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Lessons in Leadership

Six Ways to Screw up a Performance Review Discussion

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Almost everyone hates performance reviews!   Managers dislike giving them, and employees dread receiving them. Although a well-conducted appraisal discussion can actually be a pleasant and informative experience (see Conducting a Motivational Performance Review), many of them do go horribly wrong.
If you are a manager, here are six mistakes that can turn a review discussion into a disaster. If you're an employee, we offer some suggestions for tactfully responding to these management blunders.

1. Providing invisible feedback.
Some managers are so fearful of offending employees that they mask constructive feedback in a cloak of invisibility. How do they do this? By putting such a positive spin on problems that they hardly sound like problems at all! One manager who felt that an employee was deviating too frequently from standard policies and procedures described the issue like this: "Nancy takes a very creative and innovative approach to helping others." The employee, of course, thought this was a terrific compliment. (Yes, this really is a true story.)

Solution: When offering constructive feedback, objectively describe what you have observed and indicate why it's a problem. Do not sugarcoat the issue into oblivion. For example, the above manager might say "Nancy sometimes makes exceptions to policies without sufficient justification. This can result in unequal treatment for customers."

If your boss does this: Although receiving a 100% positive review is great, you want to be sure that there are no hidden critiques. If your boss seems to be a bit of a wimp when it comes to giving feedback, simply say "I'm always trying to improve, so do you have any suggestions for how I might be more effective next year?'

2. Springing a surprise.
Effective managers provide just-in-time feedback: they express appreciation when something good happens and address problems as they arise. But some bosses are like a squirrel storing up nuts for the winter. They hoard all their comments until appraisal time rolls around. If you're planning to chastise an employee in December for a project delay that occurred last June, you can expect that person to be justifiably irritated.

Solution: If you failed to give feedback when a problem occurred, you need to acknowledge your error: "I know that I should have mentioned this at the time, and I'll try to give more immediate feedback in the future. However, we do need to talk about the project delay that occurred last summer."

If your boss does this: If your review contains some comments that are long overdue, don't become visibly annoyed or angry. Instead, calmly request a different approach next time. For example: "I'll be glad to talk about the project delay now. In the future, though, it would really help me if we could discuss these problems when they occur.

3. Becoming a psychologist.
Managers often think about employee problems in terms of personality traits. Someone is overly obsessive or lacks initiative or has a negative attitude. But when you are talking about performance, you need to forget the diagnostic labels and focus on what the person is actually doing (or not doing). You're never going to change someone's personality, but you do have every right to request the behavior that you need. After all, that's what employees are being paid for.

Solution: Convert your conclusions about personality traits into a specific description of problem behaviors. So instead of telling an employee, "You need to start showing more initiative", you might say "When you finish one project, I need for you to come and ask me what else needs to be done instead of just waiting for another assignment."

If your boss does this: If your boss hits you up with a personality diagnosis, ask for an explanation of what you need to do differently. For example: "Can you tell me what I could do to show you that my attitude is improving? What behaviors would you like me to change?" Unless you clearly understand your manager's expectations, it will be difficult to meet them.

4. Putting the spotlight on flaws.
If you believe that doing a performance review means providing employees with a comprehensive list of all their faults, then you are a dreadful manager. Appraisals which focus only criticism are not only demoralizing, but also useless, because employees quickly learn that no matter what they do, they can never please the boss. Remember that if a person is good enough to keep on the payroll, their strengths must outweigh their weaknesses. Therefore, their appraisal should show the same balance.

Solution: Being more attuned to problems than positives is just human nature, so you must make a special effort to see all the things that your employees do well. Unless the person is so bad that they're about to be fired, a review should contain at least twice as many positive comments as negative ones. And be sure to use as much detail when describing accomplishments as you do when describing problems.

If your boss does this: If everyone in your group receives highly negative reviews, then don't take it personally. It's not about you, it's about your boss's dysfunctional leadership style. To try to balance things out, ask for some positive feedback. For example: "I think I understand what I need to improve. However, I would also like to know what seems to be going well, so that I will continue to do those things correctly."

5. Delivering a lecture.
If you drone on and on and on, employees are going to tune you out. Although they may smile and nod, they won't absorb much of what you say after the first five minutes. To be effective, appraisals need to include two-way communication about previous performance, future goals, and development needs. While employees do need to understand your perspective, you can also benefit by understanding theirs.

Solution: Ask questions! After introducing every major topic in the performance review, solicit the employee's input. Have trouble thinking of questions? You can find a list of them at Conducting a Motivational Performance Review.

If your boss does this: If your manager seems determined to do all the talking, you have to look for an appropriate point to offer an opinion or provide information. When there's a pause in the monologue (even a short one), hop in with "You know, there's something I'd like to say about that." Then speak your piece. Some managers intentionally try to dominate the meeting, but many others simply don't know how to carry on a two-way appraisal discussion.

6. Arguing about examples.
Many managers logically assume that the best way to help employees understand a problem is to offer specific examples from the past. Examples are indeed helpful, but unfortunately they also contain an unexpected pitfall, because bringing up old issues often brings up old arguments. When your example deteriorates into an unproductive debate, the entire review can suddenly be thrown off track.

Solution: When you illustrate certain points by citing specific events, make every effort to keep the discussion focused on the future instead of the past. If the employee starts to argue, be clear about the goal of the conversation. For example: "I do understand that other factors contributed to the problems with this project. However, I don't think we should spend time revisiting that situation. Instead, let's talk about how we can prevent similar problems in the future."

If your boss does this: Sometimes the manager is the one who turns an example into an argument. If this happens, you must avoid the temptation to renew an old debate about previous problems. Instead of responding with counter-arguments of your own, simply say "What do you think I need to learn from that situation that will help me be more effective in the future?". Your goal is to keep looking forward, not backward.

For help in planning a productive appraisal discussion and avoiding further pitfalls, check out the tips in "Conducting a Motivational Performance Review".

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