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Auld Lang Syne

Many companies will conduct their annual employee reviews at the beginning of the new calendar year. Here are the key elements for ensuring a good review process.

28 September 2007
Many companies will conduct their annual employee reviews at the beginning of the new calendar year, and if yours is one of them, the time to start preparing is now. Most employees – and nearly all managers – dread the annual review process, but for different reasons.
 
The employees dread it because A) the review session fails to offer them meaningful feedback or a clear path to advancement, or B) they get surprise negative feedback that frightens them, provides justification for no compensation increase, and foreshadows a time of being watched. The managers dread it because it’s time consuming, they’re not sure what positive feedback to give, and they hate giving negative feedback.
 
I’m a believer in the review process, but not in the way it’s done at most organizations. When managers have skills to give meaningful feedback in real time (this is highly trainable, by the way), the annual performance evaluation can be a less weighty, more informal and informative affair for both parties. An employee should never arrive at a formal review and be surprised by the information given to them during the meeting – pleasantly or otherwise. The definition of review (according to Merriam Webster Unabridged) is “a general survey, as of the events of the period.” In order for both parties to survey the events of the period, they have to be engaged in a collaborative meeting. If one of the parties is on the defensive, hearing for the first time all of the reasons they are performing below expectations, the meeting is definitely not going to be collaborative.
 
Here are the key elements for ensuring a good review process. This first challenge is to make sure you are not saving all your feedback for the review.
 
1.  Learn to give feedback well, and in real-time. “I don’t have any problem with giving negative feedback,” a manager at a clothing company once boasted to me. I noticed that, indeed, he didn’t. But his employees had a hard time getting it from him. He was disrespectful at best. Another woman I worked with is a champion of giving vicious negative feedback with a look of innocence-cum-righteous-indignation on her unhappy face – and her preferred forum is in a meeting. These are examples of what not to do. 
 
Remember that positive feedback is best done in public, and negative feedback is best done in private. The definition of private could be one-on-one, or it could be within the context of a closely knit work-group if more than one person is impacted by the behavior requiring the feedback. Never give feedback if you are feeling emotional. Easy to say, hard to do – and if you’re like most of us, you’ll spend your entire life learning this lesson. But it’s worth the effort. Nobody ever needs to hear our feedback as much as we need to give it to them. At the point where there are no emotional buttons being pushed, when we are cool-headed and capable of seeing the whole situation, then feedback can be given in a respectful and helpful way (side note – mind how often you decide that feedback is not really necessary when you consider it from this cool place).
 
When giving negative feedback (have you ever noticed how most people give “positive” and “constructive” feedback – never negative? The truth is, positive means do more of this and negative means do less of this, but we’re all so sensitive that the N-word has been banished from our vocabulary) – OK, so, when giving negative feedback, here are a few things to incorporate:

A) Stop and consider the whole human being first – the good and the bad qualities – and remember that everyone has an abundance of both. If you have turned someone into only a bad actor in your own mind, you are fooling yourself and about to do them an injustice. Don’t be so mentally weak.

B ) Consider what you want to accomplish with the feedback. This is different than considering what feedback you want to give them. If you want someone to stop interrupting others in meetings, then what you are trying to accomplish is better-flowing meetings with more open discourse. The feedback is in service of that objective.

C) Make sure you have let the person know they are getting negative feedback before you haul them into your office! The polite thing to do is ask the employee for a few minutes of his time, and give him about 15 minutes before the meeting takes place to compose himself and prepare for the feedback. A great way to do this is to say “I have some feedback I want to give you. Everything is fine (unless it isn’t – in which case this isn’t a case of normal negative feedback), but I do have an observation I want to share with you so we can have a more effective work place. Can we meet in about 15 minutes?”

D) Try not to sit behind your desk with the employee in front of it – the power imbalance is too symbolic. Sit in one of your guest chairs with them, or meet in a neutral place.

E) Open your feedback with the statement of what you want to accomplish. For instance, “It’s really important to all of us that we have meetings filled with open discourse, because we can accomplish so much together when everyone is participating. So what I wanted to talk with you about is something you’re doing that gets in the way of that discourse. I’m not even sure if you’re aware you’re doing it. But when you interrupt people, they become frustrated, and the communication level in the meeting is reduced.” Give the employee a chance to respond and discuss if they are so inclined, but if they are the type of person that takes time to think about things, simply let them know you’re available if they want to revisit the feedback. Don't beat a dead horse - give your feedback, clarify if asked, but let the employee go as gracefully and quickly as possible.

Real-time feedback also includes the good stuff. People don’t appreciate mindless “Gee, I care about you!” feedback, and if you’re going to pat them on the shoulder and tell them how great they are, make sure you take pains to know their first and last names as well. But specific feedback such as “I appreciate the work you did on that report, the research was excellent,” or “I can always count on you to come in early on your deadlines, thanks,” or “thanks for breaking the tension in that meeting with a joke – it was just what we needed,” all demonstrate that you are aware of that person’s contributions in a very specific way.
 
So the first key to good performance reviews is to make sure the review serves its real purpose, which is for you and your employee to analyze the previous year together and set goals for the future. Let’s assume you have done a good job of real-time feedback throughout the year, and you’re now preparing for the annual review.
 
2.  If your company provides you with a review preparation process that is adequate, use it. If not, then supplement it. Review preparation should include both parties assessing the past year and highlighting areas of improvement, areas of desired improvement, and lessons learned. Each party should identify goals for the employee for the upcoming year. You should also assess yourself as a manager to the employee, and you should ask your employee to do the same. Specific areas to address are: A) how have I contributed to this employee’s professional growth in the past year?  B )  How have I supported this employee’s success in the past year? C) What have I been able to teach this employee in the past year? D) What have I learned from this employee in the past year? And E) How could I better lead this employee in the coming year? The employee being reviewed should answer these same questions about you.
 
If you can’t fathom setting yourself up for review by your employees, if you can’t imagine that they will be able to be even a little honest with you, then you probably aren’t managing them very effectively to begin with. In my experience, however, most managers have pretty good relationships with their direct reports. If you can’t expect complete candidness (which is rare even in the best situations), you can still expect enough candor to learn something, and it takes time to build trust.
 
3. At the beginning of the review, let your employee know what your expectations are for that time with them. My preference is to ask the employee to self review. To the extent that they nail the salient points that I identified in my own review of their performance, I am spared the somewhat condescending experience of telling another adult all about herself. Once they are done with their self-review, you can offer them any additional insights that you have. Ideally, this portion becomes a conversation.
 
4. Make sure you spend most of your time talking about the employee, but save the last 10 or 15 minutes for the review of you as their manager. If your relationship is difficult, you may want to allow for a little more time. When you get to this portion of the review, you go first. If you correctly identify the things you could do better, it will spare the employee the necessity of telling you. But if they do come up with something you hadn’t thought of, make sure you are receptive and simply accept what they offer. If you reject or argue with their feedback during the review, you will never get their honest input again.
 
If an employee gives you feedback about your management that you disagree with or think is unfair, sleep on it. Try to understand if, from their perspective, there could be truth to it. Even if you can’t find any truth in it, evaluate whether or not you need to respond to it. If you do respond, do it in a manner that says, “I really want to do a good job as your manager. I’ve been thinking about what you told me, and I want to understand it better.” Be open and receptive. Employees can smell a Catch-22 from a mile away. Never underestimate the power imbalance that exists between you and your employees, and take care not to exploit it.
 
5. After the review, make copies of both sets of preparation notes, give one full set to your employee, and put the other set in their human resource file.
One other thought – something that comes before the first step in this article. If you really want to do a good job of reviewing your employees annually, you have to pay attention throughout the year. I recommend keeping a journal, and making notes when employees make progress in specific areas, contribute particularly well in meetings, complete an excellent project, or present an opportunity for training or other professional growth. You might want to put their initials in the margins if you’re monitoring the progress of multiple employees. When it’s time to prepare for your reviews, flip through your journals and you’ll find the preparation process is much easier with so much information triggering specific memories.
 
Is this process a guarantee that all your performance reviews will go swimmingly? No, it isn’t. Some relationships are more difficult than others, and some employees will never get you, nor you them. But this process will give you the opportunity to have more meaningful reviews, and there is always value in that.

(c) 2007, Andrea M. Hill

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