“Okay, Joan, here’s where you’re at.”
My boss held the form out for me to see. On the left was a column that listed everything I needed to score well on: skill, dependability, attitude, cooperation, closing rates.
“So this one is great; I gave you a five out of five. But over here we’ll need to focus more.”
It was my annual performance evaluation, and it lasted about five minutes: We sat down, she showed me each of my scores on the form, she asked me if I had any questions, I said no, we both signed the form, and we smiled at each other as I left.
I learned what I was doing well; I learned what I wasn’t doing well. It was fine, pleasant, and a little ho-hum, and now it was over for another year.
Performance evaluations can feel like a drudgery all around. Another "To-Do" in the middle of a thousand more important things. A bunch of meetings to schedule, forms to fill out, and potentially-uncomfortable conversations. And most likely, employees aren’t jumping around in excitement to learn about how they’re measuring up.
That summarizes my experience with them. Each evaluation was something to get through and then forget about until it was time for the next one. But they can be so much more!
You can make performance evaluations a positive experience for everyone, and a huge advantage for you. And to show you how, I went to my friends and asked them for their experiences with receiving evaluations as employees, and their ideas for making those better. Let’s sit back and learn.
- HIGHLIGHT THE POSITIVE
This one probably isn’t a surprise. It’s what we’re told to do in any tough conversation. And we all understand and accept it because it’s what we would want if our spouse, or friend, or mother-in-law was about to let us know where we stand.
And since being in the trenches and trying to get it all done can sometimes make the things we know seem unnecessary, here are a couple quick reminders from my friends that your effort to do this will be appreciated, and make every other part of the evaluation go a lot smoother.
Erin, an Executive Administrative Assistant, has learned that most people want to be told how well they are doing before they are open to any negative feedback. She says,
“My boss tends to use performance [evaluations] as positive things… Any negative feedback will go on a corrective action plan. By keeping things separate it makes [the experience] a little easier on the employees.”
Manda is a Compliance Team Associate and a big fan of the sandwich approach. She says,
"Address strengths. Give specific areas where employees can improve. End with positive feedback and encouragement.”
Did you ever hear that song as a kid, about a spoonful of sugar and what it’d do for your medicine? Maybe give a double-dose of the stuff everyone likes to hear. You’ll encourage them, show you notice and appreciate what they do well, keep their energy and motivation up – and make any unwelcome topics a little easier to take.
And speaking of that:
- DON’T SKIP WHAT NEEDS TO BE ADDRESSED
Alicia, a marketing professional, warned that some managers may be tempted to avoid the unpleasant, which could make the critical things go on unimproved, or even come as a surprise if they were pointed out later to the employee.
She suggested making managers accountable for giving feedback, as well as providing training to managers on how to give it, and I’m nodding along as I type this out. Because yes – we all want to be positive, encouraging leaders who bring out the best in our team by showing each of them the best in themselves.
…But sometimes it’ll be just as important to show them what they can improve, and even if something seems obvious to you, it may not be to your employee. You won’t be doing anyone a favor by steering clear of that topic.
And I have another friend who wanted to give you some good news! He asserts,
"If an employee is serious, [and] doing a [great] job… they want to [get] the constructive criticism… so there isn’t confusion.”
Give everyone the opportunity to be better by showing them how they can. Don’t let the news come as a surprise, by giving nothing but praise during the meeting, and then slipping the criticism into a report for them to read later. And don’t let a bad habit go on unchecked, until the day you’re seeing red and overreact.
Use this time to address the things that need it, and it’ll benefit both of you. And because those won’t always be easy conversations for anyone:
- TEACH EMPLOYEES HOW TO RECEIVE FEEDBACK
This was a very common answer among the employees I questioned for this article.
Caylin told me about how she “got a raise with her [most recent] evaluation” – which should have been cause for celebrating. Instead, she was left “bothered by one [negative] rating” for something she’d only missed once during all of her time at the company.
“I get hung up on negative details,” she explained. And she’s not alone! Manda shares her opinion saying,
“I think employees need to be trained in receiving constructive criticism. I remember my first review [and] taking it personally.”
And Alicia also believes most people aren’t prepared or trained on how to receive feedback, saying that it is often taken very personally. She thinks it would be a great idea for employers to give out a book on feedback as part of their training, to prepare the employees and build their skill in this important area.
Want to know what I did the first time a boss gave me some constructive criticism? I blubbered my way out to the car, so I could wail about how useless I was at this job.
We won’t all have learned at home or school how to receive feedback and use it to improve instead of getting discouraged. Investing in the training for your employees will be so worth it to you.
- LET THE EMPLOYEES EVALUATE THEMSELVES
“I’d really appreciate [being asked for] my perspective on how I’m performing in the areas being evaluated,”
- Nathalie, a Quality Assurance Officer.
There are so many reasons to get your employee involved and reflecting on his/her performance. It shows respect. It makes the whole meeting feel more like a collaboration between two people who want the same things. And when it comes to the things you want to improve, it can be so much more persuasive than a one-sided lecture from you.
Yes, you might get some distorted answers, because sometimes we can all be either a little too hard on ourselves, or give ourselves a little too much of a pass. But when it’s your turn to back up your employee’s observations or deliver the truth, it will all sink in much better.
LynnLee is a Curator, and this is something her manager does. She explains, “At our company, we do a self-evaluation, and then our manager does an evaluation.”
And Erin told me that at her job, her boss asks the employees what they need to work on. She observed, “Our performance [evaluations] are more like a self-reflection.”
This might even save you from having to bring up the awkward topics yourself, and make discussing them a lot easier. If you’ve got it on your list to address the late starts on Monday mornings, and you let your employee have the first turn at the evaluation, he/she might mention it for you and let you make a much smoother transition into talking about a solution.
- LET EMPLOYEES EVALUATE YOU
Nathalie said it “would mean a lot” to her and any employee if a manager asked for this. Her suggestion was that you have your employees evaluate you on all the same areas you evaluated them.
Yes, it might be scary, and yes, you might hear things you don’t want to hear, and yes, you might get some outrageous requests or complaints now and then. But navigating those will be so worth it. You’ll make a fantastic impression, and you could get priceless insights.
I’m sure you ask customers for their feedback. You probably send them surveys, or a follow-up email, or put a request on the contact page of your website. You want them to rate their experience, and tell you what you got right, and tell you what you can do better. All so you can keep them happy and coming back for more.And I’m sure you get some left-field responses. And some crazy demands. And some unfounded griping. But you don’t stop asking for customer feedback, because you know how much it serves you in the end.
You want to have that same attitude in this case. What if there’s some little adjustment you could make, that would immediately increase employee morale? Or some little thing that multiple people are misunderstanding, and once you know it you can clear things up? Or what if there’s an area where you can do a little better at leading by example?
You want to find out. And a performance evaluation is a great time.
- FOCUS ON THE IMPORTANT STUFF
Put a big circle around this one.
You’re going to set off fireworks around the things your employees are doing well, and you’re going to go over the things your employees can improve, and you’re going to let your employees evaluate themselves, and you’re going to let your employees evaluate you. But if you end the meeting there, you’ll miss out on a huge opportunity.
During an evaluation, you’ve got one-on-one time with this person. It might be one of the very few chances you get to have a meaningful conversation, learn about him/her, build a positive and trusting relationship, and find ways to be better for this particular employee. Don’t pass that up. Take the extra time with every employee, so you can have a place full of people you know, and care about, and really support.
Ask how they’re doing. Ask if there’s anything they need. Ask what they like about their position. Ask about their goals for this position. Ask about their personal goals and how you might support those. Ask for their ideas about how you all can achieve company goals. Ask how you can be better for them. Ask if there’s anything they would like to learn. Ask if there’s anything they would like to use this time to talk about.
Natalie’s request is one you should brand into your brain and put onto a cheat-sheet for every evaluation:
“I would appreciate a leader who asks just as many questions as the statements made.”
Let’s go for even more to be safe.
- FOLLOW UP AFTER THE EVALUATION
Nope, you’re not done, even when the evaluation is done. This is another priceless opportunity to seal the deal and make a fantastic impression after that great conversation you just had.
Joseph, a Design Engineer, told me about an employer who was “really good [about]… [sending a] follow-up email afterward, recapping the discussion, [and] pointing out good qualities and goals set.”
I don’t think it matters whether you use an email or do this in person, as long as you show your employees that your brain didn’t flush everything you both talked about after the evaluation ended.
And I would get as familiar with the answers to those important questions (about your employee’s ideas, interests, needs, desires, and goals) as you would be with a motivational quote stuck to the bathroom mirror, and make it a priority to follow up with your employee about those.
- DON’T SAVE PERFORMANCE TALKS FOR EVALUATION-TIME
“It would be great if [managers were] more proactive throughout the year [with] evaluating [employee] performance,”
This is easy to do when something is going awry. If an employee is rude to a customer, or blows off the assignment you gave, or takes off to go fishing in the middle of the day, you probably won’t silently stew about it for eight months while you wait for the next review.
But let’s take the time to have these chats when things are being done well, too. As a parent, I’m preached to all the time about “positive reinforcement,” and I’m passing it on to you now because I’ve learned that it really is the more effective motivator.
And let’s also have them when there are little adjustments that can be made, instead of waiting for disaster. You might actually stop a molehill from turning into a mountain.
We just covered a lot, so let’s recap the plan:
1. Before your next round of evaluations, you’re going to give your employees training on how to receive feedback.
2. During evaluations, you’re going to highlight the positive, go over what needs to improve, let your employees evaluate themselves, let your employees evaluate you, and focus on the important topics.
3. After evaluations, you’re going to follow up with each employee, to recap your meeting and offer any further thoughts and ideas you’ve had.
4. And continuosly, you’ll make the subject of each employee’s performance an ongoing discussion instead of saving it all up for review-time.
And I’m so confident that you will love the results you get from this! I would bet anything that when you take advantage of the opportunities evaluations offer you, you’ll quickly start celebrating how your business performs.
Joanie is a former employee with a mission to end the Sunday Night Blues.
Find out what she learned from her experience, and how she uses it to help employees to have happiness, fulfillment, and high-performance in their jobs: useyourjob.com/about
Message Joanie at: email@example.com