Performance Evaluations and The Tough Conversations We Must Have as Leaders

I recently read an article about Accenture making their way towards ending annual performance evaluations and rankings. Along with this article, I’ve seen quite a few opinions supporting this idea of doing away with these evaluations in favor of a less competitive process. In their current incarnation, performance evaluations have been characterized as time consuming and ultimately not helpful to the employee or business. My own organization is grappling with the idea of how to make annual evaluations more useful to the enterprise and its employees. In a culture where every child receives a trophy just for participating, are we developing an unwillingness to have hard conversations about performance? Here are some thoughts on the issue.

Over the years, the toughest conversations I have had with direct reports are the ones where I felt compelled to explain to them how they were just meeting the standard. I have written my fair share of employee evaluations and the easiest ones to write are always the ones for the “eagles” or your top-tier employees. These evaluations seem to write themselves. When an employee’s contributions are Clear and Impactful (see previous post), as the reporting official, the words seem to already occupy a place on the page.

Inevitably, some portion of your employees are the eagles, while others, who occupy space within the wild-card realm or even the bottom dwellers, give us panic attacks as we try to write down something positive about their contribution and provide them with substantive guidance for improvement. So, I go back to the analogy of the sporting environment. I will never forget the feeling of being cut from a sports team. My first and only experience with this was while in college. I knew I had no business competing in my chosen sport at the collegiate level, but I gave it a shot, fearful that I would always wonder if I had the right stuff (in a sport I had never competed in and had only seen on TV every four years – hint there are oars and long thin boats involved). The results were predictable and the feeling of having the coach walk up to the locker and tell me that I wasn’t good enough has stayed with me, but not in a negative way. I understood then, as I do now, that productivity is really the only thing that matters.

Sports, work and life all have a common thread running through them. People begin to count on you to deliver something in the course of your engagements. At the end of the day, this deliverable is really the only reason you have been hired for the job or selected for the team. If you can’t produce, you should be told and it should be explained how you could get better. The absence of production, following selection, guidance and a “good amount of reps,” should be met with the reality of reassignment or worse.

Conversely, your superstars/eagles will appreciate the reaffirmation of their contribution. They are busy “knocking it out of the park” and sitting down with them to refuel the tanks can be a good thing. I will agree with one thing surrounding the current performance evaluation debate. These discussions, with our employees, should not be relegated to once per year. They should be ongoing, probably quarterly at their most frequent and certainly less formal. As an evaluator, holding these sessions annually tend not to be productive because you spend time only on the highlights and not the consistency of the performance. These highlights, both good and bad, are usually from the time period just before the evaluations are done and they tend to ignore the performance over the course of the entire year.

What’s the solution, first, we must agree these conversations need to happen. I sincerely believe part of the effort to do away with them is based in the difficulty in having these conversations; just to reiterate, they are not easy. Most of us avoid confrontation like the plague and here you are as a leader being asked to confront the employee and your own uncomfortableness with the discussion simultaneously. Secondly, the conversations need to happen more frequently and be tied less to some formal document than an honest and open engagement between leader and subordinate about the way forward.

If open and accurate conversations are happening more frequently, both parties will provide better input/feedback and the outcomes will be more helpful. For the evaluator or leader, compiling notes from four quarters of substantive conversations will better position you to accurately account for the employee’s strengths and weaknesses. Don’t do away with performance evaluations, just change them. Have them more often and encourage leaders to develop the skills to conduct those very hard conversations with people who we really only want to get better.

Follow my leadership blog – Thoughts on Leadership: http://www.mkpalmore.com
Twitter: @mk_palmore

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