performance.evaluationsManagers and employees alike dread that annual ritual of performance evaluations.  In some agencies, the event is postponed for as long as possible.  In others, it is just avoided – sometimes for years.

Performance evaluations offer the opportunity for enhanced communication and feedback, which has the potential to improve performance and increase morale. Yet, the opportunity is often wasted, misused, or squandered.  It’s no wonder performance evaluations are often described as painful.

Progressive public agencies across the country are have realized that the performance evaluation experience doesn’t have to be awful.  In fact, with the right approach, it can be painless for managers and employees alike. To create an environment where evaluations are positively anticipated, leading public sector organizations are adopting three principles to guide the performance evaluation process:

  1. No surprises!
  2. Employee-driven.
  3. Future-focused.

No Surprises! – The “no surprises” rule means that no issue or concern is raised in the performance evaluation meeting that has not been raised in a previous discussion.  The performance evaluation meeting is not the place to solve all of the employee’s performance challenges.  It should be used as a summary of the previous rating period’s discussions. It should be nothing more than a review.

“No surprises” requires managers and employees to talk regularly about how the employee is doing.  If there is a problem or concern about the employee’s performance, it should be discussed immediately when the event happens.  If the employee has had a success, it should be recognized on the spot.  Trust is enhanced when specific feedback is a regular part of the work routine. If these conversations are saved for the end of the year meeting, uncomfortable surprises arise.

By the time the performance evaluation conversation rolls around, the manager and employee should have already explored any ongoing concerns about performance.  When there is no surprise at the evaluation discussion, it can take on a more productive and positive tone. A more productive and positive tone lends itself to the second element of a painless performance evaluation:  employee-driven.

Employee-driven – A performance evaluation is painless when it is a two-way dialogue.  The typical evaluation conversation, where the manager does all the talking, doesn’t allow for the employee’s point of view.  The manager needs to direct the conversation in a way that is valuable to the employee.

Before your next performance evaluation meeting, try giving a copy of the evaluation document to the employee prior to the meeting so that he or she can come prepared to discuss its contents.  To begin the meeting, ask the employee for his or her thoughts about the evaluation. The goal is to keep the employee talking for at least three to five minutes or even more if possible.  After the employee has shared his/her perspective fully—and only then—should the manager begin sharing his or her opinions about the employee’s performance.

It’s typical with this approach that the employee will highlight all of the issues the manager was going to discuss. Because the acknowledgement of problems came from the employee, the employee feels an increased sense of ownership for the issues.  It opens the discussion to future possibilities and activities, which is the third element of a painless performance evaluation.

Future-focused – A performance evaluation is painless when the conversation is future-oriented and hopeful.  You can’t get to this by rehashing the past and focusing on what has already been done.  Employees report that a performance evaluation is painful when they are told things of which they are already aware—when the manager’s concerns are brought up over and over again. It is most painful to hear about the mistakes they’ve made and the issues they’ve faced when those issues are history—often months in the past. If the employee’s performance is a problem, it must be addressed when the behavior shows itself, not at the performance evaluation.

The past is history and focusing on it for the entire length of a performance evaluation conversation is pointless.  While it’s fine to recap the highlights of an employee’s performance, the conversation will be more productive when spent talking about the future.  Use the evaluation meeting to plan future performance goals, to clarify expectations, and to create a sense of excitement about what is ahead.  It is much less painful and enormously more fun. 

Public sector organizations are defined by the performance of individual employees.  How we manage that performance determines the success of our agencies.  Isn’t it about time we devote some energy to helping managers find more productive and less painful ways to tackle this essential part of their job?

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