Managing expectations to create high performance government

Can using expectancy theory to manage expectations improve the operationlization of employee performance management and increase the possibility of creating high performance? Prof. Deborah Blackman, Dr. Fiona Buick, Prof. Janine O'Flynn, Prof. Michael O'Donnell and Dr. Damian West have published a paper on this very topic, and here's their summary of their study.

This research drew upon a qualitative study undertaken in the Australian Public Service to demonstrate how employee performance management supports or impedes the management of expectations to enable (or not) high performance (Blackman et al., 2013).  The research question addressed in this paper was: Can using expectancy theory to manage expectations improve the operationalization of employee performance management and increase the possibility of creating high performance?

Employee performance management seeks to enable the establishment of a shared understanding between employees, supervisors and often peers, about what is to be achieved and how it is to be achieved. Done well, it is an approach to managing people which increases the probability of organizational success by aligning individual employee performance with desired organizational outcomes. Previous research has shown that clarity and alignment of both organizational goals and individual roles represents a core part of developing high performance. Performance management is critical because it provides a framework for developing expectations regarding what high performance is and what will happen if it is achieved.

Expectations are beliefs held by an individual concerning the likely outcome resulting from a particular trigger or event; they serve as a way of seeing the world. Thus, the basis of expectancy theory is that people will be motivated to work because they believe that, by doing so, they will gain something that they desire. Expectancy theory contends that the outcome achieved will emerge from conscious decision making by an employee as to whether specific aspirations, in this case achieving high performance, are advantageous based upon probable outcomes. There are three elements that must all work together to create motivation: valence, instrumentality and expectancy (Vroom, 1964). Valence is the perceived value or preference that an individual allocates to a given outcome such as high performance. The rewards available to employees must be perceived as sufficiently attractive to encourage them to expend the effort required to achieve high performance. Instrumentality is the belief that if performance expectations are met, then the expected reward will be forthcoming. It can be about trust between managers and employees and transparency in terms of who decides the outcomes of performance management procedures. Instrumentality is also about the transparency, fairness and clarity of the “rules of the game”: e.g. how performance ratings are established and determined. Expectancy occurs when an individual believes that if they expend the effort they can achieve the requisite performance level needed to gain desired rewards. This means that for high performance to emerge, individuals and managers must establish realistic and achievable goals oriented towards a shared understanding of what constitutes high performance in that setting.

The findings indicate that using expectancy theory to frame the implementation of employee performance management can help public sector managers in several ways:

  • Actively managing all three elements of expectancy makes it possible for public sector managers to manage the expectations of employees by clearly articulating the rewards available to employees (both intrinsic and extrinsic), developing employee trust by ensuring transparency regarding the “rules of the game” and by ensuring that managers deliver the rewards promised when employees perform.
  • Adopting this approach can lead to increased levels of trust, enabling supervisors to work more closely with their teams, both in general and during times of change.
  • The approach will support the attainment of organizational outcomes through the increased clarity that emerges by establishing the valence, or attractiveness, of high performance for employees. Effective expectancy conversations will ensure an employee: understands the contextual imperatives framing the policy or service delivery they are contributing to; knows what high performance for the desired outputs and outcomes looks like at organizational, group and individual levels; and, most importantly, considers this a desirable personal goal. In turn, this can help an employee establish both goal and role clarity.
  • Undertaking effective conversations around expectancy will enable alignment between employee and organizational goals, as well as clarify how employees can achieve their goals and desired performance standards.
  • Understanding instrumentality helps managers to appreciate why effective management of performance management systems and processes is so important; if they entail positive experiences, are managed transparently and generate value for both the organization and individual, they are more likely to lead to enhanced performance.
  • Understanding the potential of expectancy theory to frame expectations and, consequently, outcomes helps both HR practitioners and line managers decide how to create and undertake performance conversations specifically focused on establishing valence, expectancy and instrumentality. Framing performance conversations this way acts as a clear framework to construct goal and role clarity and helps managers and employees to see the value of performance management.
    • Conversations around valence will encourage managers and employees to discuss and agree upon what high performance means for their role and how it aligns with the organizational mission. From this greater role clarity can emerge.
    • Conversations involve discussion regarding what is required to achieve high performance, with particular emphasis on what development is required. Framing this discussion in terms of expectations of future achievements helps focus the individual and manager on the specific support required to enable high performance.
    • Conversations around instrumentality should focus on establishing the employee's trust that once they achieve the goals set, they will attain the meaningful rewards previously discussed during the valence conversation. It also permits an explanation of why performance conversations need to be an ongoing part of managing an individual, ensuring continuing feedback linked to the high performance expectations established.

Overall, we propose that the effective management of expectations is an important element of developing high performance. We suggest that applying an expectancy lens, which uses the three elements of valence, expectancy and instrumentality, enables the creation of the role and goal clarity required for a shared view of high performance and the implementation of a more effective performance management system.

For more details please see the original full paper: Blackman, D., Buick, F., O’Flynn, J., O’Donnell, M. and West, D. (2017). Managing expectations to create high performance government. Review of Public Personnel Administration., or email: