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FEARLESS PERFORMANCE REVIEWS
COACHING CONVERSATIONS THAT TURN EVERY EMPLOYEE INTO A STAR PLAYER
By JEFFREY RUSSELL, LINDA RUSSELL
McGraw-Hill EducationCopyright © 2014 Jeffrey Russell and Linda Russell
All rights reserved.
Why the Fear in Reviews?
If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.
—Albert Einstein, German-born theoretical physicist
Years ago, our client Brenda called us because she was afraid. Her performance review was coming up the next week, and she was concerned about being ambushed and blindsided by her manager. "I know this guy all too well," she said, "and I just don't trust him." Brenda went on to ask if we would be willing to sit in on the review to keep things accurate and, more importantly, safe.
Our response to Brenda was cautious: "That's not a role that we typically play," we said, "but we're open to the possibility. Let us think about this a bit and get back to you." We were somewhat hesitant because we normally don't get involved in facilitating supervisor–employee discussions.
About 30 minutes later, while we were still pondering whether to get involved, our phone rang again. This time it was a supervisor on the line, saying that he had a performance review with a difficult employee the following week. "I was wondering," Tom asked, "if you'd be willing to sit in on this review to keep things more level headed. Frankly, this employee is pretty volatile, and I'd like someone there as an insurance policy. I find her pretty intimidating, and," he added, "I just don't trust her."
Yes, you guessed it. Tom was Brenda's supervisor. Without hesitating, we said yes to Tom's request—with the qualifier, "as long as Brenda's open to us being there." Tom clearly sounded relieved. Tom said that he'd clear it with Brenda and that, unless we heard from him to the contrary, he would see us at the review the following week.
What Brings Out the Fear?
So why did Tom and Brenda feel anxiety and fear as they each approached this annual performance review? What caused them to dread this encounter so much that they needed a third party to mediate what should have been a pretty straightforward discussion of the past year of Brenda's performance?
Before we get into the origins of fear in Brenda and Tom's situation, let's step back from their unique relationship and explore what it is about performance reviews in general that too often brings anxiety, if not fear, bubbling to the surface in both employees and supervisors.
In our experience, performance reviews often produce uncomfortable feelings in both parties due to the following reasons.
It Seems There's a Lot at Stake
And sometimes there is! Organizations often try to pack a lot into performance reviews—expecting them to be a primary driver of merit-based raises, anchoring promotions to good reviews, surfacing high potentials based upon review ratings, and so forth. Beyond the stakes set by the organization, there are even higher stakes from both the employee's and supervisor's perspectives.
For employees the personal and professional stakes include professional competence, credibility, and reputation; self-esteem and self-worth; job security; career growth and opportunities; and personal pride. These stakes are unique in that they aren't defined by organizations but by employees themselves. A sense of self-worth and professional integrity as well as possible career growth contribute to the importance and potential long-term consequences of the performance review.
But what's at stake for supervisors? Aren't they just raising the stakes for employees? What do they have on the line? For anyone who has held the title of supervisor, the stakes at performance reviews are just as clear as they are for employees: a sense of competence as a supervisor, the ability to maintain a sense of control or influence over the situation, the feeling of responsibility for employees' performance failures, and future career growth as a manager or leader at the organization.
The Process Seems Overly Judgmental
For employees, the anxiety and fear arise in part from the perception that their professional accomplishments and contributions are being judged as worthy or not. Rather than a forward-leaning developmental method, the performance review has a reputation as a backward-looking process that examines an entire year's worth of the employee's performance and then grades that performance as exemplary, good, satisfactory, needing improvement, or unacceptable. Employees feel judged when their entire performance life seems to have been reduced to a checkbox. And why shouldn't they feel anxiety and even fear about that?
Not surprisingly, supervisors have as much difficulty with passing judgment as employees have with being judged. They may not feel confident that they know the employee's work well enough to accurately assess the employee's performance. Even if supervisors feel comfortable with the accuracy of a performance assessment, they may still feel uncomfortable knowing that their judgment of an employee's performance is likely to have an impact upon the employee's image, reputation, and future success at the organization. Checking a box on the performance review form seems easy to do, but good supervisors understand the impact of such judgments. And that's a heavy—and frightening—burden to have on their shoulders.
The Review Process Sometimes Raises Uncomfortable Truths
The greatest value of a performance review comes from an honest discussion of what's working and what's not. Unfortunately, for many people, getting to that level of honesty is hard. It's hard to hear it, and it's hard to speak it.
Who wants to hear their boss point out mistakes they have made? Who enjoys hearing their supervisor talk about an oversight or a bad decision that led to less-than-desirable outcomes? Yes, "to err is human," but none of us wants to make mistakes or be exposed by others as someone who is flawed.
How does it feel for the person sharing these truths? Speaking truthfully can be pretty uncomfortable. Supervisors often don't have the communication skill set to speak clearly and directly about employees' performance shortcomings and failures. Not having the skills or the self-confidence to share these uncomfortable truths raises the supervisor's anxiety level even further. What's the best way to deal with the employee's reaction to constructive feedback? What's the most effective strategy to use when the employee becomes defensive, denies that there's a problem, cries, or blames others? It can be difficult to handle these situations tactfully.
People May Feel Blamed for a Problem
Due to many of the aforementioned sources of fear in performance reviews and because the review is focused on the employee's performance, there is a tendency for the employee being reviewed to feel blamed for performance problems rather than to use the review to examine underlying causes of performance challenges. And, unfortunately, blame never really moves any performance conversation toward a positive outcome. While it might get someone's attention, blame usually just results in defensiveness and denial. When people feel blamed they tend to go undercover.
People Aren't Skilled at Performance Reviews
It's actually quite rare for someone to sit us down and teach us how to either give or receive feedback gracefully or effectively. When training supervisors in the performance review process, too much time is spent on how to fill out the review form and too little time on how to structure the conversation. At best the skills training for supervisors covers such topics as how to give constructive feedback (e.g., focus on behaviors not the person, make it timely, be descriptive), and at worst supervisors are introduced to the infamous "sandwich" technique: start with what the employee is doing well, shift to where the employee needs improvement, and then end with another positive affirmation about the employee's performance. A further complicating factor is that we don't do them often enough to refine the skills we do have. The once-a-year review doesn't facilitate our ability to learn what works and what doesn't. On the whole, the lack of useful training and the infrequency of reviews lead to supervisors not having the skills they need to make the review a meaningful, two-way dialogue about the employee's performance.
Oddly, organizations expend almost no effort at building employees' skills in receiving feedback or playing a proactive and leading role during the performance review. Too often employees are seen as passive receivers of the review rather than active and equal contributors. As a result, without supervisors having the right skills or mindset to facilitate constructive engagement and learning, uncertainty, anxiety, and fear tend to loom large in an employee's mind leading up to and during the review.
There's Too Much Uncertainty
Reviews are often filled with surprises that catch both the employee and supervisor off guard. If reviews occur only once or twice a year or if the relationship between the players is strained, this is even more likely to occur. In the absence of frequent and ongoing performance conversations throughout the year, neither party to the review knows what to expect.
From the supervisor's perspective, uncertainty comes in the form of not knowing how the employee will react to performance feedback or not knowing what information the employee has about performance challenges that, once shared, might compel the supervisor to reassess her understanding of the causes and solutions to such challenges.
From an employee's perspective, uncertainty comes from not knowing what performance issues the supervisor will raise during the review. Will the supervisor focus on problems or challenges from the distant past? Will she focus on recent issues where the employee may have struggled? Will the supervisor share feedback from peers, clients, customers, or other departments regarding the employee's past performance? With uncertainty about what issues will be raised during the review, employees are likely to be anxious and fearful.
People Feel a Loss of Control
Performance reviews often create situations (due to the issues cited above) where one or both parties to the review feel that their ability to maintain control over their work life or future is likely to be impaired. Due to the fact that the supervisor, in the end, gets to determine the final performance assessment along with the consequences of this assessment on the employee's salary, career potential, status in the organization, and so forth, an employee may feel powerless to effectively influence this final assessment—especially if the relationship between the two of them isn't strong.
Supervisors might also feel a loss of control during a performance review because they may not be able to control the direction of the conversation. As you will learn in Chapter 2, we believe that control is an illusion. A supervisor focused on maintaining control during a performance review is taking precisely the wrong approach. If the supervisor is attempting to control the review conversation to ensure that the employee agrees with the review rating and accepts the next steps for improving performance going forward, the supervisor will likely experience anxiety and fear that something during the review is likely to go wrong.
Many Performance Reviews Tend to Be One-Way Conversations
The annual review tends to be one-sided: the supervisor presents an overview of his assessment of the employee's past year of performance, and the employee listens and responds. While sometimes supervisors take steps to make the process more interactive, because supervisors usually drive the performance review conversation, the employee's involvement in the process tends to be more reactive than interactive.
This one-way conversation creates anxiety for the supervisor who feels responsible for doing most of the heavy lifting: doing a performance analysis, identifying the employee's strengths and improvement areas, examining the causes of performance problems, identifying goals for the review, and anticipating and preparing for the employee's reactions. Carrying the weight of leading this process while at the same time being fair and doing the right thing for the employee creates a lot of stress and anxiety—not to mention eats up a lot of time.
The one-sided nature of this process also creates anxiety for the employee for obvious reasons: the employee is in a reactive and/or defensive mode, the supervisor sets the agenda for the discussion and may focus on a narrow set of performance outcomes rather than maintaining a balanced and holistic perspective, and finally—because the employee is reacting to the supervisor's assessment—he may not feel comfortable asserting a narrative that is different from the supervisor's.
In any given performance review only some of these anxiety- or fear-inducing characteristics may be in effect for one or both parties. In other cases, all of them can come into play in ways that make a meaningful process almost impossible to achieve.
Let's return to the performance review example that we started this chapter with: Brenda and Tom. The sources of Brenda's fear and anxiety as the review approached emerged from a confluence of the causes that we've listed above:
There was a lot at stake for her—particularly her sense of self-esteem and competence as well as her reputation and image within the company.
She believed that she was being unfairly judged and would be labeled as less than a star performer.
She was sure that Tom would bring up performance problems in a way that would make her feel like a failure.
She thought that she would be blamed for things that were outside her control.
She wasn't sure what would be included in Tom's feedback to her (uncertainty).
She felt that Tom was in the driver's seat and that she was locked in the trunk. She felt powerless to offer what she believed would be a more accurate assessment of her performance.
Based upon her past experience with Tom's approach to reviews, she knew that it would be a one-way review with little opportunity for her to tell a different story—except by reacting defensively on issues that she expected him to raise during the review.
Brenda essentially feared the review because she believed that Tom was biased against her and had already judged her performance as a problem.
So that's what was going through Brenda's head prior to the review. But, what were the likely causes of supervisor Tom's fear and anxiety as the day approached?
Like Brenda, he too felt that there was a lot at stake—his credibility and competence as a supervisor were on the line, and, from his perspective, he seemed to be losing control of the situation to the extent that he didn't believe he could manage the review effectively, especially considering what he saw as Brenda's stubbornness. Tom was also fearful of raising uncomfortable truths—his perceptions of Brenda's performance problems—knowing that she would push back hard.
There's more. To put it simply, Tom just didn't know how to conduct the review. Although he had been a supervisor for years, he never felt comfortable structuring and navigating the process. This was especially true whenever he was dealing with an employee, like Brenda, who he felt was having performance problems. Finally, Tom was anxious and fearful of the review with Brenda because he felt that it was up to him to drive the conversation—that it was his job to lead the process and give her feedback. And he didn't expect to get much help from Brenda. If anything, he expected her to be defensive and argumentative. For Tom this wasn't going to be easy, and that's why he sought out our assistance to help keep things as pleasant as possible, given the circumstances, and to ensure that Brenda heard what she needed to hear and then agreed to take the right actions to improve her performance in the proceeding year.
So, just imagine what this coming together looked like: two people, uncomfortable with honest conversation, fearful of the process, and mistrusting the motives and intentions of each other, trying to have a meaningful discussion about Brenda's job performance over the past 12 months. Even with us acting as a neutral third party to ensure a civil discourse, this performance review was not likely to go well.
Excerpted from FEARLESS PERFORMANCE REVIEWS by JEFFREY RUSSELL, LINDA RUSSELL. Copyright © 2014 Jeffrey Russell and Linda Russell. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill Education.
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