Project Practitioners > Performance Reviews That Matter

Performance Reviews That Matter

By Niel Nickolaisen


My absolute worst performance appraisal experience went like this: My boss's assistant telephoned me to schedule a meeting with my supervisor. I showed up, and my boss and I sat down in his office. He got straight to the point: "Niel, I am not sure what you do, but I understand you are very good at it. I want to show my appreciation by giving you a raise and this bonus check."

I managed to mumble a thank-you, took my check and left his office. A few months later, this manager moved on to other things. But for two reasons, the experience stayed with me.

First, it made obvious that I was not managing my relationship with my boss well (since he had no idea what my job entailed). Second, it gave me a clear example of the kind of evaluation I never want to give to my own direct reports.

Providing effective communication in employee appraisals is not easy for me -- or for most managers -- and I constantly need to remind myself to do better. I try to avoid annual, formal performance appraisals (although I conduct them if company policy requires them). Instead I've learned that it's better to give regular, informal feedback. I do this during project reviews, during scheduled one-on-one meetings and when someone drops by my office to talk about almost anything. Rather than emphasizing technical knowledge, I focus feedback in three areas that I believe are critical to performance and staff development:

  • accomplishment, not just activity (sometimes we mistake being busy with completing the most critical tasks);
  • delivery of technical services (such as projects, service-level performance and continuous improvement); and
  • service to inside and outside customers (where the test is, "Do others like to work with us?").

I try to improve the quality of my informal appraisals in two ways. First, I build an "emotional bank account" by cultivating goodwill and don't blame people for all the problems that crop up. I express gratitude to employees for their efforts and performance, I include them in my plans, and I ask for their help with management issues; I want them to know that I appreciate their work and feedback about the direction of the company.

Second, when issues arise, I blame process before I blame people. This not only allows everyone to focus on improving processes but also takes the emotion out of the self-improvement process. We react, participate and learn more effectively if we separate who we are from what we do. Stated differently, constructive criticism is criticism nonetheless, and it is our nature to be defensive when we are criticized. I have learned it makes a huge difference when I assume that a person wants to do a good job but weak processes have thwarted his efforts.

This should not imply that I don't have frank conversations with staff about performance issues. The same applies to letting people go for performance reasons, which I still have to do. But I find my regular, informal feedback improves overall performance and makes performance issues -- and firings -- less likely. It also helps limit the number of times someone tells the world that I was the lead actor in his worst performance appraisal experience.

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