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Fearless Performance Evaluations

by Judith Lindenberger

Every staff meeting at the school followed the same course: Someone or something would set off a teacher I’ll call Mrs. Smith, and her tirade would begin. Others teachers would slump in their chairs, glancing down the table at the school head I’ll call Dr. Jones, to see if she could rein Mrs. Smith in. By the time Mrs. Smith’s storm blew past, the meeting was derailed and the faculty members whose views and issues had been trampled were sullen and resentful.

So when Dr. Jones showed up in my office, she had a serious problem: a performance evaluation that she had to deliver but dreaded—even feared. As much as she had hoped that Mrs. Smith’s behavior would just go away, she couldn’t avoid dealing with it any longer.

How could I help her? The key, I thought, was an appeal to Dr. Jones’ professional training. “The philosophy of your school is to nurture students and help them grow,” I told her. “You need to do the same for Mrs. Smith. Giving her honest feedback is one of the most loving things you can do. You know she has a problem, the other teachers know—and she knows it, too. Her behavior doesn’t fit in with the values of the school or her colleagues. You need to help her find a way out of her problem.”

Like most bosses, Dr. Jones had never thought of the positive aspects of employee feedback. But as we talked, she began to take notes and gain confidence. “I can do this,” she said, “and I think it will be OK.” Once she saw the evaluation as an opportunity to motivate, coach, and teach, she knew what to do and felt comfortable doing it.

Now you’re saying, “Sure, I have problem employees—but I’m not a professional educator.” But wherever you work, as a supervisor you are a coach, mentor, and teacher. We often say that employees are our greatest asset—but just as often we avoid making the constant investment of time and attention to make the most of that asset.

In his autobiography, former GE CEO, Jack Welch, reports that he spent about half of his time on people: recruiting new talent, picking the right staff for particular positions, grooming young stars, developing managers, dealing with under-performers, and reviewing the entire talent pool. “Having the most talented people in each of our businesses is the most important thing,” Welch says. “If we don’t, we lose.”

In my practice as a human resources consultant, I see a steady parade of bosses who don’t know how to make those investments. They fear performance evaluations, so they avoid giving feedback. They dread the emotional part—the possibility of making their colleagues unhappy or causing outbursts. When they do give feedback, they send the wrong message by emphasizing only poor performance. Or they deliver messages in the wrong settings—in front of coworkers, or through e-mail or notes—putting their employees on the defensive and increasing the odds for misunderstanding.

Yet, when I meet with these bosses, I remind them that the people who helped them most in their own careers were the people who told them the truth. In the best-seller, Good to Great, Jim Collins discovered that “the good-to-great companies continually refined the path to greatness with the brutal facts of reality.”

How can managers do a better job of giving feedback? Consider these common problems, and see whether you see yourself. If so, you might find my solutions helpful.

Eight feedback foul-ups

  • Doing nothing. Ignoring a problem in hopes it will go away is probably the most common mistake I see. I constantly remind managers of the cost of their inaction—work done poorly, extra burdens on coworkers, growing resentment within their team—and ask them to envision what could happen if the problem gets worse. That exercise can motivate them to figure out what they need to do and say.
  • Giving only negative feedback. It’s only human to focus on the things that bother you. When you’re shopping, how many times have you complimented a clerk for a job well done—compared to the number of times you’ve complained bitterly when something goes wrong? But in the workplace, your staff finds it demoralizing to hear only about their shortfalls. You must make a conscious effort to find and praise examples of good work—even with workers who fall short of expectations.
  • Giving negative feedback months after the fact. This happens when managers give appraisals only on the evaluation schedule dictated by HR—not when their staffers need it. People get upset when the boss saves up all the complaints for the annual review, and no wonder: If you tell me I screwed up with a report five months ago, what I can do about it now? Why didn’t tell me when I could have fixed it? Evaluation must be a constant, year-round process.
  • Criticizing things your staffers don’t know how to do better. If they don’t know, they can’t improve. Your job is to help them solve problems. So spend less time on how they messed up and more on how can they learn how to improve.
  • Blaming the need for negative feedback on someone else. When you say, “The board wants me to tell you…” or “The big boss is mad because you…” you’re setting up an us-versus-them situation. Worse, you make it sound as if top management are the bad guys and you’re merely the helpless messenger—hardly an endorsement of your own authority. Take responsibility for feedback. If you believe the board or boss is right about a criticism, say, “So-and-so pointed this out to me, and I have to say that I agree—you’ve got to get better.”

What if you don’t agree with the criticism you’ve been told to pass along? Don’t give feedback you don’t agree with or understand. Instead, take the issue up privately with the person who wants you to deliver the bad news.
That said all of us face situations where we have doubts about our organization’s strategy but need to get in line with the message from the top. Don’t tell your employees you don’t like the message you’re delivering—that will only undermine the organization and your own authority. Simply say, “This is the directive we have to comply with” or “This is the direction we have to go in.”

  • Giving drive-by feedback. This is a problem even if the comment is positive—as when the boss breezes by and says, “That was great”—and you’re left thinking, “What was great?” Take the time to be specific. The more detailed you are about exactly what you appreciate; the more likely the person is to repeat that performance in the future. Was the report clear, on time, well written, or what? Tell me, and then I can repeat what you praise me for.
  • Criticizing in public. Besides being humiliating, a public dressing-down hardly encourages the kind of two-way dialogue that leads to improvement. Keep your negative evaluations behind closed doors.
  • Criticizing via voicemail, e-mail, or little notes. Sure, leaving messages is easy and quick for you—but it’s hardly productive for the recipient. Leaving messages makes it impossible to tell if the recipient understands what you’re unhappy with and why. (E-mail is notorious for being misunderstood in the best of circumstances.) Besides, do you want to be known as the boss who made people afraid to check their messages? Again, set aside a private time and place and talk to the person face to face.

Is it hard to give feedback and evaluations? Yes. But the good news is, it gets easier with practice—and it pays. Study after study show that employees who have clear goals, get coaching, and receive formal evaluations feel a stronger commitment to their employer and greater job satisfaction. In a world where managers are constantly on the hunt for talent, the time you spend growing your own is the best investment you can make.

Sidebar 1

Four Performance Appraisal Problems
And how to handle them.

1: The C Student—whose performance is tolerable but really needs to be much better.

Before the meeting: Think through what the person is doing right as well as what you want to see improved. Then consider what you know about what motivates her—and if you don’t know, plan to find out during the evaluation.

During the evaluation: Start with the positive. Talk about which parts of her performance are acceptable and what you want her to keep doing.

Then talk about the context—what your organization or the competition is doing, and why that requires even better performance. Segue from there into her own motivators. Does she want a bigger salary or a promotion? Then, if she is to reach her goals, she needs to improve her performance.

The approach is like basic sales: You’re trying to sell her on the need to make progress, and the best way is to tailor your pitch so it will resonate and she’ll buy in.

Finally, get into the specifics of how to improve. Does she understand what needs to be done? What training and equipment does she need? What deadline is feasible for making the improvement? What accomplishments will you watch for along the way?

If the feedback doesn’t take: Sometimes a C student just doesn’t advance despite your efforts to boost both her training and her motivation. So you have to ask yourself: Is this a position I can afford to allow to remain acceptable—or must I raise the bar?

If she does a job that is not mission-critical but nevertheless hard to fill, you may decide you have to live with her. But if there’s a business need for performance at a higher level, you must be willing to go down the path toward termination.

2. The B+ Student—a good performer who nevertheless needs to improve in specific areas. The danger: The person is extremely sensitive and already thinks he’s doing A work.

With a thin-skinned staffer, you can help him overcome his fears by choosing from a mix of strategies:

  • Frame the conversation so that the improvement sounds like a challenge instead of criticism. You might say something like this: “Because of the way you do X and Y, you are really valuable to our organization. So I want to talk about what we could do to help you get to the next level. Would you be willing to talk about that?”
  • Avoid surprises. Don’t spring bad news on him. Let him know that agreeing to take on a challenging improvement program won’t lead to a bad performance review down the line. Then give the feedback about the needed improvement clearly and concisely, with no apologies. The fewer words, the better. Allow time for silence as he thinks through what you’ve said. He may even want to go home and return the next day to talk further.
  • Consider suggesting 360-degree feedback from colleagues. Explain that this is a way of collecting data—a way to learn about others’ perceptions of his strengths and weaknesses so he can improve accordingly. The process can be a valuable tool for career development. But if the person is terrified by the prospect, do not force it.
  • Realize he may need to feel he has some control over the improvement process. Some people find it terrifying to be out of control of what’s going to happen. In that case, ask him to come up with a plan for improvement, including needed resources. The more he get involved in solving the problem, the more he will feel he’s doing what he wants to do, not what you’ve demanded.

3. The Bomb—an unguided missile.

Keep in mind the time-honored adage that you can’t control another person, but you can control what you say. Start by thinking through what you need to get out of this feedback session. How can you frame the conversation so he gets it? Be prepared to speak clearly and concisely, and don’t back down.

Think about the conversation like a game of chess and strategize. If he does get angry, what might he do and say? How will you respond in a way that’s calm, positive, and firm so you can move the conversation in the direction it needs to go?

If you find yourself losing control and getting angry, end the meeting and reschedule. And, if you think the employee could become violent, have a third person—perhaps from HR—with you during the meeting.

4. The Waterfall—a notorious weeper.

Bring a box of Kleenex. Close the door. Then be prepared to sit it out, sympathetically but calmly, until she can pull herself together and talk about how to solve the performance problem.

As you wait through the tears, remember that you’re the boss—dealing with all kinds of people and all kinds of emotions is what you get paid the big bucks for.

Sidebar 2

The FAQs on Effective Appraisals

How often should you conduct a formal performance appraisal?

During a staffer’s first year with your organization, meet quarterly. Once he or she has settled in and is doing well, twice a year is enough. Just make sure that in between times you talk routinely—especially after a great success you want to reinforce or a big screw-up you want to correct.

How long should an appraisal meeting last?

The basic answer: as long as it takes. Generally, though, allow an hour to set goals and measurements and an hour at appraisal time to go over results.

How soon should you follow up on a task that needs improvement?

Meet again the next week to measure progress and show how important the issue is to you. Then meet regularly so the person knows you haven’t forgotten and you’re there if help is needed. People don’t change overnight—and they seldom change perfectly on the first try. Nudge them to better performance.

Do you have to take time for an appraisal even if everything is going well?

Absolutely. The meeting may be a little shorter if there are few issues to go over. But all employees want to know you’re paying attention. Considering all the time they spend at work, if the boss can’t devote one or two conversations a year to their contributions, they’ll be demoralized. In contrast, they may be energized by time devoted to how to work more effectively and efficiently.

Are there word bombs the boss should always avoid?

Don’t use words that are derogatory —such as “stupid”—or that are judgmental—such as “lazy.” Instead, state the facts: “I have observed you daily sitting at your desk with the paper and drinking coffee when we have data waiting to be entered.”

What is the one thing that will make you a better performance appraiser?

Just do it. From experience and from statistical studies, you can see that those who get regular feedback are much more motivated than those who don’t. If you don’t know how to give feedback perfectly, then learn about it. No matter what, the worst thing you can do is do nothing.

Copyright © 2015 by The Lindenberger Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

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