The simple answer is you’re dealing with people. Individual employees come not only in all shapes and sizes but also with very different personalities and contrasting attitudes to the workplace. For example, they may be disengaged, they may be aggressive or they may be prone to take minor criticisms personally. The great challenge for line managers is to deliver an effective performance review – that is meaningful and engaging – for every different type of employee.
This isn’t easy and it’s made more difficult by the fact that the whole process is underpinned with uncertainty, as there’s no telling how the ‘conversation’ will go or how the individual will react. Perhaps this explains the underlying anxiety that managers feel when review time comes around.
At Video Arts, we’ve just finished production on a new training film to help line managers conduct more effective performance reviews. The advice we give involves important and relatively straightforward aspects such as: structure the session properly, create the right atmosphere, praise their work, ask them where they think they could do better. Something that may seem obvious – but can actually be quite challenging – is simply to listen: employees should be doing at least half of the talking in a well-run review meeting. A manager who knows when to shut their mouth and when to probe with open questions is much more likely to get a good outcome.
However, we’ve also tried to tackle the real difficulty that many line managers face, namely: how do you get individuals to improve certain aspects of their performance? Especially if they find their team member’s personality ‘challenging’ to deal with. This is where the best laid plans of many appraisals fall apart. Great tact is often required here. If the line manager handles this clumsily, they’re on a hiding to nothing.
A golden rule in performance reviews is ‘no surprises’. If an employee under-performs, then the line manager should address the issue as and when it happens: not save it up for a big annual ‘reveal’!
Some employees approach a performance review as a chance to ‘get a few things off their chest’. Going into a review meeting without a structure or agenda with someone like this can easily end up with the manager losing control and getting side-tracked into an irrelevant argument. The trick is to stick to the point. Keep the focus of the review on the employee, and get them to agree on a strategy for the future. Don’t argue with them. If they raise a problem then get them to suggest a solution. Focus on the facts and agree to measurable targets.
You can’t change someone’s personality, but you can help them to think differently about the impact of their behaviour“
Or an employee’s self-defence reflex can kick in, if they feel the manager is criticising them personally. Our message is that managers should never criticise someone for who they are, only for what they do. You can’t change someone’s personality, but you can help them to think differently about the impact of their behaviour. Use positive language and stress their successes as well as areas for improvement. Giving a compliment often encourages people to self-appraise: they may even offer up a confession or two about their shortcomings.
These aspects make many performance reviews a minefield where the manager has to tread very carefully. All of this comes back to what a performance review is really for. It should be a relaxed and extended conversation about how an employee can increase their own job satisfaction and their value to the organisation. If line managers do want to highlight any performance problems, then they should be specific, using real examples not sweeping statements.
If performance reviews are done well, motivation thrives, relationships flourish, attitudes improve, talent develops and productivity is enhanced. Where else could a simple L&D intervention have such a dramatic impact? By helping line managers undertake better performance reviews, organisations could radically improve their entire culture, not to mention their bottom line. Amongst the competing priorities for L&D, surely this is something that should take precedence.