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Powerful Performance Reviews

Performance reviews have always been a bugbear for many organisations and a challenge for many managers. In recent years, organisations have disconnected the development conversation from the annual pay and reward rounds and some are even moving away from performance ratings with a view to making the conversation less about ‘the rating number’ and more about development. Whichever way you do it, the challenge is always how well the managers deliver when they conduct a session.

Over a number of years as a coach I’ve had many conversations about how to handle a performance review, mostly a performance review where the manager thinks it won’t go well. But whether you think a review is going to be hard or easy, there are a few things that a manager can do to ensure a great result.

Where it all goes wrong
Whether it’s the way that the paperwork is set up or the manager’s mindset, most managers feel that they need to own and control the performance review. Many performance review systems ask mangers to comment on and rank/rate someone against a competency or defined attitude. Some systems try to accumulate a score for a rating, others try to guide the manager’s thinking about where the person is at in their development, and some are a mix. What this results in is an ‘appraising at’ process where managers have to make up their minds on how ‘good’ someone is ‘at something’ or in ‘being a certain way’.
Many HR professionals would say that this is just an aid to the conversation because if you give managers a blank sheet most wouldn’t work with the organisation’s competences or have the time/capability to break them down, or be consistent. I understand that argument but, whatever the intent, for many managers the boxes or the definitions become the intent. Managers with a systemic bias can even treat them as a black and white truth and rating against them becomes everything.
For most managers this leads to a need to explain why they have rated the individual as they have and to present the evidence they have for that and, as a result, what the person needs to do to improve performance: “I have this form in front of me, I’ve spent time filling it in, and now you need to understand what I’ve done and that will help you”. The intent is still to help the individual grow but the outcomes become all about how they see the form versus how the manager sees the form or, worse still, a conversation focussed on: “I think you are a 4 and you think you are a 3”.
If you have had one of these conversations you will know that it doesn’t really work for you, so it often comes the way of the coach.

Let go of being in control
The first thing I do with managers who are stuck in this mode is to go back to the intent of the conversation (the Why). If it is truly about development and setting developmental goals for the coming year then that has to guide the How of the conversation.
The second thing is to remember whose development it is and the ‘who owns it’ problem. If you really want to focus on the employee’s development and have them own the actions themselves, then that should also play into the ‘How’ of the conversation.
Last but not least is thinking as a leader and not a manager. As a leader, your role is to enable others to own their problems and your role is to guide, support and coach them so that they own the solutions themselves. As a manager, your role is to organise things and sort them out. Thinking like a manager results in you doing everything in the performance review. Thinking like a leader results in the employee taking ownership and therefore doing everything.
So if it’s their development, and they need to own their actions, and you want to act like a leader, then you need to let go of the control in the conversation.

Let them do the talking
Instead of controlling the conversation and going through the form box by box, as a leader, push the form to one side when you are in the meeting. It is there only as evidence of your preparation. Let the employee take you through what they thought of their year, how they saw their performance, what they thought they did well and what they thought they need to improve on and, if your system requires it, how they rate themselves.
As a leader, listen really hard to what they are saying to see whether they have missed anything really important (more on that below). If they’ve really thought it through carefully, and if you have given them feedback throughout the year and coached as you go, then you may be surprised to find that most individuals see their performance just as you see it. For at least 80% of the people going through the process, this means that you just need to nod, smile and agree and focus on talking about what really needs to be talked about: the areas where you don’t see things the same way, the career limiting things and the development actions themselves, i.e. the ‘so what’ part of the conversation that says “that’s what I need to improve on, how do we do it?”.

Prioritise prioritise prioritise
As the employee talks through their view of themselves, there will be things that the manager has written down that the employee hasn’t. Managers can easily find themselves interjecting to add bits that have been missed, both good and bad. This can affect the flow of the conversation by filling the employee’s head with new thoughts which can get in the way of a good conversation. In some cases it will make you, the manager, look pedantic, meaning the employee zones out: “my boss isn’t really listening to me so let’s get out of here,” or engages in pedantry of their own by debating individual points down an irrelevant rat-hole. So, taking a leaf from Stephen Covey’s 7 habits, think about whether it’s really ‘important’ that they missed something that you had thought of and written on the form. Is it going to change their development plans, or the outcome of the conversation? Or does it detract from the key things you both really need to talk about in the precious time that you have allocated?

Ensure they do the work
Some employees come to their performance review session with little preparation, scoring themselves as ‘ok’ at everything and with no real idea of what they need to develop. This has often been trained into them by managers who want to control the conversation so the employee just does the minimum knowing that the manager will tell them anyway. Others have a fear of getting the rating wrong in their manager’s eyes and others have a desire to please. Some employees have no idea what improvement looks like.
Whatever the driver (and you can often only guess what it is) remember that the aim is for employees to own their development and do the work so if you are sitting there thinking that they’ve not thought hard enough then don’t take over and don’t take the ownership back. Deal with it there and then. Give them feedback. Suggest that if they really thought about it they can’t be average across the board and that they must excel at something. Make them go away and work harder so that if they are truly stuck on something or truly have a gap in their self-awareness somewhere then it’s really clear in the conversation. Don’t take the ball from them, otherwise it will always be yours.

Do it all year round
It has been a long time since everyone realised that the best way to have performance development discussions is to give feedback and coach all year round. The best managers always finish their performance reviews quickly because the annual session is just a close-out of lots of conversations they have had throughout the year. So this shouldn’t really need said, but it still has to be, because many managers are still shying away from difficult conversations.
Going back to coaching conversations where the manager anticipates that a performance review won’t go well, you normally find that these are situations where the employee thinks that they are operating at one level and the manager thinks differently.
If this is the first time you have talked about a performance shortfall, then it’s going to be a hard conversation and nothing I’ve said above will change the fact that you will need to broach that fact and give them some very clear feedback. As the manager you will probably have to explain why you haven’t raised the issue before and, an individual employee can legitimately be annoyed that they haven’t been told and had the opportunity to change/improve.
However, if you have these conversations all year round, when the annual wrap up comes around and you find that they still think they are ‘perfect’, ‘performing above the norm’, or ‘a star’, and you don’t think they are, then your conversation will be about why they still think that when you have given feedback to the contrary all year.

Ownership and leadership are at the root of a good performance conversation whether it’s annual, 6 monthly or ongoing. Give the employee as much ownership of the conversation as you do their development. Give them feedback on the gaps that matter and coach them to how they can find ways to develop to fill the gaps.

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