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Getting the performance review process right

Jan 03, 2023

Performance reviews are one of the most dreaded if not outright loathed responsibilities that leaders are beholden to. Turns out, there are actually some good reasons for this poor reputation.

First, oftentimes the performance criteria and the actual demands of the role are not aligned, leading to an evaluation that is neither helpful nor relevant.

Next, if performance discussions have been put off all year long, using a single session to evaluate and then reward or demerit performance is extremely difficult and ineffective.

Lastly, at their worst, performance evaluations are simply a compliance exercise of checking a box to acknowledge the spirit of, but not the actual commitment to, real developmental and job performance improvement.

Imagine if instead of an uncomfortable meeting you dread the approach of every year, you actually had regular performance discussions with your direct reports, allowing you to wrap up at the end of the year with a simple, mutually acknowledged review that actually reflects the individual’s developmental goals and achievements? Much better, right?

Performance reviews don’t have to be a source of frustration and anxiety. The key to creating a better experience with performance reviews is to create a better experience to performance management itself.

As a leader, you’re committed to the support and development of your team and performance management becomes a natural part of your efforts. Evaluating performance and then working to develop around areas of need becomes your operating philosophy as a leader. This means performance discussions become routine. And routines aren’t nearly so scary.

Acknowledge that performance feedback is core to leading

Supporting the success of your people and working to develop them core to being a good leader. When you value leading in this way, you increase the capacity of work that can be done, you improve the quality of work that can get done and you support employee engagement by laying out a regular strategy for professional development.

Beyond valuing your role as a leader, there are two other key areas of focus that will help you create improved performance reviews:

1. Regular coaching conversations with your employees

You can’t develop anyone if you never meet with them. Tackling the daily tasks and connecting on basic functional issues is normal and should form a large portion of your ongoing interaction with your team members. But, if this is the only feedback you are routinely providing, you are doing a disservice to your employees and failing to meet a necessary leadership role: the role of the coach.

Coaching is a leadership activity, and, specifically, a developmental activity. Performance management is intrinsic to coaching, because coaching seeks to help identify and address impediments to employee success.

Coaching is, in fact, one of the most significant developmental tools in your toolbox and, when employed consistently and correctly, can really transform both an employee’s performance and performance potential.

Coaching is different from mentoring or other forms of developmental work — like team alignment or goal setting — because it’s one-on-one and intended to focus expressly on helping individuals to address their own current challenges and areas for professional growth.

To do this, coaching prods the individual to seek their own answers and solutions through the use of good, open-ended questions. This places the burden of problem-solving on the individual.

Instead of handing them the answer or simply sharing common best practices, the coach challenges the individual to think critically about their problems and to ultimately generate their own answers.

When this practice is performed routinely, a coach can build tremendous positive momentum with their coachee. Sustained coaching work is necessary to address longstanding behaviors and rewire activities that are either ineffective or inhibit growth. It’s not enough to point out behavioral issues a single time; persistent work is required to shift how we behave.

Meeting regularly reinforces developmental goals and can help to map out and then acknowledge that real change is taking place, especially when it can feel that these changes are moving painfully slow or not at all.

In addition to taking the time to coach employees, leaders need to ensure there is alignment between the skills or behaviors they’re trying to develop in their employees and the performance criteria used to actually evaluate employees.

2. Aligning performance standards with performance reviews

When performance criteria doesn’t line up with the skills or behaviors that you’re trying to develop in your team members, this can create a problem. Imagine the mixed message this is sending to your employees. What does the organization really value? What gets rewarded? And what happens when a lot of time has been spent — and progress made — on performance issues that the organization doesn’t recognize, evaluate or reward?

We should acknowledge that sometimes you do work to develop skills or competencies that are not formally part of your organization’s talent development focus, perhaps because there are very basic or critical gaps in an individual’s skillset that simply need to be addressed. But when the organization has defined key competencies — and especially when you have this at the team or even role level — they provide an easy roadmap for a coach to follow in determining the right areas of focus.

These are skills the organization has determined are important and are typically very well defined. This can help to shape a developmental approach when the employee is perhaps unclear on where exactly they need to start their journey.

By contrast, when there is alignment in the needs in the role and the focus of the coaching effort, then it becomes easy to finalize performance evaluations and ensure that any developmental work you’re performing has a natural alignment to the interests and focus of the organization.

Now, you’re regularly working on well-defined developmental areas and also able to map and reward progress through the existing performance management system of the organization. This is the situation you want to be in.

Performance reviews may never be your favorite part of being a people leader, but if you do lead people, it’s essential that you are evaluating performance and working to develop your team members.

Not to do so is unfair to them and their potential for growth in the organization, as well as failing to meet your most basic responsibility as a leader.

But when you ensure that you are regularly meeting with each of your people and that those meetings are designed expressly to help them develop through a good coaching practice and a clear roadmap of acknowledged skills, then not only do your formal performance reviews carry more significance, but they become easier to have and more enjoyable for both you and your employee to navigate.

How Wipfli can help

Wipfli’s leadership development programs help leaders at every level cultivate a leadership mindset that empowers others to thrive. Learn more about how we help clients with people, process and strategy on our organizational performance consulting web page.

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Steve Hopkins
Director, Organizational performance
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