Fearless Performance Evaluations

Judy Lindenberger
February 7, 2012 — 987 views  

Every staff meeting at the school followed the same course: Someone or something would set off a teacher I'll call Mrs. Smith, and her tirade would begin. Others teachers would slump in their chairs, glancing down the table at the school head I'll call Dr. Jones, to see if she could rein Mrs. Smith in. By the time Mrs. Smith's storm blew past, the meeting was derailed and the faculty members whose views and issues had been trampled were sullen and resentful.

So when Dr. Jones showed up in my office, she had a serious problem: a performance evaluation that she had to deliver but dreaded—even feared. As much as she had hoped that Mrs. Smith's behavior would just go away, she couldn't avoid dealing with it any longer.

How could I help her? The key, I thought, was an appeal to Dr. Jones' professional training. "The philosophy of your school is to nurture students and help them grow," I told her. "You need to do the same for Mrs. Smith. Giving her honest feedback is one of the most loving things you can do. You know she has a problem, the other teachers know—and she knows it, too. Her behavior doesn't fit in with the values of the school or her colleagues. You need to help her find a way out of her problem."

Like most bosses, Dr. Jones had never thought of the positive aspects of employee feedback. But as we talked, she began to take notes and gain confidence. "I can do this," she said, "and I think it will be OK." Once she saw the evaluation as an opportunity to motivate, coach, and teach, she knew what to do and felt comfortable doing it.

Now you're saying, "Sure, I have problem employees—but I'm not a professional educator." But wherever you work, as a supervisor you are a coach, mentor, and teacher. We often say that employees are our greatest asset—but just as often we avoid making the constant investment of time and attention to make the most of that asset.

In his autobiography, former GE CEO, Jack Welch, reports that he spent about half of his time on people: recruiting new talent, picking the right staff for particular positions, grooming young stars, developing managers, dealing with under-performers, and reviewing the entire talent pool. "Having the most talented people in each of our businesses is the most important thing," Welch says. "If we don't, we lose."

In my practice as a human resources consultant, I see a steady parade of bosses who don't know how to make those investments. They fear performance evaluations, so they avoid giving feedback. They dread the emotional part—the possibility of making their colleagues unhappy or causing outbursts. When they do give feedback, they send the wrong message by emphasizing only poor performance. Or they deliver messages in the wrong settings—in front of coworkers, or through e-mail or notes—putting their employees on the defensive and increasing the odds for misunderstanding.

Yet, when I meet with these bosses, I remind them that the people who helped them most in their own careers were the people who told them the truth. In the best-seller, Good to Great, Jim Collins discovered that "the good-to-great companies continually refined the path to greatness with the brutal facts of reality."

How can managers do a better job of giving feedback? Consider these common problems, and see whether you see yourself. If so, you might find my solutions helpful.

Eight feedback foul-ups

  1. Doing nothing. Ignoring a problem in hopes it will go away is probably the most common mistake I see. I constantly remind managers of the cost of their inaction—work done poorly, extra burdens on coworkers, growing resentment within their team—and ask them to envision what could happen if the problem gets worse. That exercise can motivate them to figure out what they need to do and say.
  1. 2. Giving only negative feedback. It's only human to focus on the things that bother you. When you're shopping, how many times have you complimented a clerk for a job well done—compared to the number of times you've complained bitterly when something goes wrong? But in the workplace, your staff finds it demoralizing to hear only about their shortfalls. You must make a conscious effort to find and praise examples of good work—even with workers who fall short of expectations.
  1. 3. Giving negative feedback months after the fact. This happens when managers give appraisals only on the evaluation schedule dictated by HR—not when their staffers need it. People get upset when the boss saves up all the complaints for the annual review, and no wonder: If you tell me I screwed up with a report five months ago, what I can do about it now? Why didn't tell me when I could have fixed it? Evaluation must be a constant, year-round process.
  1. Criticizing things your staffers don't know how to do better. If they don't know, they can't improve. Your job is to help them solve problems. So spend less time on how they messed up and more on how can they learn how to improve.
  1. Blaming the need for negative feedback on someone else. When you say, "The board wants me to tell you…" or "The big boss is mad because you…" you're setting up an us-versus-them situation. Worse, you make it sound as if top management are the bad guys and you're merely the helpless messenger—hardly an endorsement of your own authority. Take responsibility for feedback. If you believe the board or boss is right about a criticism, say, "So-and-so pointed this out to me, and I have to say that I agree—you've got to get better."

What if you don't agree with the criticism you've been told to pass along? Don't give feedback you don't agree with or understand. Instead, take the issue up privately with the person who wants you to deliver the bad news.

That said all of us face situations where we have doubts about our organization's strategy but need to get in line with the message from the top. Don't tell your employees you don't like the message you're delivering—that will only undermine the organization and your own authority. Simply say, "This is the directive we have to comply with" or "This is the direction we have to go in."

  1. Giving drive-by feedback. This is a problem even if the comment is positive—as when the boss breezes by and says, "That was great"—and you're left thinking, "What was great?" Take the time to be specific. The more detailed you are about exactly what you appreciate; the more likely the person is to repeat that performance in the future. Was the report clear, on time, well written, or what? Tell me, and then I can repeat what you praise me for.
  1. 7. Criticizing in public. Besides being humiliating, a public dressing-down hardly encourages the kind of two-way dialogue that leads to improvement. Keep your negative evaluations behind closed doors.
  1. Criticizing via voicemail, e-mail, or little notes. Sure, leaving messages is easy and quick for you—but it's hardly productive for the recipient. Leaving messages makes it impossible to tell if the recipient understands what you're unhappy with and why. (E-mail is notorious for being misunderstood in the best of circumstances.) Besides, do you want to be known as the boss who made people afraid to check their messages?Again, set aside a private time and place and talk to the person face to face.

Is it hard to give feedback and evaluations? Yes. But the good news is, it gets easier with practice—and it pays. Study after study show that employees who have clear goals, get coaching, and receive formal evaluations feel a stronger commitment to their employer and greater job satisfaction. In a world where managers are constantly on the hunt for talent, the time you spend growing your own is the best investment you can make.




Judy Lindenberger

Judy Lindenberger "gets" leadership. She is the rare coach and trainer capable of coupling personal growth with professional development, which is why top companies and individuals invite her to work with them. Judy focuses on driving performance. From developing more impactful communications to helping successful leaders become even better; from navigating your career to managing conflict; your team will leave her programs with renewed energy and focus. Judy's background includes designing and facilitating the first-ever sexual harassment prevention training for federal workers, leading the management training department for a major financial organization, and creating a highly successful, global mentoring program for a Fortune 500 company which won the national Athena Award for Mentoring for two consecutive years. She is also a certified career coach and human resources consultant. A must hear speaker at industry conferences and a published author, Judy earned a B. A. in communications and an MBA in human resources. In her free time, Judy serves as President, Dunham Hall, Board of Trustees, and is a trained community mediator and child advocate. She is the past Vice President, Hopewell Valley Regional School District., past Vice President, YWCA Trenton, Board of Trustees, and past President, SERV Achievement Centers, Board of Trustees.