As the performance review season approaches, we can all pretty much see the drill play out in our minds – those one-on-one conversations between reviewers and reviewees, comprising the same old positive and negative feedback. What is the result? A mixed message from the reviewers that can leave even the best employees feeling bewildered.
For many employees, this face-to-face performance review is the most stressful work-related conversation of the year. This is equally stressful for managers too. Most often, what a performance appraisal requires is for one person to stand in judgment of another. Its uncomfortable deep-down and we all know it.
But what if we all take the right approach to appraisals, considering them to be an opportunity, instead of an ordeal; an occasion to repose faith and confidence in solid performers and redirect poor performers.
Here are some strategies that companies can use to help make the performance review season more productive and less nerve-racking. (These can be adopted by anyone, irrespective of the appraisal system they function in.)
Performance planning by setting expectations & ongoing check-in mechanism
It is essential to provide clarity at the very beginning to employees on how they will be evaluated at the end of the year. To achieve this, it is important to hold ‘performance planning’ sessions with each of the direct reports at the beginning of the year – to discuss that employee’s goals and the supervisor’s expectations. At The Smart Cube, we follow this naturally as we believe that employee performance improves significantly if expected outcomes are known. This is also the best way to hold people accountable for the objectives set by supervisors. Counselors and supervisors should listen carefully to personal ambitions of the employees, as it informs the way you assess their work.
Understanding what the direct reports want from their careers will help managers design ways to broaden the former’s professional experiences. The periodicity of performance conversations is essential. A right balance between ongoing feedback sessions and periodic assessments is required not only to consistently empower employees to become better professionals, but also to avoid making them dread the task of filling ‘yet another’ review every month. For instance, to ensure that employees stay on course at The Smart Cube, besides the ongoing feedback sessions, a mid-year review (MYR) is also conducted to help in the necessary course correction.
Process-based on a data-driven discussion
It is important to value employees’ opinion about themselves, and also create a culture where opinions are fact-based, making the performance conversation data-driven. This approach has dual benefits – employees feel empowered and valued, and subjectivity is also eliminated from the performance conversation. Employees must be asked to jot down their strengths in KRAs and beyond, with data to support their case and areas they believe they need to improve on. Employees should walk in the face-to-face review meeting after having done this self-assessment.
This introspection helps employees to critically examine their work and develop a fair perspective. At the same time, supervisors must go over the notes kept on the employee concerned – a well-executed project, a deadline missed, the deft handling of a difficult client, etc. – and based on these facts. Then write the assessment in the form of the employee’s strengths, areas for improvement, identifying training/mentoring needs. The assessment report must be shared with the employee before the review meeting so that the employee has sufficient time to assimilate the feedback objectively. As a result, during the review meeting, the employee is prepared for a rational and constructive business conversation.
Setting the right tone for feedback conversation
Appraisers should be sensitized not to have a ‘feedback sandwich’ approach – compliments, criticism, more niceties – because this approach does not convey a clear message. It demoralizes the stars and falsely encourages poor performers. Performance reviews are a chance to encourage strong performers and confront poor performers demanding improvement. Poor performers must be given an opportunity through a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), with a laid out plan, expected outcomes and check-in timelines to make the review process transparent. Strong performers, showing the signs of taking on higher responsibilities must be considered for taking the next step on their career ladder. At The Smart Cube, we call this phase, ‘Step-Up’ where we identify high potentials eligible for taking that leap and chart an elaborate plan with clear deliverables that would prepare them for higher responsibilities.
Coaching for constructive feedback
One of the effective ways to frame feedback is regarding what the person should Stop, Start and Continue doing. What is the employee doing now that is not working? What are they doing that is highly effective? What actions should they adopt to be more so? The appraiser is advised to give specific advice and targeted praise. Desist from saying things such as, ‘You need to be more proactive.’ That doesn’t mean anything. Give specific feedback on what it means to be more proactive. For example, appraisers would be advised to say things like, ‘You need to comprehend the problem well and think of the possible solutions before-hand while resolving the client’s issue.’ Similarly, saying, ‘You’re an innovator’ is nice, but it’s helpful to know exactly what they’re doing that reflects that.
Focusing not only on ‘What’ (to be achieved) but ‘How’ as well
Some companies require managers to rate their employees – often on a scale of 1–5. A forced rating often deflates the true objective of an effective performance review conversation, because the entire focus then is shifted to the rating, rather than the actual objective at hand – which is to empower the employee to achieve more. Companies need to take this shift from feedback to feed-forward – where a performance conversation is not a forum to point at an employee’s mistakes. Instead, it is a platform for the employee and the employer to learn from them. The focus should be on career planning of the individual, and the manager must work with him/her and chart plan which pays attention to what is to be achieved, and how it is to be achieved.
(With the appraisal season not too far, People Matters brings to you a series of articles to help you gear up for the season. Be prepared, '#MarchIsComing'.)