I still remember it vividly: the feeling of my tongue, dry and stuck to the roof of my mouth, the prickling sensation in my face, the blood rushing to my ears, hot with frustration.
I let out a gasp - a sort of half laugh, half startled sound.
I stared in disbelief at the name tag on the faded blue polo worn by the thin, young man seated across from me. I couldn't even look him in the eye. I just stared at the tiny black letters spelling out "SUPERVISOR."
I had just learned that after a year of working my tail off to develop, market and sell new services to grow the business, I was going to receive a mere 50 cent per hour raise.
You see, I was told that the better my annual performance evaluation score, the bigger the percentage of a raise I could earn. Knowing this, I had prepared systematically for my performance review. I didn't just meet my quarterly goals, I crushed them. I had walked into my review armed with copies of my previous reviews and a detailed report of my sales numbers and the higher-than-average margins I was making on those sales.
It didn't matter.
The company's performance evaluation scorecard had changed. Instead of being graded on reaching my sales targets and customer service feedback , I was being held accountable for a totally new set of expectations. I was unaware of these new targets, so I hadn't been actively working on hitting them and now it was too late to do anything to improve my score.
I felt like a kid in carnival arcade who, after blowing all his money trying to win a prize, just discovered that the game was rigged.
My supervisor finished the meeting by delivering the final stale slice of the "compliment sandwich." He didn't offer much in the way of a plan to improve, and I wouldn't have heard it anyway.
I stood up, thanked him weakly and walked out of the room feeling defeated, demotivated and ready to quit.
The tables have turned
Years later when I changed to a new career, I led a team of direct reports. I'd like to say that I did a better job delivering performance appraisals when the tables were turned, but I'm sorry to tell you I didn't have a clue as to what I was doing.
I had an assistant who was great, but at times his performance waned. His performance was like an unpredictable roller coaster of high and low quality, productivity and engagement. I wanted to praise him for the positive contributions he had made this year, but I didn't know how to deliver constructive feedback about his performance inconsistencies.
As I sat in the conference room waiting for my assistant to join me for his annual performance appraisal, I had questions racing through my head, such as:
- What if he gets defensive?
- What if I hurt his feelings and he doesn't like me anymore?
- How do I motivate him to improve?
I started out his review by complimenting him on what I thought was going well, but when it came time to address my concerns with his quality of work, I sugar coated my feedback and went back to complimenting him on his positive contributions.
We set a few uninspiring goals that sounded more like a task list. Toward the end of the meeting I asked him what I could do to help him improve his productivity and stay engaged, but in hindsight we were merely prescribing more ways for me to continually micro-manage him.
I told him I would check in on him more frequently. I did for about three weeks, and then it completely dropped off my radar. While he had started to show improvement while I was checking in, once I stopped, he defaulted back to inconsistent levels of quality in his work.
I'm sure you can relate, if not to my story, then to similar performance management challenges that we face as leaders:
- How do I deal with my employee's emotional reactions?
- How can I get buy-in on the new development goals I have for them?
- When do I find time to coach my team when I have my own work to deliver?
You may even think, "Do performance reviews even work?"
According to a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, "Let's Not Kill Performance Evaluations Yet," 87% of the people they surveyed wanted to keep performance evaluations because (when done well) they have three key benefits: fairness, transparency, and development.
Since joining Living as a Leader as the Marketing and Communication Manager, I have been in an incubator of leadership development. I'm proud to say that we live and breathe what we teach here (and I'm not just saying this because my boss might read this).
I have been a recipient of the positive effects of continual feedback from those around me as well as my manager.
I’ve also had the benefit of having gone through Living As A Leader’s workshops “Maximize Performance 365 Days a Year” and “Conducting the Performance Review Conversation” and had several moments where I thought, “if only I had been equipped with a clear process, I would have been a much more effective leader.”
In the video below I share some performance review phrases that you can use as a template to help you communicate in a way that motivates your employees, reduces the chance that they will become defensive and allow them to come away from their review with a sense that their work contributions matter to the organization.
Here are a few more considerations for better performance appraisals:
It's almost impossible to hit the bulls-eye if you can't see where the target is.
Expectations need to be communicated clearly. If the expectation needs to be adjusted, communicate the changes before holding your employees accountable to them.
Goals without a plan are wishes.
Without a system in place to monitor and review progress, you may find yourself repeatedly bringing up the same unmet goals at each annual review.
Don't wait until next year (or even next quarter) to provide employee feedback.
While styles may differ from person to person and generation to generation, most employees want to know where they stand. Frequent feedback, both positive and redirecting, can reinforce the changes you want to see in your employees.
If you want to know more about how you can improve your performance management skills and create a systematic coaching process for your employees, check out our Performance Management eLearning Course Bundle https://www.livingasaleader.com/m365-cprc