Illustration of runners in a relay race, demonstrating performance management

Did you see the recent video of UCLA gymnast Nia Dennis’s floor routine? It’s easy to see why it went viral so fast. The athletic prowess of this young woman, the ode to black culture, and Dennis’s passionate performance all combined to excite, inspire, and amaze.

It’s also a solid example of performance management done right. As leaders and team members, we’re all working to unleash the talent of our teams. Dennis’s routine is the epitome of talent that has been cultivated, directed, and ultimately, set free. 

So what does it take to create an environment that fosters that level of excellence? Let’s break it down and talk about how this athlete’s stellar performance relates to your team’s performance.

Why is performance management important?

When performance is optimized, whether in the gym or in a virtual office, every team member is equipped with a road map for success. That leads to:

  • Clarity around objectives and expectations. People know what’s expected of them and how their roles fit into the context of larger initiatives.
  • A boost in employee engagement and team morale. Team members are invested in their own work, as well as that of their teammates.
  • Better performance. When context is given, overarching goals are clear, and communication happens radically often, it’s nearly inevitable that progress will be achieved.

But here’s the sad part: that’s far from the norm. In fact, one Gallup poll found that only two in 10 employees report that their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work. 

Contrast that with Dennis’s performance. She was “in the zone” during her individual routine, but she wasn’t the only one – her teammates were right there with her. The collective energy of the team created a feedback loop that motivated Dennis to perform her best, which then inspired and energized her teammates.  

How to boost your team’s success with shared mental models

4 examples of performance management systems for your virtual team

How can you create this same dynamic in a remote work environment? It’s a matter of aligning individual, team, and company objectives. Here are four ways to do that. 

1. Build trust to build innovation

The first thing you notice about Dennis’s performance is that this isn’t your grandmother’s floor routine. The music from Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, and Tupac is probably not part of the standard gymnast music rotation. As ESPN’s Katie Nolan noted, Dennis challenged our assumptions of what “good” looks like by choosing music and choreography that were outside the expected norms.

How did Dennis have the courage to take these risks? Our guess is that there was already a culture of creativity and risk-taking on the team, set against a backdrop of excellence. Dennis had an idea for something new and her coach (i.e. team leader) listened. Dennis’s teammates probably also played a part – UCLA team members Sophina DeJesus and Katelyn Ohashi paved the way for Dennis with their previous challenges to traditional floor routines. 

Helping your people play to their individual strengths can have positive impacts that reverberate through the entire group. If you spot some magic on your team, cultivate it like a coach who just spotted a “spark” in one of your players. When people play to their strengths, they can ignite a fire throughout the group. 

2. Connect authentically and often

We’ve all felt it – the fear of going through a performance review and being lectured on all of our “management opportunities.” Even worse, performance reviews are usually so formal and alien from regular workflows that they often feel completely divorced from day-to-day duties. 

Imagine what would happen if a gymnastics coach saved all their feedback for a single yearly session. Gymnasts would end up building on mistakes rather than fine-tuning their approaches. 

There is a better way to develop performance, but the onus is on leaders to build trust, celebrate wins, play to an individual’s strengths, and serve their employees, who, after all, have the most important role of serving customers. Communication – and lots of it – is key. 

Delivering feedback on a daily or weekly basis means that performance reviews should turn into non-events. Ideally, team members won’t be caught off guard by anything in their reviews, because nothing will be a surprise. And, because you’ve been working on refining performance throughout the year, it should be easier for individuals to do excellent work and reach their goals. They’ll be building on successes instead of failures.

To stay on track, create predictable opportunities to touch base on goals and provide feedback. That might include weekly one-on-ones, team meetings, project status update meetings, or OKR check-ins. 

If your team is remote (like all the teams at Atlassian), check-ins  can easily happen over video chat. For weekly one-on-ones, we like to ask these three questions:

  1. What are your priorities?
  2. How can I help you?
  3. How are you feeling?

These open-ended questions can prompt deeper discussions and enable you to provide more meaningful feedback. It also keeps the meetings from turning into a rote recitation of status updates. 

5 employee engagement ideas that build authentic connections

At the same time, don’t neglect the importance of receiving feedback. As your team continues to work toward their goals, they might have suggestions about collaborative workflows could be improved. Listen to their ideas and give them the consideration they deserve. That involves them in the performance management process – which is yet another thing that can boost motivation and engagement.  

3. Give people a clear target 

Let’s use another sports analogy here. Imagine your team was running a relay race. As the coach, you’d take the time to lay out expectations and strategy. You’d discuss how each individual sprint was vital to the success of the overall relay. 

Whether it’s a race or a marketing goal, people need to know where they’re going. Where should they set their sights? What are they working toward? How do their contributions fit into the context of the team and the company?

A good way to define objectives and measurable outcomes is to run our Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) play with your team. In this exercise, you define team goals and determine the key results (aka measurable outcomes) that you’ll use to determine success.

Let’s take a look at an example of how team and individual goals correlate within the OKR format. 

Team objective: Increase customer satisfaction by identifying their most frequently asked questions and creating a customer-facing knowledge base to provide fast, self-service answers.

Key result: Publish 15 video tutorials with an average click rate of 60% by May 17, 2021.

This provides a roadmap to help team members have a clear vision of what they’re trying to achieve and how their individual contributions support the broader vision. 

4. Commit to continuous learning and readjusting

Long-term performance management can feel like walking a tightrope (or balance beam). Keep too close of an eye and you’re a micromanager. Take too many steps back and things veer off course. 

How our tiny hackathon turned into a quarterly creativity fest

The upshot is that performance management is a mix of role (e.g., individual KRs) and values (e.g., playing as a team). However, if you build on the tangible elements in your performance management plan, you may find that the intangible elements begin to develop naturally over time.

You can do that by:

  • Providing frequent feedback, as we discussed above
  • Publicly celebrating wins – even a quick Slack shoutout goes a long way
  • Hosting retrospectives to learn what went well, and what didn’t
  • Sharing missteps and demonstrating we all can fail

It might take some time to figure out the right cadence for check-ins and feedback on your team. If you aren’t sure what’s working well, there’s a surefire way to find out: ask your employees. They’ll be able to tell you what frequency is helpful, without it feeling like a hassle. 

Cultivate your team’s fire

Great team leads, like great coaches, know how to help everyone play to their strengths for the benefit of the entire team. They recognize that different people are motivated by different approaches. They’re constantly looking out for the moments of inspiration that can create a rallying point for everyone on the team – whether that’s in a nationally televised sporting event, or in your virtual office. 

Think of it this way: once you start a fire you don’t have to keep lighting matches. You just have to give the fire what it needs to grow. It’s the same with your team. Start looking for the sparks in your people today – and then fan those flames all the way to greatness. 

This viral video is a master class in performance management