • Identify areas for improvement or employee development. Even the alleged star performer has areas that are not as strong as other areas.

Hold Regularly Scheduled Meetings with Individual Employees

Have regularly scheduled meetings with each individual employee in your workgroup. There is a tendency to meet regularly with more problematic employees, but since good performers are getting the work done, it is assumed they don’t need any individual attention. In reality, however, most employees appreciate knowing that specific time has been set aside for them to discuss ongoing issues of concern and to receive guidance and feedback.

Don't Overload Your Top Performers

Resist the temptation to assign all your special projects to your top performer. Giving in to that temptation often results in the top performer feeling dumped on, and the other employees feeling that the top performer is being favored. On the other hand, consider asking whether the top performer is willing to mentor another employee who takes on the project, which gives further recognition to his/her expertise.

Provide Training for All Employees

Find innovative ways to provide training for all employees, particularly new supervisors, as opposed to spending the majority of your training dollars only on those employees with significant performance deficiencies. There is a tendency for training dollars to decrease in poor budget times, and since our top performers are doing well, it is thought that providing training for them is not the best use of funds. This tendency can leave the productive employee frustrated, and gives the impression that the organization does not care about his/her professional growth. It also sends the message that the reward for nonperformance is training. If you feel you can’t afford to send employees to seminars, or to have them away for full days from their positions, consider having your more senior employees provide short mini-training sessions on their areas of expertise during staff meetings. Or, if there is no one in the workgroup that has specific expertise on a particular subject, invite staff people from other sections of your Department where there is the expertise, or see if that section has materials on the subject that can be provided to your staff. If there is no one in the organization who has the expertise, see if any employees are interested in doing some research to share with the group.

Allow Key Staff to Shadow You

Allow key staff members to shadow you, or train them on tasks you can then delegate to them. By doing so, you assist them in understanding more about your job and why you may not always be readily accessible. More importantly, by doing so you help develop your staff and make them more qualified for promotion should you decide to move into a different position.

Develop Clear Workplace Expectations

Develop workplace expectations outlining specific rules of conduct and behavior. Your good performers want to know that you are holding all employees accountable for appropriate conduct in the workplace and begin to resent the organization when it allows inappropriate conduct to continue. Workplace expectations are a good tool for promoting the necessary accountability. Expectations should be specific to your organization, and should relate back to the Department mission and core values. Workplace expectations often cover such topic areas as performing duties effectively and efficiently, working with integrity, honesty and professionalism, being respectful, handling conflict appropriately, working safely, promoting teamwork, and maintaining confidentiality.

Have Consistent and Fair Disciplinary Policies

Similarly, have a consistent and fair disciplinary system. Ensure that rules and expectations are clear, and then enforce those rules and expectations. Your good employees generally appreciate it when you deal with employees who engage in misconduct. It is important to make sure that the discipline is done in a procedurally correct manner, however, because it can be devastating to morale when discipline is done incorrectly and a problematic employee is returned to the workplace.

Employee Involvement Committees

With the buyoff of your union, consider allowing workgroups to form employee involvement committees to work on issues specific to employee satisfaction, such as work schedules or employee recognition.

Post Job Vacancies

Make sure all employees are aware of the requirements for applying for vacancies and that such vacancies are posted. Make eligibility criteria fair and nondiscriminatory. Employees should understand how you select employees for training opportunities or specialty pay assignments so that they do not develop a perception of favoritism.

Create Employee Recognition Programs

Create recognition programs that are related to the core mission and values of your organization. Even something as simple as a “Good Job” note on stationary with the Department seal, outlining an employee’s achievement on a task or project, can make that employee feel more appreciated. Videotaping employees in action, and then showing that videotape at a recognition event, can also be a powerful motivational tool.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Janice Corbin and Janet May