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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Out-of-Sync Performance Reviews

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’m holding a performance review with one of my direct reports. The way we do it here is that he rates himself first. Next, I provide a rating and lots of data to support it. It’s not unusual for the employee to offer a higher rating than the supervisor, but this time it was much higher.

And here’s the tricky part. At the end of the performance review I’m supposed to assign improvement goals to him. I did, but he disagreed with all of them because he thinks he walks on water and I think he’s under water. Now he’s got goals I know he doesn’t believe he needs to work on. What next?

Agree to Disagree

Dear Agree to Disagree,

Sounds like an awkward moment. One I’ve been in myself. (We recently recreated one of these kinds of awkward performance reviews in a video.) It should be no surprise to those of us in leadership positions that we often have to confront people’s illusions about themselves. The fact that human beings have an incredibly inflated sense of efficacy is also no surprise. I just attended my son’s soccer game last Saturday and smiled when I heard parents from both sides swearing vehemently that the ref was obviously playing for the other team. We all think we do better, deserve more, and are perfectly informed far more often than is the case. (Note: The ref did, in fact, favor the other team).

The tricky thing in performance reviews is that even leaders might have an inflated sense of rightness. And these leaders are seated across the table from someone who likely suffers from the same affliction. So how can two imperfect people muddle their way toward truth?

The answer is to trust the dialogue. A better approximation of truth is much more likely to emerge through healthy dialogue. So here are a few tips to help the dialogue happen in the emotionally charged atmosphere of a performance review.

1. Decide how to decide. To avoid violated expectations, be clear up front that while your strong preference is to arrive at consensus about the rating and goals, at the end of the discussion you as the supervisor are charged with making the final decision. Do not overstate this—let your team member know that you are willing to spend the time and energy required to reach a common view of things and would only make an independent decision if it’s clear you cannot do so in a reasonable amount of time.

2. Don’t own the burden of proof—share it. Don’t get cornered into feeling like you have to convince your direct report that you are “right.” That’s not your job. Your job is simply to share your view. If you find yourself trying to convince your team member that your view is “right,” then you’ve stepped out of dialogue and into monologue. You need to step away from your own conclusions and recognize that they are just one view of the truth. Take a few deep breaths and open yourself to a different perspective. Share the responsibility for arriving at the “right” conclusion. Let him know that you’d like his help in making sense of a substantial amount of data. You should feel that together, you’re filling a pool of meaning, not that you’re trying to convince each other of your story.

3. Separate content and pattern. Often, the disconnect comes because the supervisor has seen a pattern and is attempting to help the employee recognize and take responsibility for this pattern. Yet the employee doesn’t own up to these behaviors. Instead, he or she explains away one data point after another.

For example, you say, “On a number of occasions, customers have complained that you were brusque or impatient with them.” There’s the pattern you’re trying to establish.

To which your team member says, “Can you give me an example?”

Now, here’s where it gets slippery. At this point, you MUST give him examples. You can’t expect him to just nod robotically to the pattern you’re alleging he has demonstrated. So you give an example: “Last Friday a customer said you dropped his project on the counter and walked away without saying a word.” To which he says, “I remember that—and that’s not what happened. Yes, I didn’t say anything, but I smiled and waved and turned to get a phone call that had been on hold.”

This is a tricky point in the crucial confrontation because something subtle just happened. If you don’t catch it, you’ll end this performance review feeling unsatisfied and at odds. You’ll avoid this outcome if you can recognize what your team member just did. What was it?

He changed the subject from a pattern conversation to a content conversation. You’re now discussing what happened last Friday rather than what happens as a pattern.

Here’s what you have to do to move back to the right conversation: “I see—and I can see how you might have thought you handled things right in that instance. But what I need your help with is the pattern that has emerged. I can share three different examples with you—and there may be extenuating circumstance in each—and yet the pattern is more consistent with you than with other members of the team. That’s what I’d like us to discuss and resolve.”

Do you see what just happened? First, I tried to share responsibility for addressing the pool of meaning. Second, I moved the conversation from content back to pattern. And finally, I set expectations that if he continues to give explanations for every element of the pattern, he’ll still need to address why the pattern is different for him than for other team members.

Now, even if you do all of these things, you still may agree to disagree. In which case, you’ll have to lean back on suggestion number one. You could end with something like: “Well, it seems like we see things differently. I appreciate your patience and hope you can see that I have sincerely wanted to understand your view, as well. Yet I still have to make my best judgment about what’s going on and how to move ahead. I apologize if I am wrong in that judgment, but I ask that you respect the position I’m in and make efforts to respond. I still believe this pattern of brusqueness with customers is an issue you should address. To do so, I ask you to do the following. . .”

Your question demonstrates how seriously you take your coaching role. I applaud your efforts and wish you luck as you sort through your own self-illusions and work to be a positive influence on some of our similarly afflicted colleagues. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to convince the ref that he’s playing favorites!


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

3 thoughts on “Out-of-Sync Performance Reviews”

  1. Heather W.

    A note from an employee’s perspective. As a leader, if you notice your employee is doing something incorrectly don’t wait until it becomes “a pattern”. Give us private and immediate feedback. We want to do well, we may not realize we are doing something that is perceived poorly. If you wait until the annual review, it’s too late. Give us the chance to improve now.

  2. Ralph H.

    Joseph, that was a really helpful discussion. The real problem, however, is the review process. It sounds like the once/year game we play so often in organizations, and it sounds devoid of any sort of results focus. Aside from your helpful advice, in order to avoid this scenario again next year perhaps they should implement a quick customer survey. Measure what you value and then focus on those more objective results. Then the discussion might be more like “…you consistently have scored below a 4 out of 5 on this metric. In fact, last Friday, a comment from a customer survey noted that you…. While you and the customer may not see it the same way, what do you think you could do to help the customers see you as more interested in them?” You are then a coaching leader rather than a controlling supervisor.

  3. John Bradley

    It’s good to see the commenters have chimed in on my thoughts, too. One of the goals of performance reviews is continuous improvement. In my experience, annual reviews seem to have a battle atmosphere to them, each party preparing and assembling ammunition for their cause. (As you clearly point out, battles are rarely tied, nor should they be.) The employer presents unsatisfactory performance and patterns, and the employee, accomplishments and value-added activities. I am an advocate of semi-annual, or even quarterly, informal reviews (or progress reports) where both parties can more freely express concerns, and distribute praise. Most importantly, it isn’t an annual review where disciplinary actions and wage increases are discussed. Just my two-cents, of course, but perhaps reducing the one year time lapse will offer the opportunity to reinforce what is important, and, hopefully, disarm some of the non-constructive sentiment you describe how to deal with here.

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