The annual appraisal: tips for managers
The second side of the feedback coin is delivering it to people who report to you or work for you. For most managers, this is only slightly better than having to fire someone. This is especially true if the feedback that you are about to deliver is not very positive.
It behooves the manager to prepare for this very well. It is important for managers to realize that this is a professional conversation they are about to have. You will need to avoid personal over-tones while continuing to show empathy. It is also important to realize that this is just a performance review…not the end of the world.
What Preparation do I need to do ?
I am hoping that you have taken the time at the start of the year to set expectations with the employee. Most performance appraisal systems ignore this. Setting expectations does not mean entering some random “goals” into the tool. It means that you have a way of sharing S.M.A.R.T goals and setting expectations in terms of how the employee is expected to behave, what their work-timings are, how they are supposed to communicate in the organization, what the company culture is, what their role in the team is etc. Some of these “soft” expectations are subjective and a lot depends on how firmly you lay them down. If you just go in and mumble to the employee about what you expect from them, they may not register with the employee. Clarity is critical when sharing expectations and setting goals. Documenting them goes a long way in accomplishing that clarity.
Review the employee’s work
Go through the employee’s deliverables, their email communications, their key achievements, any mistakes they made etc. Approach other managers/clients for their feedback if they have been working with the employee. Take their feedback without judgement but ask them to explain their feedback in as much detail as possible. Prepare a list of positives and items you think they could have done better in. Review this list till you can talk about each item with conviction. (Conviction is very important in the actual conversation…). If you disagree with the feedback from others, document why you do not agree. Keep in mind that in some cases it is not prudent to share with the employee the source of the feedback, especially if it is negative.
Make a list of your talking points and get comfortable with it
You need to be able to talk about each item with conviction. You need to have very good explanation for each item.
Setting up the conversation
It is most preferable to have a face-to-face conversation. It allows you to use your non-verbal queues to drive home your talking points. It also allows you to better perceive the employee’s response. The second most preferable option is the phone conversation. While limiting the body language queues, it still allows for you to use your voice effectively. With so many conversations now happening over the phone, most people (especially in the technology profession) have picked up a lot of the phone conversation skills.
The least preferable option is email, instant messaging etc. This is a horrible way to do the performance review and has the possibility of going very bad very quickly. Avoid that at all costs.
The actual conversation
This is more than just a formality, it is required to make the employee feel comfortable. It is also polite to ask them how they are doing, how their year was etc.
Should I ask the employee what they are expecting before I even start ?
My personal opinion is No. However, it has worked for some managers. Done well, it gives the manager a segue into their talking points. If not done well, it could become very difficult for you to manage the employee’s just-stated expectations, especially if the gap there is too big. So, be careful with that.
Start with positives
State what the employee has done well, tell them how it helped the project, the team or the organization. State how you feel the employee has grown professionally in the year. Thank them for their contributions, congratulate them on their achievements. Smile….if possible.
Explain what you think the employee could improve upon
State areas where the employee fell short of expectations. Use numbers if you have access to them (make sure the numbers you quote are accurate, avoid bringing up disputable numbers…you run the risk of spending the next 1 hour disputing just one number). Use specific examples to explain what went wrong.
Attack the behavior, not the person
Be very careful not to imply that the mistakes were a result of the employee being “dumb”, “arrogant”, “careless” etc. This is the part where you need to stay off personal adjectives as much as possible. Explain to the employee why a certain behavior is not accepted in the team. Make very clear that the behavior is the problem and not the employee.
Ask the employee if they agree
When providing feedback on harmful behaviors, ask if the employee agrees that they are depicting these behaviors. Most people fail to see harmful behaviors in themselves and would appreciate someone bringing it to their notice. It is also important that the employees have an input in this part of the conversation since it is something that they may have just realized or are still unsure about. Again, use examples as much as possible.
Do not pass the buck
When some of your comments come under scrutiny from the employee, there is a very great temptation to bail out and pass the buck higher up by saying something like: “I understand, but it is not in my hands” or “this is what your client told me and I cannot do anything about it”. The worst thing for a manager to say in a feedback session is : “I am just the messenger”. I have known some managers who have said that to me ! Saying such things might bail you out from the conversation, but it will impact your credibility no end. More importantly, it dilutes even the most well-intentioned feedback that you might have shared. If you get into a tough spot, tell the employee that they do not always have to agree with everything you said in the feedback. That is the healthy way to “bail-out”.
Other generic tips
If you are fortunate enough to be doing this face-to-face, maintain eye-contact at all times. I have known managers who look away when delivering bad news — they will look at the floor, look at the ceiling…anything to avoid eye-contact. This implies lack of conviction and will immensely impact your credibility. Also, a similar tendency is to mumble when delivering bad news. Believe me, it is very painful to sit through such a conversation.
It is not a monologue, ask questions
Always give an opportunity for the employee to ask questions, vent their frustration even. Just make sure to jump in when the employee gets too far out of track or out of line. The conversation goes much better when both you and the employee get out at the end of it feeling they were able to say what they felt. It helps to keep the relationship moving forward.
Never get judgmental, avoid adjectives. For example, never tell the employee they were “careless”. Tell them that a particular scenario was caused because all the necessary precautions were not taken and tell them how they could have prevented the scenario. Again, it helps to separate the person from the behavior.
Closing the conversation
Ask the employee what support they need from you
Let them know your job is to help them be successful. Let them know your success depends on their success. …and mean it.
Ask the employee for their feedback
Find out if they have any feedback to share about you, about the organization, about the team etc. Never judge the feedback but ask questions on the feedback so you can work on it if appropriate.
Finish on a happy note
If possible, end the discussion with a thanks and a smile. Make sure they know what the next steps are in the appraisal process.
The conversation is only a tiny part of the performance appraisal process. However, it is the most “human” part of the process. Most managers are not well-prepared for this human part of the process. With managers under pressure to drive their teams harder every year, the appraisal conversations have tended to turn into “judgement days”. They do not have to…
This will continue to remain one of the most challenging skill for any manager to master.