I want to challenge you to stop for a minute and count the number of excellent employee performance assessments you’ve participated in, either as the reviewer or the reviewee.
Ok, if you got to a 100, you can stop now. But for most of us, that’s not a problem. I’ll bet most of us didn’t even fill one hand.
Even just the phrase employee performance assessments will send chills down the spine of even the most courageous entrepreneurs and seasoned executives.
Consider just a few of the problems we experience as reviewers:
- Performance assessments often break down to nothing more than negotiation or one-way communication on the employee’s raise (or lack thereof).
- Performance assessments consume an enormous amount of time everyone could have spent doing their jobs.
- You cover the same three issues with the same person every time you meet.
- You have to tell the employee everything they’ve ever done wrong and write it in their file so you can fire them without getting sued.
- Your heart sinks when you take a glimpse at your calendar and realize assessments start next week.
- You create an action plan, which turns into 15 when you’ve completed all the assessments, and it becomes impossible to keep up with all the moving parts.
And it’s even worse for reviewees:
- You get five stars in every category, but you don’t get a raise (or you receive the same raise as everyone else).
- You get four stars in every category but no thoughtful feedback on how to improve.
- The first time you hear something is wrong is when you get 360 assessments full of anonymous complaints no one was willing to tell you directly.
- You find out you’re on probation even though your boss has said great job (or more likely nothing at all) for as long as you can remember.
- You spend 30 (or 60 minutes) waiting out a managerial monolog and barely get a word in before being sent back to work.
- Your manager unexpectedly schedules an assessment, and you freak out for seven days, then 5 minutes before the appointment, she reschedules it for next week.
Performance assessments have come to epitomize the bureaucratic machine churning inside many great (or once-great) organizations. They somehow manage to be chaotic and over-processed all at the same time.
And everyone loses.
But what’s the alternative? Especially in the work-from-home age that the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly accelerated, it’s imperative to take an intentional step back from the whirlwind that consumes our daily (now distant) work.
The answer isn’t to do away with performance assessments—quite the contrary. On the contrary, the best way to radically improve your results is through an effective performance assessment program, especially for more mature organizations.
Before we talk specifics, I need to point out that we are talking about effectiveness, not efficiency. Fancy policies and highly specified procedures may speed up the process, but they also run the risk of robbing the program of the very power you need to create the change you desire.
In this article, you won’t find a heavily refined, highly processed protocol for compliance. Instead, you will find a very human process designed to help you and your people achieve more than ever before.
Ready? Great, let’s get a quick lay of the land. Here are the five parts of a radically effective performance assessment program
- A Strategic Focus on Goals & Behaviors
- Mastering Consistency & Frequency
- Dialog Over Monolog
- Trapping Success
- Developmentally Based Output
Let’s take a closer look at each part and how it will help you dramatically improve your organization’s combined results.
1. A Strategic Focus on Goals & Behaviors
When we talk about goal setting in a corporate environment, we usually discuss a leadership team setting corporate goals, or we swing to the other end of the spectrum and talk about individuals setting their own personal and work goals. Unfortunately, this leaves a chasm in between. Let’s call it the messy middle.
This messy middle is where you make or break progress toward your organizational goals. It’s where real people have to work together to produce real work and affect real change. It’s where the rubber meets the road. The messy middle is where the thousands of daily actions taken across the company ultimately moves the organization toward or away from its goals.
Most managers either intuitively or consciously sense this gap and realize performance assessments are the perfect opportunity to address the mess.
And that is precisely the problem.
We end up focusing the assessment on what is wrong and waste an incredible opportunity. Instead, we use performance assessments to clean house, correct mistakes, remove errors, mitigate risk, and improve predictability. And when we do, even the best programs will inevitably devolve into a rote compliance assessment.
And what happens when compliance takes center stage? Creativity, vision, and innovation evaporate. These three are inherently unpredictable. They are prone to failure in the short run. But they are essential for success in the long run. The irony is while leadership constantly touts the need for innovation and change, their performance assessments ensure that pesky innovation doesn’t upset the apple cart (or the status quo, for that matter).
So what do we want our performance assessment program to accomplish?
- Connect individual goals to corporate initiatives. Rather than leaving it up to an employee to connect the dots of their work and the company’s goals, management should work with the employee to craft goals that inspire the employee and align with the organization’s overall direction.
- Identify behaviors that are consistent with their goals. Use this time to praise those behaviors that support the organization’s values and drive progress toward its goals–especially when those behaviors are uncomfortable.
- Inspire individual improvement. Even top performers have room to grow. In the proper context (goals and positive development), constructive feedback is both welcomed and productive. By investing in the first two objectives, you will create a context for positive change even through difficult conversations. (However, this should rarely be the first time your employee hears something is wrong. See the next section for more on this topic).
- Encourage innovation. The simplest way to encourage innovation is to create room for mistakes. In other words, provide employees with psychological safety (see more from Dr. Henry Cloud) and the structural resilience to takes a series of small failures in stride as you pursue the next big bet (see more from Jim Collins).
Mastering Consistency & Frequency
For this section to make sense, we have to look at our performance assessment program through the eyes of our employees, many of whom have had far more poor performance assessments than positive ones. As a result, there is a natural (indeed beneficial) stress that comes from the process. But, in truth, we are all a little uncomfortable with the fact that someone is looking over our shoulder, even if it is in our own best interest.
When your performance assessment schedule is unpredictable, you run the risk of tipping this natural stress into destructive fear or apathy. Such fear or apathy is equally true at both ends of the spectrum.
- Consider how a top performer would feel after busting it for six months and looking forward to a glowing assessment only to have it rescheduled and ultimately ignored.
- Or think about the debilitating mind games being played out in the head of a great employee who is experiencing a rough patch. He’ll interpret the lack of an assessment as a sure sign his days with the organization are numbered, and his performance will undoubtedly suffer even more.
I’ve intentionally focused on consistency because it is far more important than frequency. Assuming we’re committed to consistency. Lets’ lay aside the theories on the frequency and identify some practical boundaries for the frequency of your performance assessments.
Signs your performance assessments are too far apart?
- You forget what you talked about in the last assessment. If it feels like you are starting from zero each time, you may need to increase the frequency.
- You don’t need the entire period between appointments to achieve the goals and desired behavior change.
- You set goals but forget about them and fail to follow through.
- Every session is about compensation. When every assessment is tied to income, you will eventually systematically eliminate innovation and risk-taking (see more from Daniel Pink)
- You have too much to cover well. If the organization, position, or person is changing rapidly, you may have too much to cover in a single 60-minute meeting once a year.
Signs your assessments are too close together.
- Not enough time for follow-through. It would be best if you left enough time to make a meaningful difference. Make sure you and the employee have had enough time to make substantial progress on the goals set in the previous meeting.
- You have nothing new to discuss. This point may seem obvious, but it’s an easy mistake to make when you get down to ground level.
- You are making up things to talk about. Again, it sounds silly, but I’ve seen it happen so many times. Like all processes, you shouldn’t follow the process for the process’ sake.
Between performance assessments
Before selecting the right frequency for your organization, we need to discuss what happens between assessments. Specifically, what should managers do when they see something wrong or something right. And the answer is simple.
Never use an upcoming assessment as an excuse to withhold constructive feedback from an employee. Instead, when you immediately praise your employees for doing something right (see more from Ken Blanchard), you will multiply your success. Furthermore, the fastest way to achieve a turnaround on negative behavior is to call it out when it happens and remind that employee again and again until it changes (see more from Patrick Lencioni).
Untimely feedback is likely the biggest problem with performance assessments today. They were never intended to replace dialogue between manager and employee. Instead, they are there to support and structure continuous management.
Putting it all together.
Here’s what I would encourage you to do: conduct assessments as frequently as you can so long as the following are true:
- You can meet with near-perfect consistency. It is far better to meet consistently once a year than to shoot for 12 assessments and only complete 9.
- You have had enough time to make substantial progress on the goals set in the previous meeting.
- You are fully confident it is the best use of your time and your employee’s time.
A sample structure
For many organizations, a performance assessment structure will look like this:
- an annual assessment (60-90 minutes)
- shorter quarterly planning sessions (15-45 minutes)
- monthly informal check-ins (<10 minutes)
- continuous feedback between sessions (<5 minutes)
Dialog Over Monolog
If you’re a sales rep, what is the key to a fantastic sales call? Don’t talk. Just like the eager but green sales rep, managers blow an amazing opportunity to affect massive change in their employees by talking too much.
I get it. I do. You’re busy. You have a ton of work to do, and now you’ve got a pile of annual assessment meetings to conduct as well. You’ve got all your boxes to check, and you’re ready for it to all be over.
You start the session with a brief introductory statement and then look up, and 30 minutes have passed. Your employee is either asleep, texting someone “Get me out of this meeting,” or scared stiff. Ok, I may be exaggerating, but you get the point.
You need to create space to not only speak to but hear from your employee. The more they take ownership of the assessment process, the better.
I mean, imagine this:
You show up to start a performance assessment, and your employee says, “Hey, before we jump in, can I say a few things?” Then they rattle off a few things they are proud of and a few areas they want to improve in the coming year. Then they show you the goals they’ve put together for the year and a couple of new ways to cut materials costs and improve their entire team’s output.
You may think that’s too good to be true. It’s not.
It should be the norm. And if it isn’t, it shows us just how far our performance assessment process has fallen. If your assessments are full of conflict or a battle of negotiating skills, you are way off track. And the fastest way back is to tip the scales of how much time you spend talking. If you hired the right people, the worst thing you can do is build a performance assessment program that shuts them down and doesn’t leave any space for their contribution.
As you are structuring your performance assessment sessions, keep the following in mind.
- Questions rather than statements. Limit the number of statements you make and replace as many as possible with genuine questions (e.g., “Here’s what went well…” vs. “What do you think went well?”). This is much easier if you plan your questions.
- Their goals, not yours. How much do you like achieving someone else’s goals? Me either. Give your employee as much latitude as possible to set their own goals. When I learned this, I was consistently surprised at how they wanted to push harder than I would have asked. Focus on the why. Build a strong context. Treat them like an adult. And guess who will walk out of the meeting with the responsibility to follow through. Here’s a hint: it won’t be you!
- Prepare for criticism. No, I don’t mean prepare to criticize employees. I mean, create the space for them to criticize you. You have more to gain from the honesty of your direct reports than any other data point. Get yourself ready in advance so you can stay in control of your physical (facial expressions, body language) and verbal response. Make sure you praise any employee who takes the risk of entering this danger zone with the goal of building a healthier team.
- Have a conversation. Don’t overdo the process. Don’t structure every minute. Don’t rush through to finish as quickly as possible. Sit down and have a real conversation with the real person you are speaking to. If possible, sit on the same side of the table to keep anything from physically being in between you.
We touched on this more than once, and it’s so important it deserves a section of its own. Unfortunately, we have mistakenly allowed a faulty definition of management to creep into business culture.
For many, management is all about compliance. We want to make sure no one is out of line, and no mistakes are made.
Born in the Industrial Revolution, this belief was necessary primarily to operate a safe and efficient assembly line. And to that end, it may be ok. However, in the age of the knowledge worker (which, thanks to technology, even includes many assembly line workers), we need a better definition.
A better definition for management is to catch individuals exhibiting positive behaviors and multiply that behavior throughout the team. It’s not about compliance. It’s about creativity.
And that requires a significant shift for managers who have had a lifetime of training on pointing out and correcting problems. Unfortunately, while there is a time for this, most companies’ ratio is wildly out of balance.
What should that ratio be?
Well, relationship science points to a ratio of 5 to 1. So that’s five affirmations to every one correction.
To reach 5 to 1, it can’t be a stoic process that happens once a year. Instead, trapping success must be a cultural reality shared by the entire company and modeled rigorously by management.
But it’s worth it. A 5 to 1 culture is a winning culture. Employees are cognizant of what they are doing well and confident in what they need to do to succeed. They have the internal resilience to deal with problems quickly as they pop up–even big problems.
A great example of this is Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs. A quick Google search for Popovich explodes will show that Popovich is anything other than a shrinking violet. Yet, he is even more effusive with his praise. Popovich is making a multitude of positive deposits into his players both on and off the court. Even when he’s letting them know just how wrong they are, they know just how much he is rooting for them and pushing them to succeed.
And it’s working. Popovich is the longest-tenured coach with the same team among all 122 NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB franchises, and he has led the Spurs to five NBA Championships, one of only five NBA head coaches to do so.
To give a handful of bullet points here would only diminish what is a profoundly human task. So, be kind and be exceedingly vocal in your kindness. No employee has ever left a company because she received too much praise.
Developmentally Based Output
Every point thus far has lead us here. So how do you end a performance assessment? If you were ever unsure of the goal of your performance assessment program, take a quick look at what the employee walks away with.
- If they leave with a raise, it was a negotiation.
- If they leave with an earful of what they’ve done wrong, it was compliance.
- If they leave without barely saying a word, it was for the manager to get something off their chest.
- If they leave with a set of scores, it was to show how they stacked up in the past.
- If they leave with a bunch of developmental goals, it was for the employee to improve.
And if the goal isn’t to improve performance at the human level, then there is simply no point in having a performance assessment.
However, while we often plan out the assessment session in great detail, we just as often fail to equip our team members to succeed adequately.
To that end, here is what the after-action report should include for any productive performance assessment.
- What went well? Summarize (quantitatively and qualitatively) what both you and your team member felt went well.
- What can be improved? This list is always a lot longer than any of us wants to admit. There’s no use in listing it all here. Instead, focus on one area that, if corrected, would bring the biggest intrinsic or extrinsic reward to the employee.
- Relevant organizational goals. As a leader, it is your job to help tie your employee’s work to the organization’s goals. Make sure you list the most relevant goals so the employee can remind themself about why their work matters and how it is essential to the entire organization’s success.
- What can they achieve? Encourage the employee to set 1-3 SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound) goals they can accomplish before your next meeting.
- How will you follow up? If nothing happens after the session, you’ve done nothing but waste everyone’s time. Set them up for success by helping them structure an action plan. List any milestones that need to be achieved along the way, have your employee select an accountability partner, preferably not you, and let them know when you’ll be checking in and what to do if they encounter problems.
A solid performance assessment is one of the best ways to improve your results radically. Of course, retaining and building up employees takes work, but it is far more effective and costs a lot less than burning them out or firing them and then searching for someone else.
And don’t get overwhelmed by trying to take it all on. By implementing even just two or three of these points, you will start to see tremendous results. And while the organizational improvements are rewarding, I promise they will pale in comparison to the lasting impact you have in the lives of your team members.
So take the first step and pick just one of these points, get it into your performance assessment program, and get ready for an exciting transformation!