Easy Strategies for Effective Performance Reviews

Delivering bad news or pointing out maladaptive habits isn’t easy, even if you think the employee may have an idea of what’s coming. Assuming you’re both on the same side of the table sharing a common goal can make difficult conversations easier.

Your job is to ask good questions, to find ways to help your key employees identify what’s working well, where they want to go in their careers, which skills they might like to pursue, etc. Your questions are designed to facilitate buy in, give them an opportunity to critique their own performance and to offer information first. Your questions also give you better information to develop a strategic approach to the next phase of the conversation.

The questions below are worded for an annual review: (You can, of course, tweak the time line if it’s different). We recommend reviews much more often to keep tabs on how your team members are feeling and what they’re thinking.

Usually, you’d give these questions in advance so there’s time for them to think about them and write out answers.

1) What professional accomplishments of yours do we need to remember from last year?  Please include items that might not have been noticed.

2) Were there professional skills you were able to improve on last year?  Did you receive training or help from any member of the team?  Again, please be as specific as possible.  What skills do you want to work on this year?

3) Were there projects or tasks that you had the freedom and responsibility to do in the way you thought best?  Please think of both ongoing and one-time projects you did and describe how much independence, if any, that you had.

4) What do you do well professionally, enjoy doing, do easily, get compliments on, etc.?  I’d be particularly interested in things you do well that I don’t know about.

5) Are there things about your work that give you real pleasure or make you feel you’re making a difference?

6) What could I be asking that seems important for your success here?

The answers are important, but building a process of open, corrective conversations with your employees is just as important. And slowing down to listen to their struggles and goals is the only way to create effective plans for future growth.

Influence, the Wave of the Future

It seems clear to us that the next area of innovation is a return to one of the oldest of human endeavors—influencing valuable people to join you in pursuit of a common goal.

Yes, there are impressive technological advances still in the pipeline, let alone in the imagination of developers and entrepreneurs. Our relationship to healthcare and the wider world community will continue to change—although forward or backward can be debated. Cars will soon drive us, houses will stay one step ahead of our commands, and clothes will do more than warm and adorn us. Additional services that we hadn’t even imagined were necessary will become the norm.

But none of these potential advances, or other undreamed of ones, will proceed along their most effective paths unless you—the current and future leaders—are able to attract and nurture individuals and the teams they form. The brightest, most creative, most dedicated producers of value will only join your enterprise if you are genuinely able to step away from a self-centered approach to leadership and become a catalyst who assists them reach their goals and dreams. They will carry your dreams on their shoulders as they strive to achieve their own ambitions.

We see too many business leaders impatiently push instead of quietly influencing, value loyalty over creativity, or act like their vision is the only one that counts. Even leaders who are sensitive to the feelings of their employees seem to forget at times that their enterprises will only flourish if individuals are encouraged to thrive in their careers, lives, and dreams.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for most leaders is an inflated sense of their own ability to master work relationships and influence important people. How are you doing? If you see no weaknesses in your approach to team members, a caution flag should go up. If you recognize an area that could use upgrading and you haven’t set aside time to work on improving it, then you are giving an advantage to your competitors every time you attempt to attract or keep a major contributor.

A first step is to ask yourself questions, and take time to consider the answers:

•How am I doing?
•What are other people doing better?
•What am I avoiding?
•What habit should I be mastering?
•What are my priorities?
•Who do I wish I could entice to work for me?

The next step is to make a plan for addressing your weakness. It’s difficult to recognize your own failings, because they will tend to sit in your blind spot. Even if you think you can see them, they may be resistive to change because of other habits or attitudes you have—which can hide behind more obvious  shortcomings.

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Professional athletes depend on feedback from their coaches to see their lapses and improve their game. The best presenters and salespeople seek new ideas and analysis from specialty coaches. Musicians, actors, writers and so many others regularly request input from an experienced masters. Are you getting the feedback you need to improve your game? Arrange a strategy session today to explore how coaching can improve your ability to attract and retain high performing employees.

Comfort Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

Most likely your natural tendency is to sidestep uncomfortable emotions, painful physical sensations, cognitive challenges and/or social exertion. But those discomforts are often signals that you’re pushing yourself into areas of positive growth with a level of intensity that will lead to actual progress.

In endurance sports this discomfort is called suffering. Some of that suffering comes from the physical pain that your body generates as you approach the limits of your current capability. As you strain, your muscles generate waste and collect minor tears. After your effort is completed, the tears will signal the healing forces to rebuild with additional capacity to avoid future tears.

We now understand that some—or perhaps much—of the pain sensation is also generated by the fail-safe concerns of our brain. It senses that, if we continue to do what we’re doing, we risk exceeding our body’s abilities to intake oxygen, deliver fuel, and clear out waste materials. The pain sensation is an alert that we should shut off our effort to preserve crucial blood flow to our brains. The problem is that this warning comes earlier than necessary and, if we heed it too soon, it inhibits us from our highest level of effort and eventually diminishes our maximum performance.

In non-physical areas, your brain also protects you from danger with early and overblown warnings about threats. It flashes discomfort and pain signals when there are opportunities for growth. For instance, when there is a possibility that you will need to give up an established pattern of behavior in order to make a change or challenge your comfort zone.
Each time you strive to stop an old habit or start a new one, you will likely come face to face with some level of discomfort—some minor “tear” in your routine. In order to change you will need to ignore the easy path of following your old habit and push against your discomfort. You may need to welcome the experience of social embarrassment and confront someone, push against the call of a sweet treat in order to change your eating habits, get to a gym class when you’re feeling hollow and lethargic, or resist the pull of something more entertaining when you should be exercising or working on a project.
How much discomfort are you willing to push through? If the answer is none, then you aren’t likely to change. Just a little bit? You may make a bit of progress. A few brave souls will answer in the affirmative when they ask themselves, “Am I willing to suffer for a significant increase in my performance?”
Choosing to suffer isn’t complex or difficult, but it also isn’t easy. And we are not suggesting that there is any significant value in suffering for suffering sake. Given that you will face feelings of discomfort many times a day, and will on occasion suffer, you should know that you will suffer less if you welcome discomfort as a necessary ingredient in improving your performance.
There is suffering that leads to no valuable end. There is suffering that we might wish to avoid, but which leads to healing. And there is suffering that is simply the best pathway to enhanced performance. Avoid that discomfort and you will keep doing what you have always done. Embrace it and you will dare to push yourself enough to cause your body, emotions or mind to gain increased capacity.
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In growing your business, a healthier life, or deeper relationships you will benefit from having effective strategies to help you deal with discomfort and gain the maximum value from any investment you make in suffering. Don’t suffer needlessly. But also don’t avoid opportunities to grow and feel significant satisfaction and benefits from your efforts. We can help you invest your energy wisely.

How the Best Leaders Listen and Respond

I want to share two skills that are simple but take practice. We teach these to our clients to help them accomplish more and have fewer stressful debates with their team, clients—and even family members. If you are seeking more productivity, higher morale and more straightforward interactions, then give these a try.

When someone makes a statement that we disagree with, the most common response is to either ignore what they said or respond with all the reasons we don’t agree. There is a better way. Let me use an example I dealt with last month to illustrate what didn’t go well:

During a particularly hectic time at the company, Dave, the HR manager told John, his supervisor and our client—“We need to meet for 10-15 minutes each morning for the next couple of weeks to discuss the specific hires you’re looking for and possible ways to deal with the two employees who are under-performing.

John retorted, “No way! I can’t meet every day! I just don’t have the time.”

When John asked me for ideas about how to handle it better, I asked what he objected to. He said, “It’s ridiculous to think Dave and I can or need to meet every day.”

I asked what, if anything that Dave said that he had agreed with. He thought for a moment and said, “It makes sense that Dave understands the kind of person and attributes I’m looking for in the new employees.” He concurred that he wanted to have major input on how to document the under-performing employees because they probably would need to be terminated.

Suggestion 1:

If you agree, say so. Acknowledge the places of agreement.
If John wanted to change Dave’s suggestion and also give him credit for suggesting a solution instead of just waiting for a problem to develop, John could have said, “I agree that it would be a good idea for us to talk about the new hires and the documentation process.”

You don’t need to agree with everything said.  Team members will be encouraged to develop critical thinking skills by even partial agreement. So say out loud what you agree with.

Suggestion 2:

If you feel something was left out or needs to be altered, state your agreements first and then add to their thinking—build on their idea.

“I agree that it makes sense for us to meet; we need to talk about the new hires and what to do about the team members who are not performing. Because time is crunched, let’s meet twice next week and then evaluate where we are.”

By finding something to agree with you defuse a lot of the debates that start around people defending their suggestions. If you can limit the defensiveness and the debate time, you keep things moving. You’ll be surprised how often the points you disagreed with get dropped and everybody’s happy.

Close: What you do-and say-matters.  If you want your team to run more smoothly, think for themselves and make good decisions, consider calling or emailing us for ways to tweak your communication. Small changes can make a big difference—with team members, clients, and partners.  And, as one of my clients who keeps building skills – and seeing better results – reminds me, “It just feels better.”

Better to Forgive than to Forget

Some recent research found that forgiveness affects perception of difficulty even during physical performance. Jay and I have been discussing how forgiveness might also affect the workplace.

The research found that just thinking about a time you didn’t forgive someone increased the perception of a hill’s steepness and decreased your ability to jump. At first glance neither seems related to any advantage for forgiveness in work or personal relationships. But let us suggest some possibilities.

Imagine your reaction if a team member, one more time, doesn’t follow through on an assignment or avoids thinking for themself and asks you a series of obvious and frustrating questions. You’ve been here before and your irritation level spikes. If you’re jumping ahead and thinking that we’re going to ask you to forgive the team member, well that may help, but actually the idea we’ve been thinking about may be even more important to you.

In the situation above, your response may not have been very measured and thus probably doesn’t decrease the odds you will do any better next time. Let’s face it, you blew it and now that you’ve calmed down you’re blaming yourself. Our question is, would it help to forgive yourself?

Many of our executive clients admonish themselves for “stupid” mistakes or misjudgments. They’ve read lots of advice to “put it behind you” or “let it go” but it’s possible that you might create better future solutions and stronger working relationships if you forgive rather than to try to forget. The perception of the magnitude of the effort it would take to train team members and build more effective management approaches—the hill you have to climb—might seem less daunting if you started with a bit more understanding i.e. forgiving yourself.

Once self-recrimination is tempered by or resolved with self-forgiveness, it seems reasonable to expect that we might free up our focus, creativity and energy. Tasks, including repairing our mentoring role with team members, may look less formidable.

Have you practiced a process that acknowledges, forgives and lets you get on with the task? This is where the mental game comes to the front. How quickly can you forgive your own missteps and begin to work on a different solution and repair the relationship you injured?

One hint is to focus forward with coaching prompts like :

“Well I won’t do that again!”
“That was a learning experience.”
“I lost my focus on that move.”
“What would I do differently next time?”

All of which lead to better future results than blaming and staying stuck regretting the experience.

Superior management skills and results come from practicing emotional control and getting more proficient at the basics of support and influence.

Incremental Changes Build to Success

Doing all or nothing often feels easier than making minor adjustments. An all or nothing approach takes fewer on-going decisions than a moderate approach. But the huge investment of time and energy can put enormous pressure on us, which may not be feasible given other responsibilities. Then the excuses come—“I’d do all if I only had more time, better employees, a bigger budget, but I don’t, so I’ll do nothing.”

Smaller steps are not as exciting and may not feel like they’re worth the effort. Try setting a goal that feels worth investing in, but only pushes your schedule and commitments a small amount—enough to notice an improvement but well within your realistic capabilities.

Here’s an example of a moderate approach to change the way you train your employees or regulate your work schedule. A client of ours was trying to prepare her team for a major restructuring that would require a number of current team members to begin working more independently. She came to us asking how she could get them to begin making the decisions that she currently did.

She understood that she needed to stop answering their questions and encourage them to find answers by themselves. But she was worried that they would think it strange and even hostile if she simply refused to answer their questions one day.

“How do I explain the change?”

“How often do you answer their questions now?” Jay asked.

“They really aren’t required to think about all the ramifications of most questions so it’s faster if I just answer them and they can get back to work.”

“You need to consider potential future responsibilities when you’re training and working with current line-level team members. Start ongoing, incremental training by challenging them to think in order to prepare them for future responsibilities. In addition, you will have a system to recognize potential leaders. Be transparent about your training intent and regularly ask for suggested answers, which you can then evaluate with the team member.  Now, in your current situation, be transparent about your intent to encourage them to quickly develop answers on their own, but don’t leave them frustrated with no answer.

How about telling them, ‘I want you to begin to come to me with both questions and your best answers. We will spend a minute talking about your thinking. Most of the time I will then expect you to go ahead and implement the answer you think works the best.  I know you will make some mistakes, but I trust you to push questions back to me, if you think it might cause serious harm to a client or the business. There may well be an increase in your stress at the beginning, but I’ll stand with you and we will take this a step at a time.’”

She tried it and reported that one team member was flying solo within three days—a competence she would have recognized, if she had been asking for answers all along. Another team member experienced a great deal of anxiety about shouldering the responsibility even though her answers were solid. Again, even though this person rose to the challenge, the transition would have gone more smoothly with a longer ramp-up time. The third team member was great at follow through but poor at strategically thinking through the ramifications of complex answers. An incremental approach over time would have also identified this fundamental weakness and not wasted precious transition time trying to train-up a poor management candidate.

Transitions and change don’t tend to happen in one fell swoop. The first step is most often a small one—a trial, an experiment, a taste of something different. Trying things in small steps also allows lots of room for innovation and for learning what is effective. Small steps leave room for corrective action.

Don’t expect to implement a change with maximum effect and minimum time investment by simply flying into it whole hog. We can help you plan how to integrate change into your team interactions with the least disruption to your work flow and the most benefit. Contact us for more information and a strategic planning session.