Performance Evaluations: Only Good Surprises

Do any of these statements sound familiar around performance evaluation time?

From a direct report:
        “I was never trained to do that.”
        “That happened 9 months ago, but it is the first I am hearing of this.”
        “It says I was rude to a patient…what does that mean?” 

From a supervisor:
        “I’m dreading giving my direct report their review; they are not going to be happy.”
        “I gave my employee their review and all they did was fight me on it.”

The idea that feedback should be given to employees in a timely, constructive, and behaviorally specific manner is most likely part of any “Management 101” course. Issues regarding performance should not be a surprise when it’s time for our annual reviews. Easy to say, maybe not so easy to practice. But, why? Maybe managers and supervisors aren’t given the tools and skills to give constructive and behaviorally specific feedback. Maybe they are shying away from a difficult conversation because they are unsure how to structure it? Maybe they are unsure if it will go well and are uncomfortable with potential conflict?  

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review called “Are You Sugarcoating Your Feedback Without Realizing It?” tackles this precise issue. Authors Michael Schaerer and Roderick Swaab state “Managers tend to inflate the feedback they give to their direct reports, particularly when giving bad news. And by presenting sub-par performance more positively than they should, managers make it impossible for employees to learn, damaging their careers and, often, the company.” The authors share that managers are under an “illusion of transparency” where they believe they are being behaviorally specific when, in fact, they are sugarcoating the impact of the behaviors they want changed by their employee. The solution? Avoid surprises by having these conversations now using skills outlined below.   

In our collective 25 years in our jobs, we have consistently heard the same thing from employees after receiving their evaluations year after year; “I didn’t even know this was an issue” or some iteration of this. They also share the vague feedback given; “You were rude,” “You are difficult to work with,” or “Be more respectful.” These employees are caught off guard and don’t have any concrete information to understand the problem and make needed changes. 

We also hear from supervisors that they fear their employee will not be happy with their evaluation. This fear usually comes from the acknowledgement that there have been performance issues that the supervisor has – for any of a number of reasons – hesitated to address during the year, but are now coming home to roost in the evaluation. Oftentimes, a supervisor will avoid the difficult conversations throughout the year and end up overrating the employee at the end of the cycle, an outcome that ultimately helps no one. If and when anyone attempts to hold that employee accountable down the road, the employee will often bring up their prior evaluations (“I’ve always gotten 5’s in the past”) and will view the new, difficult feedback as differential treatment.

Holding Difficult Conversations is Difficult

We continue to find value in the skills Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability offer. Both can help supervisors frame a difficult conversation and craft evaluations that are behaviorally-specific and helpful. The skills can help supervisors: 1) keep emotions regulated and even when conversations get heated, 2) deliver feedback in an objective, behaviorally-specific way, and 3) describe expectations for the job and how they should be met. Having these conversations now will likely guarantee a more smooth evaluation season. So, what are the basics that would help you prepare for a conversation?

  1. Keep emotions regulated even when conversations get heated

First, establish a well-intended motive for having a conversation around performance. Before addressing a specific issue, take a moment to consider the big picture; design your motive around having a constructive, positive working relationship. This helps you stay focused on what is important and it helps with your tone during the conversation. Instead of focusing your motive on correcting behavior or improving performance, design your motive around having a constructive, positive working relationship. Returning to this mantra during the conversation will help ensure your intentions are effectively conveyed. Given most of us are not convincing actors, this is an important step.  

     2. Deliver feedback in an objective, behaviorally specific way

What are the facts? More specifically, can you convey what your employee has said or done that has made you conclude there was an issue.  Humans are conclusion-seeking beings; it’s part of our nature to want to make sense of what we are seeing and experiencing. Yet, because of our nature, our language is typically story-based rather than fact-based. Back to the facts – what is observable, quantifiable? When you start with the facts, the other party is less likely to contest what you are saying. Here’s an example: A: “You are being negligent with your P-card,” or B) “Your have not reconciled your P-card  in two months.” Which one would you receive better? Option B is observable and quantifiable; your conclusion could be that this behavior is negligent but there are many other ways it can be interpreted. Also, option B is not accusatory. It leaves room for explanation. This helps reduce defensiveness. Furthermore, it is common for an employee to ask, “Give me an example of [insert performance issue].” If a supervisor is relying on a subjective narrative, then they won’t be able to provide any concrete examples to the employee, and the overall message is weakened significantly.

     3. Describe expectations for the job and how they should be met

Lastly, describe the gap between what you expect in their performance and what you are observing. Here’s an example: “Part of your job includes reconciling travel expenses on your P-card within a month of purchases. I see that our department is two months behind. Can you help me understand what has been happening?” What you’re doing here is two-fold: you’re setting up the conversation in a behaviorally-specific way, and you’re looking for whether this is an ability issue or a motivation issue. This idea is covered extensively in Crucial Accountability. It helps leaders diagnose what is causing the gap in an employee’s performance. In short, look for language that sounds either like “I can’t” (ability) or “I don’t like/want to…” (motivation).  

As a manager or supervisor, if you anticipate a particular employee will be surprised or shocked come their 2020 evaluation, now is the time to start having these important conversations with them. Not only does this give them a heads-up for evaluations, it also gives them an opportunity to improve. This strategy frames evaluations in a constructive, not punitive way. Here’s a possible script you might use:

You:  “Hi Pat, I wanted to have a conversation about where I see your performance.  Is now a good time?…  I want to give you a heads-up regarding some issues that, if not addressed or improved, could negatively affect your rating next year.  Part of your job includes reconciling travel expenses on your P-card within a month of purchases. I see that our department is two months behind.  Can you help me understand why there is that difference?”

Pat:  “I just haven’t had time to get to that.  And, I wasn’t properly trained how to do this so I end up making tons of mistakes and have to keep restarting the process.” (This is an ability issue.)

You:  “So, it sounds like you don’t know how to properly reconcile? If I could get someone to train you, do you think that would resolve the issue?”

Pat:  “Yes, I’m happy to do it, I just don’t know how.”

This script works if your motive is a constructive, positive one: improving performance, getting in compliance, or having a good working relationship. Conversely, if your motives are more in line with being right, looking good, or punishing, your employee will sense this and respond defensively.  

The Big Picture

When any employee receives their performance evaluation, they are typically receiving more feedback in that one document and one meeting than they are receiving throughout the rest of the year combined. Employees will gauge things like how much they are appreciated, how well you know their duties, and accordingly they will gauge the quality of their relationship with their supervisor throughout the process. To many employees, the quality of their relationship with their supervisor and recognition are more important to their job satisfaction than compensation. Increasing your frequency of providing feedback develops trust, decreases discomfort, and helps employees truly understand how to improve. 

Any potential surprises for your direct reports in 2020? Get ahead of these performance issues now to ensure an easier evaluation season for all – we are here to help!

By Lisa Neale, Associate Director
University of Colorado Denver|Anschutz Medical Campus

Brad Mathers, Principle Human Resources Consultant
University of Colorado Denver|Anschutz Medical Campus

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