It is likely you have had an experience like this in your past:
You are 8 or 10 or 12 years old. You’ve done something wrong, whether you know it yet or not. You certainly know it after you have been told to “stay after class”, “go to the Principal’s office” or “wait until your Father gets home.”
Whatever the offense, the event goes about the same. You are told what you did, why it is wrong, and what you need to do differently. This wasn’t a conversation – the person in charge informed you of the situation and did most, if not all, of the talking. Whether it came as a surprise or not, the event was difficult, painful and you remember the event, but it isn’t fondly.
Now think about your past performance reviews.
Do any of them resemble, in part or in total, those experiences as a kid? Even if your review was somewhat or largely positive, isn’t there still a similar feel to some of these experiences? There is a judge, an authority figure, and then there is you. Listening to the verdict.
Given this, is it any wonder why performance reviews have such a bad name?
Last week I shared some very specific tactics in the form of questions to ask during a performance review to engage the performer more. While those questions are extremely valuable and can make a big difference in the effectiveness of performance conversations, this week I want to step back and look at the bigger picture principles that, when applied, will lead to more effective performance conversations every time.
It is these principles that make the questions shared last week work, and when we apply the principles for the right reasons, our results will improve.
Overcoming Past Experience
I opened with the scenarios that I did to make a point. No one comes into their next performance review with a clean slate. We have past experience and it isn’t all rosy. Because of this, specifics tactics might not work perfectly with every person – at least not at first. You are not just changing the way you do reviews; you have to overcome people’s experience first.
That is why the principles I am going to share with you are so important. When you focus on the principles, you will have a better chance of finding approaches to apply those principles in specific situations.
- Remember the big goal – improvement and growth. It isn’t really a performance review, contrary to what people call it. The goal isn’t to fill out a form or satisfy HR. The goal is performance improvement and growth. These conversations are coaching folks. When you remember this, and let others know that is your focus, you will improve results immediately.
- Make it review, not evaluation. Think about your worst reviews and those sit-downs with authority as a kid. These were evaluations. Grades. And how did that work? We can review performance without it feeling punitive or like a report card. And when we do this, it will likely be more effective. Scratch the word evaluation, make it a review.
- Find ways to reduce the stress out of the event. If this is about coaching, it is about learning, and the best learning experiences are seldom high stress. Help people take a deep breath. Let them know that you recognize this may feel stressful to them. Let them know your goal is to remove as much of that stress as you can. Then as you apply the other ideas in this article, they will believe you.
- Look forward, not just backward. Most reviews look at what has already happened – they are, in effect, a history lesson. Just like we can’t change who won last year’s Super Bowl, we can’t change our past performance. If we are creating a coaching opportunity, we have to put the past in context and focus at least some of our conversation on what we can change – which is the “next time.”
- People don’t argue with their own data. They have an opinion about their performance and results. They have intimate experience with it. And while their perspective might be different than ours, their perspective matters. When they share that they wish something could have gone better, you don’t have to convince them of that fact, they already own it. So let them talk. First.
- Reduce defensiveness and improve results. Once we get defensive, the barriers are up and we aren’t interested in getting “helpful advice” from others, even if they are our boss. So do everything you can to reduce defensiveness. As it turns out, if you let them talk more and sooner in the conversation, you will melt much of the defensiveness that might otherwise occur.
- It is their performance, help them own it. You may be doing the review, but it is a review about their performance. It isn’t about you. Keep that in mind, and make the entire exercise about people taking accountability for their performance, results, and improvement.
- Make it a conversation. In order to make all the other principles listed work, you must shut up and talk less. A common thread in people’s poor experiences is that they were talked at – and weren’t engaged. When you turn a “review” into a conversation – open to the opinions and views of both parties – you have taken the other principles here into account and will create better results.
These principles are profoundly powerful. As you apply them with care and practice, you will create more effective performance conversations, higher levels of trust, and ultimately greater performance, which is what you were after in the first place.