Going the Extra Mile, Paul Butler: Performance reviews

Paul Butler

It’s that time of year when most organizations will conduct the often-dreaded annual performance review for each employee. This is when the boss will agree a time to sit down with each of their direct reports and discuss what went well in the prior year and what could be done better in the coming year. My observation has been that few employees relish this painful process and usually rank it somewhere between a root canal and visiting a car dealership. I’d suggest this is because few managers have been trained on how to conduct a performance review and because people don’t like to be assessed by others.

I’m no great philosopher, yet what I do know for sure is there’s something deep down within our human condition that causes revilement against the very thought of being judged. Knowing this, managers ought to tread very carefully when conducting a performance review. Done well, such reviews can really bring the best out of people. Done badly, and some serious damage can be done.

Balance courage and consideration

An effective framework to consider when conducting a performance review is to consider the balance between courage and consideration. Courage is having the boldness to speak up as the supervisor about work performance that may have been unsatisfactory. Consideration is in how the message is delivered. The ideal balance is to have high courage and high consideration. A manager should address unsatisfactory work performance, yet deliver the message in a kind and courteous manner.

If a boss lacks courage to speak up, and doesn’t really care enough about their employees (i.e. they lack consideration), the performance review may never actually happen.

I remember working for one boss who was totally self-absorbed in his own importance and busyness. He never made time to discuss employee performance. The human resources department had to hassle him every year to get them done, as annual pay reviews were based on them.

This boss lacked courage — I knew he had concerns about work performance because he was very passively aggressive but he didn’t want to face the person to discuss work output. On the other side of the coin, he didn’t want to praise good performance as he had a scarcity mindset — he was threatened by the talents of people around him and he didn’t want others to get praise. In the 2-3 years I worked alongside him, I could tell he lacked compassion, as he showed absolutely no interest in people and was only interested in production. He saw people as necessary but dispensable.

When a leader has high courage but low consideration, the review can be downright rude. When a leader lacks courage but has high consideration the review has no substance to it.

Most employees know if they’re doing a good job, and my observation has been they appreciate you respectfully calling out performance that can be improved. Likewise employees can begin to disengage if their good work is not being recognized.

Reality check

As a supervisor, you also have to give some people a reality check. I remember having a direct report who thought he was doing a superb job. The challenge was, he wasn’t. I had to have the courage to speak plainly with specific examples of how his work had consistently fallen below standards. These weren’t pleasant conversations to have, but over the long haul, I believe we had a very effective work relationship and as a result, his results improved.

The content of an annual performance review should never be a surprise to the employee. An effective supervisor applauds and addresses performance as it happens, rather than storing it all up in a secret file for the annual sit-down. Great leaders make time for the annual performance review — not just because the HR department demands it, but also because they care enough about their people.

I remember working for someone early in my career as an employee and she was always busy, always running late and always breaking appointments with people. I was aghast one year when she’d printed out my annual performance review, placed it on my desk (in an open-plan office, I add), and scratched a post-it note message which read: “Paul, I ran out of time to sit down with you. File must be with HR today. Please sign and take to them. You’re doing great. Keep it up — Sarah.” I can remember saying to myself: “Charming”. I walked the signed form over to HR and kept walking to a recruitment agency across the street. Within a month, I’d left Sarah and joined another organization.

Paul Butler is a Santa Clarita resident and a client partner with Newleaf Training and Development of Valencia (newleaf-ca.com). The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Signal newspaper. For questions or comments, email Butler at paul. [email protected].

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