Six Tips for Improving Staff Performance Reviews

Over the next few weeks, our staff will complete and discuss their individual self-assessments, a practice CEP has undertaken each summer over the last few years. As I prepare to communicate the details to staff, I’m well aware that this process itself will probably receive some mixed reviews.

Actually, this is probably being too kind, as many people view performance reviews—whether self or supervisor driven—similar to an appointment with their dentist. An annual opportunity to be poked and prodded and reminded to brush three times daily before the inevitable “how often do you floss?” and “you drink how much soda?” questions start to fly. By the end of your appointment, you just want it to end and to get out of the chair as soon as possible. Just like a performance review, right?

Only in this analogy your dentist is just as uncomfortable and stressed out as you. If you’re a supervisor, performance reviews aren’t easy. If you do find them easy, either you’re avoiding tough conversations or you’re in the presence of perfection. If it is the latter, you’re in rare company.

Some common complaints I hear about performance reviews are that they’re time-consuming, overly standardized, and often lead to uncomfortable conversations. I can’t argue against any of these points. I will argue that these criticisms actually emphasize exactly why reviews are essential—particularly in any mission-driven organization. But, just like all of us as performers, the performance review process can improve.

In our Employee Empowerment report, which I blogged about in March, CEP examined foundation employees’ ratings of their experiences across a range of dimensions. Although staff members tend to see their reviews as fair, the helpfulness of performance reviews in improving job performance is among the lowest rated items on our survey. This tells me that foundation employees think we can do better.

With this in mind, I’d like to share some recommended practices that may improve the effectiveness of your performance review process.

Align your evaluation criteria with your mission and values. A key finding from Employee Empowerment was that foundation staff members want to believe they are working in alignment with their CEO and board. If you are all working in pursuit of the organization’s mission and values, evaluating each staff member’s performance against those same common standards communicates not only consistency in your process but also emphasizes the importance of every employee’s work in pursuit of that mission.

Avoid the numbers trap. Most performance scales have a numerical range, which makes it easy to fall into a couple false traps. One is that the perception of anything less than the maximum rating can easily be negatively skewed. I have had more than one person tell me that a 3 out of 5 rating or a 2 out of 3 rating feels like a “C” on a report card. If you’re effectively distributing ratings across you’re organization, a rating in the middle shouldn’t feel sub-satisfactory. Emphasizing this across your organization will appropriately calibrate expectations going into this process, while not over-inflating the distribution of ratings.

At CEP a high majority of our staff, almost 70 percent, received overall 3 out of 5 ratings on our performance scale during their the 2012 annual review process. However, the classification we associate with this rating is “successful performance” as opposed to emphasizing the number.

This brings me to the second numbers trap, communicating in numbers. It is easy to say to someone, “you were a 3 this year in this area and here’s why” rather than stating “here is how you’ve demonstrated successful performance.” These two messages can be interpreted quite differently by the recipient. Although numerical scales are useful in analyzing overall performance review data, the qualitative classification can deliver a very different message to an employee.

Use performance reviews as both corrective and motivational tools; they’re a package deal.  I had a supervisor recently ask me, “How do I find the balance between addressing performance that can improve, while not demotivating my staff?” This isn’t easy but achieving both is performance management at its best. Avoiding constructive commentary in a review in the interest of keeping your staff happy will only cause greater damage in the long run. Alternatively, only emphasizing deficiencies or weaknesses can be demoralizing. Acknowledge achievements and address needed improvement. If your staff members know that you care enough about their success to identify needed improvement and that you’ll recognize their successes, they’ll be open to your coaching and feedback.

Guide with goals. This integrates with the previous approach of balancing improvement with motivation. If you’re hiring the right people, they’ll want to grow, develop, and improve. By evaluating not only on standard organizational values but individual goals developed in partnership with your staff, your review process will introduce more employee ownership into the process.

Leave the monologues to the comedians. A frequent complaint I’ve heard from employees over the years is that their performance review meeting was a lecture. To be a fully collaborative process, it needs to be a conversation. By asking employees, what’s challenging them, what they want to achieve, what they need, and how you can help, you will gain valuable insight into barriers, perceptions, and frustrations that you otherwise may have never understood. Ensuring that a performance discussion is a two way conversation also cultivates ownership of improvement plans for an employee, as opposed to feeling like an unwanted directive.

Follow through and follow up. Once you’ve identified goals and improvement initiatives, be sure to check back in on them frequently and use them to guide your follow-up conversations. Performance goals that aren’t monitored and measured will make any review a waste of time.

These are just a few practices that I have found useful in conducting an organizational performance review process. There are many other successful approaches and one size definitely doesn’t fit all, but as a guiding principle, these conversations should be a partnership between leadership and staff.

As we discovered in our Employee Empowerment research, the fairness and helpfulness of the performance review process is a key contributor to foundation staff feeling empowered and satisfied in their job. Employers who wish to improve staff satisfaction—and ultimately organizational results—should do everything they can to hasten the day when their staff look forward to receiving performance reviews. Well, at least more than a trip to the dentist.   Brian Hughes is Director of Talent & Administration at the Center for Effective Philanthropy.          

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