Keep your sanity and come out ahead during performance reviews
I remember the days when my fellow managers used to fret about doing performance reviews. “I am here to get work done, not waste my time on stuff like this. This performance review thing just sucks the life out of me,” quipped Tom, a manager friend. I was a new manager and very susceptible to suggestions from my colleagues. As they say, “misery loves company,” and I was not immune. In no time, I started hating the whole notion of performance review. I was not alone.
Turns out, many experts have a disdain for performance reviews. The subject of performance review generates strong, passionate views from business leaders, professionals, and consultants alike. The memory of reading the 2008 Wall Street Journal article “Get rid of the performance review” by Samuel Culbert is still fresh on my mind. Culbert opined, “ I see nothing constructive about an annual pay and performance review. It’s a mainstream practice that has baffled me for years.” Culbert does go on to favor a two way performance review conversation, and that’s where he and I agree. A performance review conversation is a part of the performance review, and in my experience the most important one.
I don’t hate the performance review anymore. I have now incorporated it into my work processes well so that now I welcome the opportunity to talk about performance with a direct report. How did I transform myself from a hater to a lover and get to this place? Looking back, here are a few major changes I made, over many years:
Changed my mindset about performance reviews.
After I changed my mindset to align performance review with my values and strengths, everything changed. I started enjoying the process. If you ever work with me, you will immediately know something glaringly obvious about me: I am future focused. I was not surprised when the strengthsfinder test revealed that being futuristic is one of my top strengths. With this changed mindset, I began to use performance reviews as a way of addressing the changes that should made in future tasks.
Generally, a performance review conversation is focused on the past. If you imagine yourself in this scenario, this is how a performance review conversation will go: you, the manager, tell your subordinate, “You implemented project x in the past. This is what you did right, this is what you did not. Here is your b+ rating”. As a result of the conversation, your subordinate either thinks he is a failure or he just wonders what he can do with the information and rating. I did not enjoy this prescription at all. I also learned what my direct report and I can really change about the past: nothing.
So, in line with my inclination to influence the future instead of complaining about what has already happened, I modified the conversation to focus on what my subordinates and I can really influence. In this changed scenario, you, the manager tell your employees something like this, “Your performance in the area x has been mediocre so far, let us see what you and I can do to to change it to excellent for you. What ideas do you have?” At this point, the employee might respond by either giving you ideas to improve herself or by defending her performance by telling you why she is doing just fine. In the latter case, you can respond with something like this: “I am sorry, but that is really not an option for us. You will need to improve in this area and I committ to helping you grow.”
Focused my efforts on what I can control and influence.
The performance review seems like it’s rigged against you, the manager, from the beginning – your budget is controlled by finance and folks above you in the management hierarchy, you are asked to rate your subordinates on a curve, your supervisor seems to have too much power over you, etc. Whenever I find myself thinking in a negative spiral like this, I am reminded of an important moment in my career. I was working with my career coach, Arlene, to explore new opportunities.
I was complaining to Arlene how the complete job search process is totally designed to work against the job seeker. “The employer decides which roles they will hire for, they write the job description, they decide the salary, they can let you go any minute, they get to ask the questions in the interview. They control everything”, I said to her. Arlene asked me a simple question that forever changed my approach to searching for an opportunity, “You are a big picture guy. Right? What parts of the overall process can you influence?” I reflected on the question for days, like a child with an open mind, and came up with this: “I can reach out to potential business leaders and find out what problems they need to solve.” Arlene coached me to focus on and influence the puzzle pieces I do have some control over, and stop worrying about what I cannot control. This is a wonderful advice in any endeavor, any campaign, and in any leadership behavior.
Before I really took her advice, I used to worry about what I cannot do. Now, I focus on what my role is in a game and then do the best job in the role I am playing. It’s about mastering the craft of the professional I want to become. Once I started getting into the game, I enjoyed work more. My teammates enjoyed having me around too. This approach helps you get away from the energetic hatred for the performance review process and spend that energy in finding the good that the process enables managers like me to do. It works; Try it.
Let us see what you can influence and take away from the performance review conversations:
- Inspire people to improve, do more and add more to themselves, their community and to their teams.
- Tell your team members what they do well. We all need appreciation. Why not welcome a process that allows you to give it to others?
- Write down yearly accomplishments to later move to your resume and vitae. You will grow into a higher level role one day. Why not be ready for that role with the list of accomplishments as your marketing material?
- Reflect on what went well and what you can improve the next time. A continuous improvement philosophy is pertinent not just for your six sigma project, but also for your self growth.
Winston Churchill once remarked, “Democracy is the worst form of government…except for all those other forms that have been tried.” We can say the same thing about the performance review. You might not like the parts of the performance review, but that’s the sandbox you need to play with. Why not influence what you can, and play full out?
Honed the craft of managing the performance.
Getting better at the tactical, day to day execution of performance management helped me hone my craft of leading people every day. These are tactical techniques and steps that a craftsman needs to master; you can do it too:
- During the performance review conversations, attempt your best to focus on the performance, not the person. It is difficult to begin with, but don’t worry. It is just like any skill; you will get better with time, and eventually attain mastery. Your subordinates are generally going to be told at least one thing they did not do right, and that is enough to make the conversation a little tense. Don’t make it more tense by talking directly about the flaws of the person in front of you. Focus on the performance. Say “the process improvement you oversaw did not get the expected 5% increase in sales and 2% reduction in inventory we needed to achieve” instead of “You are not great at process improvement”.
- Schedule enough time to finish a two way conversation: How much is enough? I schedule one hour, with an open mind to set up a follow up if needed. I spare time for a subordinate to reflect and speak up. The conversation is a great way to understand what your subordinates think and believe about the topic being discussed.
- End on a futuristic note, with next steps for improvements: I end my conversations with a focus to make the future better for the subordinate, the team and the organization we work for. We discuss the possible ideas and then agree on what the next steps will be for both of us. May be, the employee would brainstorm ideas to grow her communication skills, and I will obtain resources for her. What about this: she will have 15 days to come up with ideas and present to me in our next one on one meeting?
Will following the advice I offer above fix all the problems and anxiety associated with performance reviews? Absolutely not. It will change the things for better though and will allow you to do what great leaders do well: Help their team develop and reach for their highest potential. That thought, to me, is very uplifting as we move into another new year.