5 Big Mistakes Bosses Make in Performance Reviews
And How to Make Sure Never Make Them
Let’s face it. Rock star employees are always tough to find. But in a candidate’s market (like the one we’re in right now), a superior candidate pool can seem as elusive as a herd of unicorns. At times like these, hiring managers often ask me for tips and tactics that can help them compete in a battleground market like this one.
My answer: keep the employees you have – and keep them happy.
Now if, at first, your mind goes to things like promotions, merit increases, or better office space, good for you! Those can be powerful motivators. But here’s one more tool you have in your tool kit right now – that won’t add a dime to the budget – that you may be overlooking.
What is it, you ask? It’s the Performance Review. And yes, I’m well aware of the terrible reputation this little management ritual has earned over the years. I’ve read the recent calls for a full-on abolition of the performance appraisal process. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the performance review’s demise are greatly exaggerated.
In fact, I would strongly argue that having frank, fair performance discussions can – and should – be one of the most positive, rewarding, retention-boosting things you can do as a boss. As long as you stop making these common mistakes.
1. Saving it all up for One Big Shock-and-Awe style “Annual Review”
No wonder your employees hate review time! To be a healthy, productive, career-affirming process, feedback about performance should be an ongoing, mutually respectful dialogue that occurs frequently, both formally and informally. And if, for some bureaucratic reason, you are required to host one high-stakes yearly conversation that is tied to an annual rating and/or merit increase, make sure that particular conversation is merely a summary of what has already been discussed.
2. Launching the conversation without a shared agenda.
A sure way to make even the most valued employee feel disrespected is to bring them into a formal performance conversation without a printed, pre-communicated agenda. Three reasons for that. First, a copy of the agenda makes it clear that you’ve thought about what you’d like to cover and what you’d like to say. It also gives your employee an opportunity to mentally and emotionally prepare for the agenda items you’ve noted. And finally, it will keep you both on track and focused so you don’t forget – or gloss over –the important stuff.
3. Failing to be specific about performance vs. expectations
All too often, employees walk out of performance conversations thinking with a completely inaccurate idea of 1.) how they’re doing; 2.) your priorities for their role within the organization; and 3.) what they need to focus on in order to grow. Why? Because they’re human… and so are you. This kind of confusion has the potential to breed so much unnecessary resentment. Yet, there’s a simple fix for this issue, if you’re willing to form a new habit. Always ask your employee to paraphrase their understanding of each key point you make – and be sure you summarize and paraphrase each point or issue they bring up. Do this, even if (especially if) you need to have the uncomfortable talk about sub-par performance. You both deserve to walk away from the meeting with a clear understanding of where things stand.
4. Holding employees to a perfectionistic standard.
No, perfectionism is not a strength. It’s an unreasonable set of standards that set you and your team up for a perpetual sense of failure and disappointment. If you struggle with perfectionism, get help in assessing the performance of others. Seek input from a trusted mentor who can help you evaluate performance against reasonable standards. This sounds easier than it is. It’s actually one of the toughest challenges a manager can face because perfectionism isn’t a habit, it’s a deeply ingrained set of views and beliefs about the way things should be… if only the world and everyone in it were perfect. All too often, it causes otherwise gifted managers to send caustic, unhealthily judgmental messages to their staff. But if you get help in moderating your standards – and the ways in which you communicate your view of others’ performance – you will not only reduce employee friction, you’ll actually be a happier manager.
5. Getting blinded by that shiny, shiny halo
Maybe there’s someone on your team who’s been struggling since you hired them. They’ve never quite grasped the fundamentals of the job and you’ve been deeply troubled about their future prospects. But about six months ago, during a major project crisis, they jumped in and saved the day with some last-minute smart planning and solid execution that made a major difference to your P&L. They’re a hero, right? Maybe. But how has their performance been since then? Back to the same lackluster level? If you’re talking about a year-end summary, don’t let one great moment cloud your judgment or your comments about the year. It happens all the time and it’s called “The Halo Effect.” And if you fall under its spell, you’ll send your employees back to their desks under the very false impression that they had a great year. They didn’t. And they need to know exactly what to improve in order to continue with the team.