Employee Evaluations: Four Tips to Help Managers with Performance Review Conversations
Managers talk with the people on their teams every day. Whatever the topic, most of these conversations happen with no stress, little anxiety, and minimal tension. But when the conversation is about an employee’s performance, anxieties often abound. Here are four ways to reduce the tension and defensiveness that too often surround performance evaluations.
1. Don’t wait for the meeting to deliver the performance appraisal form.
I worked for large corporations for fifteen years before beginning my consulting career. Every one of those companies — GE, United Airlines, PepsiCo — took performance appraisal very seriously. And my bosses at those companies also took their responsibilities for performance evaluation seriously as well. But all of my bosses kicked off the appraisal discussion in a way that was guaranteed to get it off to a bad start. How did they begin? They set up the time for the meeting and then waited until I was sitting across the desk to hand me their completed appraisal form.
At the start of the meeting my boss would give me his appraisal form and I would engage all of my speed-reading skills, whipping through the document as fast as I could to see what he had said about my performance. While I was reading the evaluation (and probably missing some key points in my haste to take everything in) my boss would be behind his desk, pretending to work, but in truth trying to gauge how I was reacting to the evaluation he had written.
What a terrible way to begin! Don’t wait until the meeting starts to give the employee your performance appraisal document. It’s far more effective to go up to the employee an hour or so in advance of the meeting, and say something like this: “Mary, you know we’re getting together at two o’clock to go over your performance appraisal. Here it is. Why don’t you take some time between now and then to review it? Read it carefully and jot down any questions that you’d like to ask.”
Giving the person the appraisal to review in advance of the meeting can lessen defensiveness. It allows her time to think about what you’ve written and prevents spur-of-the-moment reactions. You’ll usually find that giving the person a chance to read what you’ve written in advance produces much more effective business discussions.
2. Set a time frame (and give yourself an extra fifteen minutes).
Your discussion of a person’s performance evaluation may be one of the most important interactions you'll ever have with that individual; make sure you’ve allowed enough time. In most cases, an hour should be sufficient to review the appraisal document itself as well as discuss many of the other subjects that often pop up during performance reviews — development activities, career plans, and future goals and projects. Make certain that the very next activity you’ve scheduled after finishing the review isn't one that must begin at a set time. If you provide yourself with a little flexibility at the end, you can take the time to wrap up the discussion comfortably.
3. Don’t start by discussing the form itself.
Yes, the form is important, but the form simply serves as the formal record of your assessment of how well the individual has done over the past year. Rather than beginning with the first entry on the appraisal form and moving lockstep through the document item-by-item, it’s more effective to start by asking a general question that requires the employee’s thoughtful consideration: “Tim, you’ve had a chance to read the appraisal. Why don’t you start by telling me how you feel the past year has gone?” Then listen as the individual responds and continue the discussion from there.
4. Don’t fixate on getting the employee to agree with your performance appraisal.
One of the most common questions managers ask me during training sessions involves how they can gain an employee’s agreement with what they’ve written in the performance appraisal, particularly when what they’ve written isn't entirely favorable. “Don’t try!” is my advice to them.
What is a performance appraisal? It is a formal record of the supervisor’s opinion of the quality of the employee’s work. Pay attention to the key phrase, “. . . the supervisor’s opinion . . .”
Of course the employee is going to have a different opinion — all of us believe we’re above average. The goal in the performance review discussion is not to gain the employee’s agreement, although it is nice if that happens, the goal is to gain the employee’s understanding. As long as the employee understands how you came up with the evaluation, you’ve done your job. Of course, he may disagree (particularly if you’ve set the bar high and have tough, demanding standards). But don’t waste time trying to convince a person that you’re right and she’s wrong. The important thing is that she understands your expectations and how her performance was assessed.
There’s a lot more to conducting good appraisal discussions, of course. But these four tips should make a tough job just a little bit easier.