Tips for CEOs (and other leaders): There’s More to Performance than an Appraisal

A gyroscope keeps its rotation axis constant. ...

Image of a gyroscope via Wikipedia

Dental root canals, IRS tax audits, and what for many is the annual formal performance appraisal are all equally inviting.

There are some simple, straight forward steps you can take to make the performance appraisal process more appealing and effective, and this post will walk you through those ways and perhaps even have it be easier (if there is such a thing), more productive, and attractive. (I have no great ideas for the first two items apart from brush, floss, and follow the tax rules.)

Formal performance appraisals get done for a variety of reasons, some good (to make sure employees actually get feedback, to help surface career or skill development plans), some pretty dumb (because HR says you have to, or because the form is there to use), and some that are neutral (provide an HR record for posterity purposes).

Management guru Ken Blanchard has called feedback “the breakfast of champions” and a performance appraisal should simply be one part of a series of feedback conversations – both yours as somebody’s boss or team member, and your direct report.

In an ideal world we would all be self-regulating human feedback gyroscopes – getting and giving data from the world around us regarding our performance and the performance of people around us. Like spotters on race tracks or in gymnastics, and coaches in all sorts of settings, everybody can use external data to avoid going out of bounds and staying on track, and figuring out ways to maximize performance.

It’s in your interest as a supervisor to have your direct reports (DRs) and teammates be able to self-regulate. You want them to be able to tell when they’re doing well, and when they need to make course corrections or change strategies without you telling them. If they can’t or don’t know how to tell how they are doing it leaves it mostly up to you, a performance hot seat I’d suggest avoiding. It’s their performance after all, not solely yours.

Based on those premises, here’s how to conduct a performance appraisal conversation assuming your goal is to optimize your DR/teammates performance as well as your own. And note that this piece from Dartmouth has some excellent “how-to’s” regarding performance appraisals and performance feedback in general.

  1. Ask the person you’re appraising to come prepared to talk about your performance as their supervisor / team member. In particular you want to find out the things that you’re doing that are helpful (the “do more of” things) and the things that the DR wished you did differently. Note that I didn’t say that you do badly; framing the question as a wish to do differently and how to do them differently will get you much richer and better data,
  2. Throughout the conversation ask for behaviors, impact and observations. This post – How to Give – and Get – Great Feedback – will help.
  3. Ask your DR/teammate how they think they did this past performance period. What were they things they think they did well (and how did they know), and what did they think they should have done differently (and what tells them they should do so).
  4. Fill in the blanks for the DR – observations you have as their boss where you think they were spot on in their self-assessment, and areas where you have a different perception on their performance then they do, and how you happen to see it differently.
  5. Thank them for their work and effort. Tell them how their role is important in the bigger scheme of things. Ask them about the conversation you just had – what could you have done differently, what would they prefer you did the same.
  6. Set up a time to follow-up and chart out goals – both performance and developmental – based on your conversation.

There are a couple of moving parts that are underneath the surface of this conversation to call out for you in this script:

  • Giving someone the opportunity to give you feedback first means they are much more likely to hear the feedback you have for them later in the conversation. It may sound counterintuitive. It works.
  • Asking the DR/teammate to tell you how they know they are doing well (or badly) gives you an opportunity to affirm that they’re using the “right” factors or dispel them. It is tough to self-regulate if you don’t know whether to use north or south; you’re job as supervisor or teammate is to make sure they’re looking at the right criteria and factors.
  • They are leading the performance conversation; your role has shifted from being the traditional driver to one more of a coach. It will share the hot seat with your DR/teammate, and it will make the conversation more engaging, interactive, than a typical top done, one-way performance appraisal conversation.
  • I’ve separated the goal setting conversation from the performance conversation. Why? It’s like eating a full Thanksgiving meal in 10 minutes; you can do it but most likely it won’t be a highly productive experience. May people need time to percolate after a significant conversation – spacing out the goal and development side of the conversation let’s the performance conversation “settle” before you move on to things that are further extensions of the conversations.

That’s it; a way to change the dynamics of an appraisal conversation to make it more productive, easier and better heard. The leading research on performance is that it’s mostly about perseverance, and being able to self regulate and choose best (and frequently different) strategies.

Structuring a performance appraisal conversation that can help you accentuate all three is a good start to boosting your DR/teammates performance, as well as your own.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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