10/15/2012 08:49 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2012

Five Questions to Ask Yourself Before Meeting With Your Federal Employees

With the new fiscal year just beginning, now is the perfect time for federal leaders to have one-on-one conversations with their employees about expectations, performance and results, as well as offer feedback and coaching to help them continuously improve and succeed.

While agencies have their own performance management systems and timetables for employee reviews, these conversations should be occurring throughout the year. Engaging in meaningful conversations in real time with members of your team can make a big difference. Managers need to provide regular feedback to reinforce the best behaviors and guide employees when change is necessary.

To help you be fully prepared to offer meaningful feedback about your employees' performance, here are five questions to ask yourself:

Have you prepped for a performance review like you would for a meeting with your agency head? Linda Hill, a Harvard Business School professor, will tell you that managers should use a 2-to-1 rule for performance reviews. Spend twice as much time preparing for performance conversations as you would actually spend delivering feedback. That may seem extreme, but the point is straightforward. The best leaders treat their supervisory responsibilities as seriously as any other part of their job, not as an afterthought. Schedule the time as you would an important meeting with your superior and commit to making it happen.

Have you been crystal clear about expectations? Most performance management conversations break down before they even get started. Performance expectations -- especially in federal agencies -- can be a squishy. A good rule of thumb comes in the form of the acronym SMART. In other words, are your performance expectations Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic (but still appropriately aggressive) and Time-bound. If your goals aren't SMART, you may end up looking less than smart yourself after discovering that your employees have had a very different definition of high performance.

Have you identified your employees' strengths and weaknesses? Your job as supervisor is to provide honest and unbiased feedback. Therefore, you must not only identify strengths and weaknesses, but identify the cause of any performance issue. Be sure to challenge some of your own assumptions in the process. Is your employee struggling because he is still learning a task, because he has been poorly prepared or because he is bored?You will only really know if you identify the issues and give your employees the opportunity to answer these sorts of questions.

Is your feedback specific enough? When you are ready with your feedback, I suggest you keep the SBI-D abbreviation in mind. This means a leader's feedback identifies (1) the situation where the performance meets, exceeds or fails expectations; (2) the behaviors that require reinforcing or addressing; (3) the impact of the behavior on the employees' performance and the team's performance; and (4) the desired outcome you would expect in a similar situation in the future. The more specific you can be, the better.

What suggestions can you offer for an employee to improve?
Receiving feedback, especially negative feedback, is not easy. To help employees accept the criticism and focus on improving, you should be prepared to have a dialogue about how you and the organization can help the employee get on track. As a supervisor, you must show a sincere interest in the employee's immediate performance and career development. Just be advised -- you must also be prepared to establish clear performance goals and monitor follow-through.

If you have any suggestions on how to best handle performance management conversations, either as the individual doling out or receiving the advice, please share your ideas in the comment section below or by emailing me at

This post was originally featured on The Washington Post's website