On Horse-poo, Carrots, and Performance Reviews
by Bill Catlette
For the past few years there has been a hue and a cry, joined of late by large numbers of HR professionals, suggesting that companies need to stop doing traditional performance appraisals. You know what we’re talking about – those semi-annual (usually), awkward, occasionally unpleasant, and never timely conversations where you and your boss are supposed to sit down and have a documented conversation about what has gone well, and not so well with your work performance.
Invariably, when the question, “Why do we need to stop doing them?” is asked, at least three things leap to the fore:
- “They are backward looking.” Uh, yeah, that’s usually the way after-action reviews work. We have to wait until the activity actually happens to figure out what worked, what didn’t, and draw lessons from it.
- “Our employees (especially Millenials) don’t like them, feel demeaned by them, and have decided that they greatly prefer applause and gold stars to feedback.”
- “Our managers don’t like doing them, and find them time consuming. Moreover, they aren’t very good at it.”
I have a good friend who keeps himself busy with a variety of paid diversions. One of his gigs involves making the rounds of eastern Pennsylvania horse farms during late Springtime, for the purpose of hauling away giant truckloads of accumulated horse poo, which he then takes to nearby carrot farms and sells as fertilizer. I’ve long admired his ability to effectively monetize both ends of the digestive process while gaining tax deductibility for an asset that he would have owned and operated anyhow. While his poo-hauler would earn the envy of Mike Rowe and serious truckers alike, my hope is that he doesn’t hear about this performance review rejection thing, because he will need to get a bigger, much bigger truck.
The argument that leaders should abandon the effort to give balanced, candid, timely work performance feedback because it’s difficult, harsh at times, and unpopular is, in a word, nuts. (That’s probably not the word you were expecting, is it?)
Nobody… repeat, NOBODY gets better by refusing to take stock of their mistakes and weaknesses, and focusing instead only on their strengths. That is pure fantasy, akin to trying to make the argument that the New England Patriots would get even better if Bill Belichick and his assistant coaches would only stop blowing those damned whistles and calling players out for a missed block here and a wrong turn there! Give me a break!
By the way, this isn’t just an argument that we preach for consumption by others. We practice it, too. As business authors, we’re frequently invited to speak at meetings and conferences of business leaders. Three to four times a year, I capture my presentation, end to end, on video, purely for feedback and improvement purposes. I take the video home, watch it, puke, review it with my business partner who is a more polished speaker, and initiate action steps that will lead to better performance. And yes, thanks to my inner Millenial, I have been known to re-wind, tweet, and watch over and over again the ‘happy parts’ of the video.
One piece of value that any good coach brings to clients has to do with illuminating (and helping them overcome) their ‘blind spots’ – performance robbing flaws or tendencies that have almost universally remained hidden to them. The fact that their own bosses have been unwilling or unable (more the former) to shine a light on and coach them through this is unfortunate. Good coaches wait until there is sufficient trust to have this conversation, and they certainly don’t derive any pleasure from it. But they sure as hell do derive satisfaction from seeing clients meet or exceed their goals, and accomplish things they never dreamt possible, both of which are enabled by candid reflection and a willingness to try something new.
If you’re seriously interested in making performance feedback and coaching work in your organization, and are unwilling, as we are, to hop on a noisy, somewhat misguided bandwagon, here are a few suggestions:
- Start, Stop, Keep – Be they paper or digital, do away with the review forms and templates. Rather than ratings and rankings, focus your conversation (CONVERSATION) on a short, mutually developed list of things that, in the interest of helping them do their very best work, you and/or your staff member should stop or start doing. Augment that with a somewhat longer list of things to keep just the way they are. Keep it manageable, balanced, and focused on stuff that matters and is going to move the needle.
- Be Prepared – Spend ten minutes preparing for every minute you plan to be in discussion with your teammate about their recent performance. That’s right, five hours of prep for a thirty-minute conversation. If you think that’s excessive, just reverse the roles and ask yourself how much time you would want your boss to spend in the same mode. Give serious thought to things like: Is any of this likely to be a surprise to them? If so, why? How much of any performance deficiency on their part am I responsible for? Do I really have a full set of facts? Are there any areas where good performance on their part is actually punishing to them, or bad performance rewarding? How can I best help them succeed? How are they likely to accept my feedback? How does this conversation intersect with their goals and ambitions? How can I make it personally meaningful for them?
- Roles Reversed – Put on your big boy (or girl) pants and solicit feedback from your staff member as to things you can do to better support or enable them to do their best work. Prepare to listen, really listen, and accept it as a gift.
- Keep Your Promises – If you schedule a review discussion with someone on April 14, make real sure it comes to pass on or before that date, no matter what. Missing a due date on a discussion like this can only be taken as an unmistakable signal that you don’t care about them and their development.
- Follow Up – Follow up from a performance review discussion mustn’t wait until the end of the new review cycle. Quite the opposite – start immediately. As soon as you see your team member taking action on something the two of you have talked about, say something. Let them know that you’ve noticed, you appreciate their effort, and expect it to continue.
Giving and getting performance feedback – honest, timely, helpful feedback, isn’t easy, but as leaders, it’s what we get paid to do. If you think it’s hard telling somebody that they’ve got a couple of things to work on, what do you think it’s going to be like telling them they can’t work here any more? Get on with it.
A pathfinder in the arena of leadership and employee engagement Bill Catlette is an Executive Coach, Advisor to Management, Keynote Speaker, and Author. He helps leaders connect the dots between People, Passion, Performance and Profit, hone their leadership skills, and achieve demonstrably better outcomes. For more information about Bill, his partner Richard Hadden, and their work, visit their website, or follow them onTwitter @ContentedCows