Turning Performance Reviews into Performance Previews
Over the summer, I had the opportunity to catch up with some old friends. One of them, Pavel, is a successful country manager, and in the course of one of our conversations about business he asked me for advice regarding delivering negative feedback in a performance review.
During an annual performance review he conducted last spring, he evaluated Katka, his sales manager. Among the list of issues they spoke about was the matter of her past quarter’s results having fallen short of the company’s expectations. This had led to an overall impression that she wasn’t performing as well she used to.
As in previous evaluations, Pavel expected Katka to acknowledge his points, agree with him on the areas requiring improvement and take some concrete steps to meet the targets agreed for the next quarter. While Katka couldn’t deny that her numbers were not as good as they used to be, she wasn’t receptive to Pavel’s comments and analysis of the situation.
Unfortunately, soon after the evaluation meeting, Katka’s behavior changed for the worse. During weekly sales meetings she would avoid making eye contact and instead of taking notes as she usually did, she would doodle on the side of her pages. Clearly she was both discouraged and uninspired.
Pavel had hoped that their conversation would motivate her to address her areas for improvement. Instead, it appeared to have backfired and provoked the opposite reaction. Pavel was confused and didn’t know what to do to change the situation as until then Katka had always been a highly efficient and reliable team member. As a result, he certainly didn’t want to lose her.
In my years of helping clients prepare for performance reviews, I have learned that most of these evaluations are subjective. They usually seem to measure the boss’ comfort level with the employee as much the employee’s contribution to overall results. So, more often than not, employees end up focusing on pleasing the boss rather than achieving the agreed objectives.
One of the main challenges of these performance reviews is that they are conducted by the boss with the assumption that he ‘has all the answers’. This gives the boss the subjective power to define and judge another’s performance while, in reality, he often has a very biased approach to his team members’ performance. Employees are often intimidated by the whole process and are therefore afraid to speak their minds for fear of negative consequences. As a result they rarely communicate with their boss regarding any ideas they may have on how things could be done in a different or more effective manner.
Samuel A. Culbert, professor of management at the UCLA Anderson School of Management in Los Angeles, has examined scores of empirical studies since the early 1980s. In that time he has “not found convincing evidence that performance reviews are fair, accurate or consistent across managers, or that they improve organizational effectiveness.”
While the boss wants to discuss what the employee has achieved and what he needs to achieve in the future, the employee’s main focus is on salary increase and career development. The challenge it to find a way for both parties to meet their respective expectations.
Focus On the Positive
The traditional performance review’s main objective is to analyze what was achieved, with a focus on what didn’t work instead of what was done right. While acknowledging a problem (sales are down) and trying to understand why they are down (lack of competence on the part of the employee or a troubled economy) can be useful, this kind of evaluation rarely helps find a solution to the problem.
Remember, employees are focused on making more money and advancing their careers. They want and need to hear how they can keep moving toward those goals. If a manager dwells on the mistakes an employee has made, it will be that which stays in the employee’s mind, with corresponding negative results. It’s therefore up to the manager to make the collaboration work.
Fortunately there are a couple of easy steps which can be taken:
Most people perceive negative feedback as criticism. Indeed studies have demonstrated that few people perform better after being criticized. Criticism makes people feel inadequate and has negative effects overall. The individual on the receiving end either resists or becomes defensive when being criticized. This only serves to discourage them from trying harder in the short-term and often even in the long-term.
- Concentrate on What Worked:
Had Pavel focused more on what Katka had done well and the areas in which she had matched her targets, he would have reinforced her confidence. By bolstering her confidence he would have made her feel competent, in the process allowing her to realize that she is able to find solutions to her challenges so that she can move forward.
Focusing on the positive leads to employees focusing on what worked. The more time they spend doing things right, the less time they have to things incorrectly.
In the ever-changing business world, bosses are learning the hard way that it’s in their best interest to listen to their subordinates if they are to achieve the results the company is expecting. Managers now get better results by acting like coaches, providing oversight and support in assisting team members to perform successfully.
To avoid after-the-fact disappointment, I suggested to Pavel that he replace the usual top-down performance review with a ‘performance preview’. By this I mean a system in which goal-setting and continuous improvement are emphasized. This would allow both Pavel and Katka to be responsible for setting goals and achieving results.
Instead of meeting with Katka once a year, I encouraged Pavel to meet with her every three months or more often if she suggested it. This would give Katka the opportunity to keep Pavel informed on a regular basis with regard to the challenges she was encountering as well as allowing her to suggest ways to improve the situation when needed.
Though more time-intensive than a simple top-down performance review, this approach will ultimately ensure that Katka is both more empowered and more receptive to feedback. It will also allow her to be more open about her strengths as well as about what support she needs in areas in which she feels less competent and/or confident. Although it is Pavel’s job to ensure the results, he was very much aware that without Katka’s involvement and commitment to the targets, he would have a greatly reduced chance of reaching these goals.
At the end of our conversation, I reminded Pavel that it was his responsibility to find a way to work efficiently with each of his managers and to ensure that they manage their own teams effectively. I encouraged Pavel to set up quarterly performance previews throughout each department as doing so will motivate all of his managers to act more as coaches or mentors and less like directive, controlling micro-managers. With a regular performance preview, each employee will have the opportunity to reverse course during the year when needed, and tell their managers how they can perform to the best of their ability.
In the long run, establishing ongoing performance previews within a company develops and maintains trusting relationships. Within that framework, all employees will feel comfortable and safe enough to ask for feedback and support when they need it, and will feel sufficiently valued to accept it.