Section 2: Performance Management and the Supervisory Relationship

All organizations struggle with looking for optimal ways to secure the best work performance from their employees. One of the more structured approaches to this problem is a model of supervision known as Performance Management. As its title suggests, it is a systematic approach to organizing supervisory efforts to manage the performance of the person being supervised, looking to provide the right kinds of direction and oversight to optimize performance.

Performance Management is a continuous process of:

Performance management involves much more than just assigning ratings. It is a continuous cycle that involves:

(Source: US Office of Personnel Management)

As previously noted, the US military is one of the many organizations that have applied the principles of Performance Management towards creating more effective management and supervision. In certain military settings the consequences of a failure to perform effectively by even a single individual can lead to unacceptable safety repercussions. For this reason, Performance Management has been expanded within the military context to be extremely comprehensive in its reach.  

Clinical settings typically do not encompass war zones, but the nature of the work can be such that there may be powerful negative consequences for performance problems in key areas related to safety. For this reason, the orientation in Performance Management towards structured definitions of roles and responsibilities can be a useful addition to other management approaches.

There are some caveats, however. For some profit driven organizations in the private sector, Performance Management has been applied in ways that seek to exercise rigid control over supervisees, and squeeze the last bit of performance and efficiency out of them. This does not always lead to contented employees nor to long tenures at those organizations.

This potentially exploitative application of Performance Management is not a benefit within mental health organizations where clinicians need to sustain empathy and compassion towards clients. Within clinical settings, it is important to utilize the structure of Performance Management in ways that support the purposes of the organization’s mission without alienating the people being supervised. The mission of any clinical organization must include safeguarding the well-being of its work force sufficiently that staff members do not burn out with the emotional demands of the work. This means that the supportive functions of the overall supervisory approach must also be emphasized – not just the performance expectations.  

The strength of the Performance Management system for our purposes lies in its clarity of definitions, establishing early in the supervisory relationship – in great detail - expectations and responsibilities for the supervisee, as well as clarity about the process under which the supervisee will be directed and evaluated. This can be integrated successfully with other models of supervision that have been more clearly designed for clinical supervision in the mental health professions.

Where appropriate, Performance Management will also clarify and keep present the formal and informal rewards and consequences for positive or negative performance, realities in any work environment. Presented correctly, these clarifications will enhance the ability of the supervisee to do the right things in his/her work, while integrating effectively with the learning/development plan that helps the supervisee grow as a clinical professional.

Performance Management, as a system, creates a bridge between the Structure of Supervision - which will be covered in more detail in a later course in this series - and the supervisory relationship, which was a central focus of part 1 of this module. Effective supervision is built upon a number of relationship factors that have been covered in part 1 of this course: trust, good communication, clarity and certainty about what is involved in clinical expectations, etc. Done correctly, Performance Management directs, supports and enhances the supervisory work in powerful ways in precisely these areas. 

Because ours is a profession that values informed consent, the clarity provided by this systematic approach also allows the supervisee to know what he/she is agreeing to early upon entering into this relationship. This strengthens the informed consent process, enhancing trust in the process. These structural elements, done right, provide support to the supervisee by reducing uncertainty and guesswork in ways that diminish stress and worry.

It also allows the supervised to understand and prepare for his/her role, tasks, and responsibilitiesas they are clearly outlined in the agreements within the Performance Management system.  It will then match up the oversight provided by the supervisor to those key areas that have been clearly elucidated, increasing the sense of control experienced by the supervisee.

All of these items represent the good news in the use of Performance Management for clinical counseling supervision: the degree to which the supervisory process is made clearer and more effective for the supervisee’s work and development. The bad news is that effectiveness comes with a cost to the supervisor: this system asks supervisors to invest substantial time and effort in order to create and maintain such a high degree of organizational structure and detail.

Each supervisor must wrestle with this issue on their own terms, deciding just how much effort will be allocated to supervising at an optimal level. For those conscientious supervisors who seek excellence in their work, Performance Management will provide a useful tool. This module will provide an overview of the key systems to bring into clinical counseling supervision – from the perspective of the supervisory relationship - which will then be integrated in a later course with the tools, forms, and templates organizing the structure of this work.


Performance Management and the Organizational Mission

What Performance Management is particularly good at is examining the key relationship between the organization’s vision, mission, and core values and the tasks and responsibilities of each and every person and their day to day actions in the pursuit of that mission. Here is a schematic representation of this relationship at several levels. 

Performance Management 

begins with the organization’s

Vision, Mission, and Core Values

which help determine the organization’s


which direct the organization’s

Strategic Initiatives

which determine

Departmental action plans for each department

which determine

Individual Performance Plans for each employee



Specific Responsibilities    Results Expected    Specific Actions    Results Achieved 

In defining each of these areas more clearly, please note the following expansion of these ideas:

Task or Responsibility

Results Expected

Specific Actions

Results Achieved

In a well-constructed, cohesively organized Performance Management system, each choice within an organization has a direct link to the vision, mission and core values of the organization, down to the level of a) what specific tasks and responsibilities are asked of each employee b) at what required level of performance, c) operationalized by the specific actions that will be most effective. The results that are achieved through the performance of those actions are then compared with what results were expected, which determines what corrective actions, if any, are needed to modify those choices for more mission directed results.  

For supervisees who are in the process of growing into their clinical responsibilities, the individual performance plan will include any learning or developmental action steps that are considered important for the overall learning or development plan.The progress made during the learning process will be tracked with the same degree of oversight as the performance of other essential workplace tasks and responsibilities, including attendance at work, workplace conduct and professional comportment, and adherence to policies and procedures.

Success in the use of Performance Management is not created by any magic found in the structure contained in this system. Success is created from how well the supervisor and the organization 1) provide detail, clarity and precision in each of the elements as they are presented to the supervisee, 2) plan and organize the appropriate action steps for the supervisee to enact, 3) provide the right levels and kinds of oversight, direction, and support, and 4) how closely they monitor the performance of the supervisee and the outcomes of their actions.

Where the structure of Performance Management fails to deliver positive outcomes, the shortcomings are usually not found in the system. They are usually found in the human shortcomings that make it difficult to create and sustain a high degree of organization over time. It takes focus and energy to establish structure in complex systems, and unless continuous and well-focused energy is applied to the system, the tendency is for the system to slowly unravel towards states of increasing disorganization. In scientific terms, this movement towards increasing states of randomness and disorganization is called entropy, and is considered a fundamental law of nature.

The conscientious supervisor will understand this essential law of nature and prepare him/herself to guard against it, both in terms of his/her own actions and intentions and those of his/her supervisee. A high degree of structure and organization can feel tedious and exhausting as it is being implemented. The degree of detail that is required to provide real clarification on tasks and responsibilities can cause one’s eyes to glaze over.

However, without sufficient clarification on such details, it is likely that the wrong actions will be implemented instead of the right actions - while both supervisor and supervisee are left wondering how the communications between them broke down. In complex systems, with complex actions performed in complex ways, the room for systemic error expands exponentially. The whole purpose of Performance Management is to create as much control as possible over these structural elements so that the right actions generate the optimal results in support of the mission. 

With that caveat noted, the systems of Performance Management will be covered in some more detail.

The Systems of Performance Management

In addressing the systems of performance management, it must be understood that there are actually two kinds of systems related to performance management, similar and deeply connected. The first kind of system is theformalsystem. There are five areas that are related to formal systems. They are:

Each of these formal systems has a form and a structure that must be approved by the organization and its leadership. This is to ensure that the organization puts its backing behind any system utilized by a supervisor. It is also to ensure that the systems will have been examined to make sure that they are in keeping with the organizational core values, organizational culture, and with the policy and procedures that interpret any legal statutes relevant to the areas covered by the systems.

Each of the formal systems will be utilized under specific conditions and at specific times in the relationship between the supervisor and the supervisee. It is unlikely that any of the formal systems will be utilized on a daily basis. In fact, some of them may seldom be utilized. It is important to consider them, however, because they inform and direct the other component of a performance management approach: the informal systems.

The informal systems of performance management address the same areas of concern as do the formal systems. In the day to day performance of supervisory responsibilities, supervisors are in a constant position of defining and negotiating the relationship between the organization and its employees/supervisees. Specific components of this process include: 1) deciding what tasks belong to each employee/supervisee over time and on any given work day, 2) how much is expected of each employee, and 3) other fundamental issues that make up the tasks of securing adequate and optimal performance from an employee/supervisee.

The informal systems are likewise concerned with providing to the supervisee ongoing and continuous evaluation of his/her work, as well as the manner in which feedback is given about the performance of the supervisee within his/her role.  They are concerned with addressing problems when they arise, and directing the supervisee as quickly as possible back to the expected level of work and the goals of the learning or development plan.

The informal systems are also concerned with using informal kinds of rewards and consequences to shape the direction of a supervisee’s work and effort. More informal kinds of rewards and consequences include the use of praise, support, encouragement – and/or criticism and redirection.

Each of the formal systems, therefore, will be used as a point of entry into an examination of the knowledge and approaches that are necessary in the day to day management of employees/supervisees. The formal systems will also be presented because supervisors may have occasion to use them when circumstances warrant more formal interventions on the part of the supervisor.

Formal Understanding about the Relationship between the Employee and the Organization and What is Expected of Each

There are a number of agreements that need to be reached between the employee/supervisee and the organization in order for work performance to proceed effectively. These agreements are:

Each of these areas of agreement will be addressed in much more detail in the course addressing the structure of supervision, and, as noted, integrated with the forms and templates that help structure the supervisor’s efforts in this area. However, it is important to note - in line with the earlier caveat - that a surprising number of organizations and supervisors, to their detriment, do not do as thorough a job as is needed in reaching these agreements.

They do not clarify well to the supervisee the exact nature of the job description and what specific tasks and responsibilities the supervisee is expected to undertake – nor what constitute the specific standards to be met at each step and stage of the developmental process. These key performance elements are left to the imagination or misinterpretation of the supervisee, who may try to fill in the blanks with an insufficient understanding of how to bridge the gaps. Agreement is assumed, but not actually reached, in areas that are essential for success. This generates problems for both efficiency and effectiveness in ways that undermine support for the mission.

When supervisors are thorough and comprehensive in their attention to the details of clarifying to the supervisee each of these elements, it provides a much clearer roadmap to effective performance. That is the deeper purpose behind utilizing a highly structured system like Performance Management.