Conversation and performance appraisals

I copied this post from a forum entry that I made in the Harvard business school working knowledge newsletter. The topic is performance appraisals. You can see the whole topic at http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/5563.html.

In a perfect world we would talk to each other. Simple, respectful, daily conversations. Have conversations about performance, goals, expectations, rewards, recognition, and about individuals as people. If we all did this, appraisals would not be so traumatic for managers. I suspect that those who in this forum have indicated that they embrace performance appraisals also talk with their team members, not once a year but daily. I too do just that; continuously talk with my team members so that they always know where they stand and where they can improve.

With that said, I seem to remember, maybe someone here can quote the statistics, that 85% of managers do not discipline employees because they do not like confrontation. If that is the case, 85% of managers will always have a hard time with performance appraisals. If this is indeed the case, we can not as managers and leaders simply expect that everyone will jump on the performance appraisal bandwagon. So what do we do?

I like tools and processes to help managers focus on team member’s development. We also might consider aligning our expectations of our managers with their rewards so that they are rewarded for and focus on the development of their people rather than solely focus on management tasks. Add coaching and training in performance appraisals and combine with processes and tools to help with the performance appraisal process and we just might help all managers become effective in the process.

Forced ranking is quite another thing altogether. It is a tool and a process so it does help facilitate the performance appraisal system. In a perfect world it would be unnecessary I believe. I am uncomfortable with the process because it seems like a substitute for regular conversations…an easy way out. I have seen other performance appraisal tools and processes that are robust, easy to use, aligned with corporate goals and objectives, and are effective without forced ranking. So for now I am a bit ambivalent about forced ranking.

Untying financial increases from the performance appraisal is one way to create a less threatening environment for managers. Tie financial increases to enterprise and/or team performance with a component of personal performance. Tie to skill, competency, or education improvement. There are several ways to go about this. Probably a matrix approach would be best. Just as with executive compensation, if you reward only on one dimension, you will see all decisions skewed in that one direction. If the rewards are balanced and are designed to drive fulfillment of the goals, objectives, values, and vision of the organization, the negative stress created by out of alignment expectations and rewards will be greatly reduced.

I was asked today how I would handle a disciplinary issue with an employee

I thought about this question for a few moments. Do I use a formula? Do I have specific steps that I have memorized? What do I do? I have a conversation with the employee, plain and simple. We sit down for a respectful conversation and I explore what I could be doing to help this person succeed. Do they need more resources to excel at their work? Do they have roadblocks in the way of doing an exceptional job? Have I provided clear and unambiguous expectations? Does this person know what success looks like? Only after exploring a variety of issues, all of which I have control over, do I then explore what the employee brings to the table as far as baggage. And what kind of baggage am I looking for? Willingness and ableness to do the work assigned. If a person is willing and able, I can teach them to be successful at almost anything. But none of this happens without simply sitting down and talking.

Just think how you feel when you are called into someone’s office that has the power to remove you from your position? Regardless of how you feel personally about the person, the person does have this power over you. If they threaten and attack you, my guess is that you close down, don’t listen, or if you do listen, you are fuming. You are investing all of your energy guarding, defending, protecting, and maintaining. There will be no resolution. And of course this person who has power over you is absolutely not accountable for their decisions and actions. It is all your fault. I would love to be inside your heart right now and feel what you are feeling. My guess is that you have relived situations just like this.

Now imagine this same person asking you to sit down for a respectful conversation. You talk, he/she asks questions, understanding develops, and learning happens. You both explore your part in the issue at hand. No ego driving the process just a sincere desire to establish understanding and a resolution that will be shared and actually work. Good for the people and good for the enterprise. This is what conversation is all about.

Create learning conversations with your team members and build respectful relationships. Happy conversations.

John