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Real-Time Performance Reviews

By Jim Whitt

On the list of things that are done for all the wrong reasons in organizations, performance reviews would have to rank near the top. They end up being “check the boxes” exercises that have little influence on performance because they take place after the fact. The typical performance review is the equivalent of landing an airplane and asking, “Now, where are we?” It’s a little late in the game for that question.

One of the worst things about reviews is the use of numerical values to rate performance. You have probably met more than one manager who refuses to give the highest rating to anyone using the excuse, “I don’t believe in giving perfect scores.” Recently an employee of a major corporation related the bizarre example of this attitude he experienced in his most recent performance review. After the end of the evaluation, his manager said, “Nobody scores that high!” He then proceeded to lower the employee’s scores.

If the scale is 1-5 and no one ever gets a 5 then that means you’re a lousy manager. Why can’t the people who report to you ever hit the mark? What’s sad is that the boss who is afraid to acknowledge someone has met or exceeded expectations never quite understands why people quit trying to meet or exceed expectations. If you never give a 5 (or even a 4) when it’s deserved you create a culture where 3 becomes your standard of excellence. Mediocrity is not only acceptable, it’s as good as it gets.

On the flip side is the failure to let someone know that they’re just not getting the job done. Too many bosses are so fearful of conflict or hurting people’s feelings that they will ignore bad behavior and poor performance even when it’s detrimental to the organization. Once people understand that no one will ever call their hand when they fail to meet expectations, the tail starts wagging the dog. Guess what happens when a supervisor gives a 3 or a 4 when the employee deserves to be shown the door? Pretty soon you end up with a group of employees that makes The Three Stooges look competent.

The annual review is not going to go away, but the real performance review should be taking place in real-time every day. Good or bad performance needs to be recognized immediately and consistently. The manager’s role should be like that of a flight instructor. The employee’s role is like that of a student. The instructor and student fly side-by-side.

 Clearly Define Expectations: First, there needs to be a flight plan with clearly defined expectations. To establish the plan, the manager should ask the employee to complete a list of expectations of the job from the employee’s perspective. This should include what he believes the responsibilities are and what authority he possesses. The manager should do the same from the manager’s perspective. Then, a discussion needs to take place to reconcile the two lists until both are in agreement. The manager also needs to learn what the employee believes he needs from the manager to successfully do his job.

Measure Behavior, Values, and Skills: In addition to establishing these expectations, assessments should be completed to measure behavior, values and skills required for the job. Then corresponding assessments should be completed by the employee to see how they compare. This establishes a benchmark that helps the employee to understand his strengths and helps the manager understand how to capitalize on his strengths. It also identifies areas which need strengthening. It’s important to remember that the employee has to be a good behavioral fit for the job. No amount of coaching can remake someone into something he is not.

Communicate Constantly and Consistently: Now, that there is a flight plan in place it is the manager’s responsibility to provide a system and process for constant and consistent communication. He has to coach the employee, not just evaluate his performance to keep the plane on course. In my first job out of college, my sales manager called me every Monday morning. His questions included: What’s going on? How are you doing? What can I help you with? This provided him with what he needed to know to help me do my job. It provided me with the help I needed do my job.

Provide Specific Feedback: When employees meet or exceed expectations they should be told they are on course. This needs to be specific. There is nothing in the world that will inspire you more to keep doing a great job than to hear from the boss that you are doing a great job. The only exception is when those words are either insincere or untrue.

When employees fail to meet expectations they need to be told they are off course. Again, this needs to be specific. If you don’t hear what you need to improve on the only assumption to be made is that you doing what you should be doing — or your boss doesn’t care what you do. I know of a case where employees describe their manager as a wonderful person but do not think he is a good manager. They like him but dislike working for him because he gives them no direction. They feel like they are flying blind. This creates a high level of anxiety for the employees and the manager.

Choose Your Direction: Employees need and want direction. How and when it is done is what makes the difference — for the employee, for the boss and for the organization. Like flying a plane, reviewing performance should be a matter of constant course adjustments. If you wait until the end of the flight to make adjustments to the course you will always be disappointed with where you land. Worse yet, someone else will probably be sifting through the wreckage to figure out why the plane crashed.

Read other articles and learn more about Jim Whitt.

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