A time-honored tradition of being a manager is to evaluate the performance of the team and it is often one of the least favored aspects of leadership. So much so that many (leaders and employees) have experienced the performance review process to be pointless, a huge waste of time. There are a variety of factors at play. A common one is the boss is uninformed of what members of the team are really doing and ill-equipped to write a meaningful review.
Here is how that happens when a leader has a combination of high, middle, and low performers...
High performers get ignored because they’re so consistent and effective. It’s a relief to the manager to have someone like this on the team. The manager doesn't have to be concerned with them but that means the high performers also get little feedback throughout the year (other than “Way to go, you’re great!).
These high performers will then expect a near perfect score on the review and rarely receive it. They may challenge the manager on why it can’t be attained, and the reasons provided are at best unsatisfying and at worst, insulting. Such as,
“HR says I can’t give a perfect score because no one is actually perfect at their job. So, I have to find things that will justify you not having a perfect score.”
This was actual guidance provided by an HR Representative to a Manager during performance review time. It clearly undermines the integrity of the review process.
Middle performers are just that, in the middle. They’re just ok and they feel treated as such too, rarely getting much attention either in busy, overworked environments.
Low performers often don’t know how poor they have been performing because the boss has been avoiding the direct conversation. The boss either lacks confidence or skills to hold the conversation.
These bosses aren't intentionally trying to do poor work. Rather, all of this happens because the manager’s energy and focus goes first to their own workload, then to the needs of their boss, and then to the lowest performers on the team (because they often create the most problems.)
This means that when it comes to writing annual reviews, the manager has barely observed firsthand much of what anyone on the team has done. This boss is uninformed and now tasked with evaluating performance that, in many cases, will impact an employee’s salary increase. The employees see this. The process and the salary increase (or lack thereof) now feel arbitrary and unfair.
For many organizations, performance management and the process of writing annual reviews needs a major overhaul (or be dumped entirely). I’m not alone in this opinion. Here are the top three articles after a search of “how effective are performance reviews”:
The Performance Management Revolution Harvard Business Review
But in the meantime of changing and modernizing performance management programs, there are strategies that help both the manager and employee engage in a more meaningful process. They don't have to be pointless, they can be much more.
Schedule Time Now
An important aspect of performance management is that it’s on a cycle. It is expected, routine, and usually happens at the same time every year. Yet so many managers (myself included) wait until the last minute to write them. Reminder emails from HR go ignored.
I used to chuckle at myself for feeling irritated or frustrated at review time when writing reviews was probably the most routine and expected aspect of my manager role. And what about HR? They are exasperated, wondering why managers can’t get it together for an activity that takes place at the same time every single year.
To avoid this, every manager can take 5 minutes right now and find out when the next review cycle is and block their calendar for dedicated, quiet time to write the reviews. No manager needs to fall into the emotional, unproductive trap of waiting until the last minute. It results in hasty, incomplete reviews that the employee interprets as dismissive.
Conduct Routine Check-Ins
Holding regular, one-on-one meetings with each member of the team is time well-spent. These meetings are a manager’s best bet in capturing real-time progress. The cadence or frequency depends on the job. It might be weekly for 30 minutes or monthly for 60 minutes.
It is best when notes are taken during each meeting and saved. When review time comes around, the manager has documentation of performance and progress throughout the year. Not only are managers more informed of what the team is doing, but the employees will see that too. This gives more credibility to the performance review process.
If managers aren't doing this now and want to, they can say: “I want check-in routinely with each of you to not only understand your challenges but also hear your successes. Please schedule two meetings a month for 45 minutes for us to connect. Be prepared to share the following:
What successes have you had? What is going well?
What is coming up? What obstacles are you facing?
How are you growing or what are you learning? What support do you need?
If this is a new exercise for the team, give it a few months to take hold. The first few meetings may feel forced, some people may not show up prepared. That’s ok, repeat the expectation. Consistency forms the routine that everyone will eventually follow.
Allow for Self-Assessment
As performance review time approaches, managers can start talking to the team about completing a self-assessment. This is the process of an employee evaluating their own performance. If routine check-ins are happening, like those described above, this will be easy since the employee is already in the habit of sharing their work.
If a manager is not conducting routine check-ins, then this exercise is a must. The manager cannot remember everything the employee has done over the course of the year. The manager can remove that burden and ask the employee to submit a self-assessment. The career blog on Indeed.com has a helpful article here that describes how to do it.
More importantly, the self assessment makes the employee an active participant in the evaluation process. Performance reviews should not be one-sided, with the boss bestowing their opinions on the employee. Rather, it is a partnership between the manager and employee.
This is probably the most important point, partnerships. The manager and the employee ultimately share the same goals and work together to achieve them. Maintaining that purpose will pave the way for productive and satisfying work.
Unfortunately, performance review processes (especially poorly executed ones) can pit the manger and employee against each other. However, putting structure into place by blocking time and conducting check-ins as well as prioritizing the partnership and engaging the employee in the process will help make performance evaluation a more fruitful endeavor.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training, coaching, and professional development resources.