f you’re like most people, you probably enjoy a good surprise now and then — unless the surprise
occurs during your annual performance appraisal! For example, what if you learn that your boss thinks you haven’t been doing something well during the past year — and this is the first you’ve heard about
it? You’d probably be angry as well as surprised. After all, how can you fix something if you don’t know about it? As a manager, it’s your responsibility to ensure that you don’t surprise your direct
reports during their performance appraisals.
Often such surprises occur because managers approach performance appraisals as a once-a-year event. And during these annual meetings, they finally broach the difficult subject of what employees could do better. But, assessing performance is an ongoing process that should take place throughout the year. This ongoing process includes:
Reviewing performance periodically
Addressing performance problems, and
Holding annual performance appraisals
Think of the process as a partnership between you and your employee. It begins by setting goals
together, documented in a performance plan. Throughout the year, you and the employee can refer to this plan when you periodically review performance relative to the goals. Periodic informal reviews
also provide an opportunity to identify any support your direct reports may need as well as any performance issues.
Addressing performance problems can be uncomfortable and intimidating for new managers. But
performance problems do not magically disappear. Usually they just get worse, which is bad for both the employee’s development and the health of the company.
If you work informally with your direct reports on their performance throughout the year, the annual
performance appraisal simply confirms and formalizes the ongoing process. And offers no surprises! To examine how assessing performance sometimes plays out in practice, let’s look at a manager as he
approaches a year-end performance appraisal.
For close to a year, Peter has managed the provider services at a company that offers online tutoring to students. Previously, Peter managed projects, not people. He now faces his first round of annual performance reviews and is scheduled to meet with Jan the next day.
Peter sits down to complete the requisite form. Jan trains and supervises tutors, and has a small group of trainers who report to her. He notes that Jan’s group has met its goals, and that Jan implemented a successful new training program. Peter knows Jan is a dedicated, responsible employee who always puts forth her best effort. In fact, she is so dedicated that she rarely delegates any special project work to her direct reports — and this appears to be a problem. Occasionally during the year, some members
of Jan’s group have complained to Peter — with comments indicating they feel they don’t have
enough opportunities for growth, aren’t learning new skills, or are becoming bored. Peter realizes he has to raise this issue with Jan — and is dreading it. Jan is a valuable employee and he hates to rock the boat. But if he doesn’t deal with the issue, her direct reports might become increasingly
disgruntled and even quit.
As Peter reviews Jan’s goals and other documents in her file, he realizes that he has neglected to gather written feedback from those who work with Jan. Feedback from others would have been helpful in this case. He decides he will have to talk about the conversations he remembers. At the beginning of the meeting with Jan, Peter explains that the purpose of the performance appraisal is to look at how well Jan is performing relative to her goals, to set new goals for the coming year, and to identify any support she might need to meet those goals. Then Peter asks Jan how she thinks things are going. She replies that she loves her job and brings up the successful new training program she has instituted. When Jan mentions how much she likes supervising her group, Peter realizes she has no idea that some members of her group are unhappy. He suddenly begins to feel very uncomfortable. It is Peter’s turn to talk. When he acknowledges that Jan’s group has met its goals and that her training program is extremely successful, Jan beams. Then Peter moves nervously in his chair and mentions that he understands a couple members of her group are frustrated because she hasn’t delegated
interesting projects to them. Abruptly, he concludes, “Jan, you need to start giving them growth opportunities, or they might leave.”
Jan is dumbfounded. First, she wants to know just who has complained and exactly what they said. Peter is embarrassed to admit that he doesn’t have any documentation or 360-degree feedback. All he
has is his memory, which is a bit fuzzy.
Clearly annoyed, Jan asks Peter why he hasn’t said anything to her before. Peter gropes for a reply. He
has to admit (to himself) that the idea of discussing a problem is intimidating and he has put it off —
delaying it until the performance appraisal. Now he realizes he should have been working on this issue with Jan all year. He could have sent her to management training, and together they could have set a goal about delegating tasks. Indeed, if Peter had done things differently, they’d be discussing Jan’s progress on that goal during this very meeting.
Peter feels terrible. He tries to move the conversation forward by asking Jan if she has ideas about how to improve the situation. Jan snidely suggests that maybe she should just quit if everyone is so unhappy with her. Peter quickly protests. And then Jan, who, despite her irritation, can’t resist being
constructive, suggests that she review upcoming special projects and delegate them to appropriate group members. Together, they create a goal for the coming year about giving her employees opportunities for growth.
While this performance appraisal did not go smoothly, both Peter and Jan learned a great deal. Peter had ignored the problem and had not provided ongoing feedback throughout the year, thereby ambushing Jan at the meeting. He also waited until the last minute to prepare for the meeting — and
only then realized he didn’t have adequate documentation. Chalking his mistakes up to lack of experience managing people, Peter vows to do better in the future. And Jan, who will be assessing the performance of her own group members, is determined to learn from the mistakes Peter made and avoid any unpleasant surprises.