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How to Deliver An Employee-Centric Performance Review
March 14, 2017
In almost all professions, there are job performance reviews between managers and employees. This is a great test for a manager. As with everything else, there are good approaches and not so good ones. I’ll start with examples of poor manager feedback. The manager speaks in generalities: “You’re not strategic.” They exaggerate: “You never hit your numbers” or “You’re always late with your reports.” They lack proportionality or perspective: “You missed this meeting” without acknowledging time pressures of a major assignment that may have led to it. They also are loaded with first-time critiques and pent-up surprises. This will sound familiar to many of us, on the receiving—and perhaps even the delivery—end.
All too often managers approach performance reviews as they do a project or assignment they are leading. They put themselves – rather than the employee – at the center, and aim to “build a case” for prevailing in their point of view. It’s backward, self-indulgent, and above all unhelpful and unfair to the employee.
As you think about approaching your role as a people manager – which should stand out among the most – if not the most – significant roles you have as a leader, consider these tips for improving your employees’ performance reviews:
Make it part of an ongoing conversation. If you save up performance feedback for an annual or twice per year “formal” review discussion, you already have failed your employee. Unfortunately, that seems to be more the norm than the exception. Think of your responsibility as a manager much like that of a teacher in the classroom or coach on the ballfield. It is an evergreen process that requires the leader to provide bite-sized and digestible instruction as things occur. The concept of “proximity” (meaning the coaching occurs at the time of the act so the student/athlete/employee can accurately associate and internalize the feedback) is critical here. It promotes clarity and prevents confusion and surprises. Of course, this doesn’t mean nitpicking or over-managing. That will prove counterproductive in any relationship. Be selective, focus on the things that matter and are necessary for effective execution in the given role, and be consistent.
Be transparent. Be deliberate. Be clear. In job interviews a common question by candidates is “how will you evaluate my performance in the role?” As a manager, you shouldn’t wait for it to be asked of you. Be upfront with your employees on your approach to assessing and rewarding their performance; this includes what they can expect from you and how you will go about doing it. You may, for example, share from the outset of your relationship that:
(a) Your own career advancement is due in no small part to transparent and constructive feedback from prior managers, and that you would be failing the employee if you didn’t do the same with them. So, they should expect, and hopefully embrace, feedback;
(b) To point #1, they can expect periodic feedback – both the good and the bad – that is specific to their work. The goal is not to attain perfection, but to provide coaching on the work behaviors and deliverables that are most significant for success in the role;
(c) You will put the burden on them to lead career development and opportunity discussions. There should be no confusion that the responsibility for driving their career, and their career discussions, rests squarely with the employee;
(d) As part of your evaluation of them, you will solicit and consider feedback from others;
(e) You and your employee will spend the necessary time required for defining specific and measurable success criteria, which will serve as the critical components for your rating and rewards assessment. In other words, no surprises, especially when it comes to how you decide the money stuff.
Be objective. As illustrated by the examples shared at the beginning of this article, open-ended, unspecific, and overstated criticisms invite disagreement, no matter the circumstance or venue. It’s sloppy, but fortunately, it’s also almost entirely avoidable. How? By keeping your feedback tightly and objectively structured around facts. The more we veer into opinion that is subjective in nature, the more surface area we create for others to respond in kind. This is particularly so when assessing something as emotion-inducing as one’s work performance. The work you do with your employee upfront in creating clarity and alignment around key deliverables and expected outcomes will serve you well here, allowing you to focus your evaluation feedback on mutually-agreed and objective criteria. Do not equate being direct with being opinionated in such a setting. Thoughtful and direct feedback is good and desirable; aimless and hectoring opinion is not.
Be principled. By principled, I am referring to an approach that is grounded in fairness and reason. Like it or not, you are constantly being evaluated by your employees for your perceived fairness. Your employee may have delivered successfully on 9 out of 10 items. If you ankle-bite them about the sole miss – while standing-by silently about their successes - you should expect that your fairness, and in turn your credibility, will rightly be questioned. Maintaining balance and perspective about an employee’s “body of work” is critical for managers to maintain the respect and trust of their employees, which are foundational and essential for a healthy and effective working relationship.
Always act with their best interests in mind. This doesn’t mean that you should sugar-coat or avoid giving negative feedback; nor does it suggest you should let your employees get their way or try and be their best friends. You have one objective as a manager: to help your employees achieve their full potential. Accordingly, every interaction with them or decision made that affects them, should be approached with that standard in mind. This could take the shape of you shielding them from harsh or unwarranted criticism from your management chain, as a means of preserving their confidence and encouraging future bold goal-setting. Conversely, it can also take the shape of you very directly sharing with them that despite their best efforts to improve, they simply lack the skills and attributes necessary for success in the role. In such a case, confronting their shortcomings head on, and engaging the employee in a discussion that explores better suited roles, is not only the appropriate thing to do, it’s the decent and humane thing to do for the long-term development and success of your employee.
In a 2015 survey of 1,000 employees, nearly one in four indicated that they “feared” their performance reviews.  A result no manager or organization should find acceptable. Put your employees at ease by following these steps for delivering employee-centric feedback and reviews.
If you liked this article, please share it with others. Also, I’d love to hear your comments on your best practices for delivering effective employee performance reviews.