Most people would rather get a root canal than participate in an annual performance appraisal.
The reasons performance appraisals are so difficult is simple:
Most managers don’t deliver timely and balanced (positive and negative) feedback throughout the year.
Many employees don’t ask for regular feedback.
Too much information is delivered during the annual employee performance appraisal.
And as crazy as it sounds, managers and employees haven’t agreed to give and receive regular and candid feedback.
Performance appraisals don’t have to be the worst day of the year.
Here are four steps to ensure performance appraisals are useful and positive:
Managers and employees must agree to give and receive balanced, candid feedback. Don’t assume the agreement to speak honestly is implicit, make it explicit.
Managers, be honest and courageous. Don’t rate an employee a five who is really a three. You don’t do anyone any favors. Employees want to know how they’re really doing, no matter how much the feedback may sting.
Managers, focus on three things the employee did well and three things to do more of next year. Any more input is overwhelming.
Managers, schedule a second conversation a week after the employee performance appraisal, so employees can think about and process what you’ve said and discuss further, if necessary.
The key to being able to speak candidly during an employee performance appraisal is as simple as agreeing that you will do so and then being receptive to whatever is said. And don’t make feedback conversations a one-time event. If you do a rigorous workout after not exercising for a long time, you often can’t move the next day. Feedback conversations aren’t any different. They require practice for both the manager and employee to be comfortable.
At some point in our career, most of us have taken a class that told us to give feedback that sounds like, “I felt ___________ when you ___________.” I couldn’t disagree more.
Most people get defensive when they receive negative feedback. Becoming defensive is a normal and natural response to upgrade (my word for negative) feedback. It’s the ego’s way of protecting us. Defensiveness kicks in when the recipient feels judged, and it’s difficult to listen when we’re defensive.
If you say to someone, “I felt embarrassed when you yelled at me in front of the team,” defensiveness kicks in at the word “embarrassed”. The recipient is now defensive (and is likely no longer listening) but does not yet know what they did to upset the person. Instead, lead with the facts, so when the listener becomes defensive, at least they know what they did.
If you say, “You yelled at me in front of the team. That was embarrassing,” at least when the defensiveness kicks in, the listener knows what they did that was upsetting. Then there is a chance that after processing the feedback, the person will change their behavior.
Yes to this:
“I need more regular feedback to stay on track with projects. Can we touch base weekly for ten minutes?”
No to this:
“You don’t make time for me. “I need more regular feedback to stay on track with projects.”
Lead with the facts. Tell the person what happened. Follow with why that matters. What happened, what’s the impact.
Factual, objective feedback may lead to change. Judgments lead to upset and damaged relationships.
Someone asks if you can (fill in the blank). You look at your calendar. That hour is open. You say, “yes.” You forgot that hour was designed for something you’ve been meaning to do, for yourself. You’re angry (with yourself) for forgetting. You promise to do better tomorrow.
The next day… repeat.
The only way I know out of tired-induced-people-pleasing is to set boundaries and stick to them. And this is hard, for me.
Examples of boundaries: Putting an hour in your calendar during the day to exercise; blocking 30-minutes between meetings to work; limiting one day each weekend to kids’ sports. Boundaries are parameters that guide our behavior. Putting a boundary in place doesn’t mean saying no. Boundaries create the conditions that tell us, without struggle, when to say yes.
Before I had my son, I traveled for work constantly. Some weeks I was on the road for six consecutive days, in three different states. And I loved every second of it. Audience + microphone = happiness. When I had a child, I knew that schedule wasn’t going to work. So, I set boundaries. I decided how many nights per week I would travel, the time I needed to be home from each trip, and how many hours I was willing to fly. And I didn’t violate those boundaries for 8 years. If a piece of work would require me to violate my travel boundaries, I said no without struggle, no matter how much I wanted to do that piece of work. The boundaries made the decisions easy. There was no deliberating or debating.
I’ll admit, I’m not as effective as setting boundaries in other areas of my life. Last week, I had a yoga class on my calendar. When I learned a repair person was able to be at my house during that hour, the yoga class was quickly deleted from my calendar. Yesterday, I asked my son what he wanted for breakfast, before flag football. He wanted scrambled eggs and a smoothie. I made both, knowing there wasn’t time. We were late for flag football. What was missing in both situations? Boundaries.
How does this apply to work? The key to preventing tired, burnt-out employees is to make it safe to speak up. As I wrote earlier in the year, burnout is a systemic issue, not a personal one. Burnout at work comes from too much to do, over time. One way out – make it safe to tell the truth at work.
For the most part, no one wants to admit to their boss that they are overextended or overwhelmed. Doing so feels like failure, and who wants to admit failure? If you want employees who are energized versus exhausted, focus on making it safe to tell the truth at work.
Five ways to make it safe to tell the truth at work:
Leaders and managers share their own truth. See the top of this blog for what that could sound like.
Ask employees meaningful questions. “How’s it going?” is not a meaningful question. Try: “What are your preferred working hours? What times a day would you prefer not to be contacted?”
Show appreciation when employees risk and say hard things.
Reward the truth. Make employees who are willing to say hard things a positive example.
Help employees problem solve to manage their time and priorities. Be ‘in it’ with them.
The good news about violating boundaries is you will get another chance to do it differently tomorrow. You can always reset a boundary. This time, tell the other people in your life about your boundaries. Tell your coworkers if you don’t do happy hours after meetings, 7:00 am Zoom calls, and back-to-back meetings, and tell them why. Then offer an alternative. Everything in life is a negotiation.
When my son asked that I not be on my phone on his birthday, I cried. I was surprised. I’m a very attentive parent. I spend a lot of time with my son. And apparently, as he has noticed, I also spend a lot of time with my phone.
There is always a good reason (excuse) for looking at my phone. I’m self-employed. I run a business. It’s important to be responsive to current and potential clients. But is every message timely? Urgent?
It’s become obvious – I’m addicted to my phone. I take it everywhere. I check it constantly. It’s such a habit, I don’t even see myself pick up the phone and check for messages.
Many people’s response to Covid was to move cities, switch jobs, continue working from home, and possibly work less. People are yearning for more balance and freedom. Yet, we are addicted to our phones, attached like they are a lifeline.
I regularly get calls from clients telling me that employees are tired and over extended – burnt out. They want a way out. Burnout is an organizational issue that begins and stops with strong management and leadership. One thing individuals can do to protect their time and separate work from their personal lives, is to put the phone away. By the way, next week’s tip is about how to prevent burn out.
The phone takes our attention and a lot of time, I suspect more time than we realize. When I’m focused and working during the day and hear that little ping of a text message, I stop working to check my phone. It’s a quick message, so I reply. Then the sender replies. Then I reply. Soon it’s been 20 minutes. Where was I with my work again?
These distractions can happen a few times a day. Then I pick my son up from school and lament how little I got done that day, and wonder when I’ll have time to finish my work? After my son’s asleep? In the morning before he wakes up? Instead of doing something I enjoy at night and sleeping in the morning, I’m trying to regain lost time.
Burnout is a systemic, organizational issue. But we can create boundaries with our phones today and regain some time and focus.
Here are the things I’m trying:
I leave the phone face down when I’m working and only turn it over if it rings. My son’s school doesn’t text when there is an emergency, they call.
My phone is on silent if my son is home and I’m not expecting a timely call or message.
I put my phone in another room when he is home, so I’m not tempted to look at it.
I leave the phone on another floor during my son’s bedtime routine, so that time is uninterrupted.
I don’t always do these things consistently, but I’m more aware of my addiction now. I’m conscious and I’m trying.
The key to taking back our time and having a balanced life is boundaries. A clear boundary (a rule you create for yourself) makes decision-making easier. There is no struggle, no internal fight. You are simply following the guidelines you put in place for yourself.
For example, if you decide to quit eating sugar for 30 days and go to a party where the sweets look really amazing, that experience will be stressful without a clear boundary. “I’m not eating sweets.” Not, “I’m not eating sweets unless they look really good.”
The same is true for the hours we work and work travel. If I set a boundary that I only travel one night a week and never miss two consecutive bedtime routines with my son, it’s easy to say no to work that doesn’t fit those boundaries, no matter how much I’d like to do that work.
Our phones can be the same. If you want to be less tied to your phone, set boundaries. “I only check my phone at the top of the hour. Then I put it on silent until the next hour.” “I’m available via phone, email and text until 5:30 pm each day, then I don’t check or respond to message until 8:30 am the next day.” Whatever boundaries you establish, tell the people around you who are impacted.
If your boss is used to getting responses at 8:00 pm, tell them the change you’re making and tell them why. If friends or family are used to hearing back from you within minutes, adjust their expectations.
You don’t have to be tied to your phone like it’s a member of the family. It’s a tool, not an extremity.
You’ve undoubtedly heard that it takes fewer than 30 seconds to form a first impression. The question is how frequently is your first impression wrong?
If the person sitting next to you on a plane doesn’t speak to you during the entire flight, you may initially think they are unfriendly, only to strike up a conversation as the plane is landing and find out that’s not the case. If a job candidate is outgoing, you may decide the person has good people skills, only to experience contrary behavior when they start the job. If someone is late to arrive for an initial meeting, you may decide they have an issue with time management, versus they were just running late that day.
Your first impression may be right, and it may be wrong, but it takes more than 30 seconds to be sure.
If you’ve participated in job interview training, you were probably trained to look for contrary evidence when forming an opinion about a candidate. Looking for contrary evidence is an attempt to disprove your first impression. If you quickly dismiss a candidate for lacking knowledge of your industry, you should ask interview questions to disprove your opinion before making a final decision.
Why not follow this practice in all settings? If you initially decide someone is trustworthy and reliable, spend more time with that person to be sure. If you quickly decide someone is unhelpful and uncommitted, give the person additional opportunities to behave differently before making a final judgment.
Snap judgments eliminate lots of great people and experiences from our lives.
Unfortunately, just as we prematurely exclude potential employees, friends, and life partners without having enough information, people do this to us as well, which is why it’s important to know the first impression you, your department, and your company make. If you don’t know the first impression you create, there’s nothing you can do to shift behaviors that may be costing you friends and customers.
When I was new to a job, early in my career, I asked my new coworkers to give me feedback if they saw me do anything that got in the way of my being successful at work. They agreed. But when they had negative feedback, they didn’t give it to me, they told my boss instead. That’s when I got the hard and painful lesson that people have a tendency to talk about us, not to us. It’s also when I began asking the people closest to me, who I know love me and care enough to tell me the truth, the first impression I create.
Opinions are formed quickly and they’re hard to break. Give people more than one chance and see how they show up. And know that many people will eliminate you, your department, and your company after just one interaction. So, find out the impression you create, giving you the power to do something about that impression.
Download some of the questions I ask to learn my reputation.
When I led leadership development training for a large mutual fund company we offered a lot of training focused on helping people have hard conversations. Over time I realized that despite that I’d bought and offered the best training programs I could find, the training wasn’t helping. Managers didn’t give enough feedback, and when they did give feedback, employees were often left confused, wondering what they needed to do differently.
I decided that what was missing was the conversation before the crucial conversation. It wasn’t that managers didn’t know what they wanted to say; many managers felt they couldn’t say what they wanted to say. There wasn’t sufficient safety or permission for giving feedback, so managers said little or delivered messages that were so vague, employees were left wondering if there was a problem. This is how the idea for Candid Culture was born.
If you’re struggling with giving feedback, I doubt it’s the message that’s the challenge. The distinction between being able to tell the truth (as you see it) and saying nothing, is the quality of your relationship.
Think about the people – personal and professional – who can say anything to you. These are the people who can tell you the person you’re dating is wrong for you, that a piece of clothing is not flattering, or that you dropped the ball. You may not enjoy getting the feedback, but you’re able to hear what they have to say and take it in, because you know they care about you and have your best interests at heart. You trust their motives. When you trust people’s motives, they can say anything to you. When you don’t trust people’s motives, there is little they can say.
If you’re struggling to give feedback, evaluate your relationship by asking these questions:
Does this person trust me?
Does this person know that I have their back under any circumstances?
If the answer to either of the questions is no, it’s not giving feedback you’re struggling with, it’s the quality of your relationship. Work on building trust with this person and you’ll be able to say whatever you feel you need to say.
Here are four steps to building trusting relationships:
Ask questions to get to know people better than you know them now.
Tell people you want them to succeed and demonstrate that by being supportive of their efforts.
Set the expectation that you will give both positive and upgrade feedback as events happen, because you want the person to be successful.
When you deliver feedback, be extremely specific. Feedback that is specific will be received much better than vague feedback, which is typically judgmental.
When people know that you respect and support them, you have a great deal of freedom to speak up. When people don’t trust your motives, giving feedback is almost impossible. The recipient will become defensive and dismiss whatever you say, rationalizing that you don’t like them.
Worry less about giving feedback – for now. Instead, build trust. Get to know people better, then work on giving feedback.
One of the most frequent questions I get is how to retain an organization’s culture and build teamwork when people work virtually. It’s easy to forget about team building when you’re working hybrid or think that team building can’t be done virtually, or decide to wait to do team building until your whole team can get together in person. My advice; don’t wait.
Often the most meaningful aspects of work are the people we work with and the relationships we build. When you leave a job, you leave your laptop and take your friendships. You can build team work virtually; you just need to make the time.
Spend the first few minutes of virtual or hybrid meetings on small talk, just like you would if you were gathering in a physical conference room.
Eat lunch together, virtually. Remember when people used to sit together in the office breakroom or cafeteria? Why not eat together via video? Team building doesn’t have to be elaborate. It can just be spending time together.
Humans need people contact and relationships. Connections with our coworkers make us feel connected to our organizations.
Small talk and group lunches create camaraderie, but they don’t teach people how to work together. In addition to social activities, give people a chance to talk about working style preferences. You don’t have to do personality assessments and long training programs to build teamwork. Just give people a chance to talk about how they like to work, on a regular basis.
Tell your team you want to help people get to know each other better, so work gets done more easily. Start each team meeting with one of the questions below, then move on to your meeting agenda. Do this all year.
Here are a few team building questions you can use:
What are your pet peeves at work?
What time of day do you do your best work?
Do you leave your email, phone, or text alerts on at night? If I text you after hours, will you get a ping?
If I email you on weekends and evenings, do you think I expect a response? Would you prefer I send messages only during regular business hours?
What’s an area of our business you’d like to learn more about?
What’s something you’d like to learn to do that you don’t have a chance to do now?
Read a question to the group. Give everyone at the meeting the opportunity to answer the question about themselves. And remember, the meeting leader/facilitator speaks last. People will often follow the most senior person’s lead. You want people to answer authentically rather than providing what they think is the ‘right’ answer.
Team building doesn’t have to take a lot of time or money. Don’t wait until everyone is in the office or for a future retreat. Help coworkers spend time together formally and informally, getting to know each other better now.
Leaders and managers work hard to retain employees. Employees watch how their organization’s leaders and managers work, and often make career decisions based on the hours the most senior people keep.
Employees pay attention to how often managers and senior leaders take time off and whether or not leaders attend meetings and respond to emails while they’re on vacation. Employees observe the late nights that leaders and managers put in and the emails sent at 11:00 pm and on the weekends. I’ve heard lots of employees say, “If I need to work like my boss works to get ahead in this organization, I’m not interested.”
Managers, one of the keys to retaining employees is to communicate expectations. If you’re available while you’re on vacation, but don’t expect employees to do the same, set that expectation. If you send an email outside of regular business hours but don’t expect employees to respond until the next business day, tell them so. They don’t know. Many employees assume that if you email them at night, you expect a reply.
Microsoft has made these situations easy to avoid, with the ability to program emails to go out during regular business hours. And some people state in their email signatures, “I work outside of regular business hours, but don’t expect you to.”
Instead of allowing employees to make assumptions about what managers do and don’t expect, set clear expectations. Be overt and clear. When you hire employees, tell them, “I work most evenings and weekends, but don’t expect you to do so. And I work these hours because I enjoy it, not because I have to. If I email you outside of regular business hours, I am not expecting you to reply.” Retaining good employees begins during the interview process when initial expectations are set.
Managers, if you expect employees to check and respond to emails outside of regular business hours and to be available while on vacation, tell candidates during the interview process.
Employees, if your manager emails you outside of regular business hours and doesn’t tell you whether or not she expects you to reply, ask. Simply say, “I often receive emails outside of regular business hours. How will I know when you need me to reply?” Likewise, if you notice your manager emails you on vacation, you can say, “I typically hear from you when you’re on vacation. Are you expecting me to check in while I’m off?”
The need to ask questions and set expectations goes both ways. Don’t wait to be told. Ask.
Managers and employees, ask these Candor Questions about working style preferences to aid in retaining employees:
How do you feel about being contacted outside of regular business hours?
If I need to reach you over a weekend or in the evening, what method is best?
Would you prefer I text you so you don’t have to check your email outside of business hours?
What time is too early and too late to call, text, and/or email?
Ask more. Assume less and make retaining employees easier.
People leave feedback training armed with new skills and they unfortunately sometimes use those skills as a weapon. It goes something like this, “I need to have a candid conversation with you.” And then the person proceeds to dump, dump, dump. This couldn’t be more wrong, wrong, wrong.
When you give someone negative feedback you are essentially telling them they did something wrong. And who likes to be wrong? The ego gets bruised and people often start to question themselves. This normal reaction doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give feedback, you just need to do it judiciously.
Ask yourself these four questions when deciding whether or not to give someone feedback:
Do I have the relationship to provide feedback? Does the recipient trust me and my motives?
Do I have permission to give feedback? If the recipient doesn’t work for you, you need permission to give feedback.
Is this something the person can do something about? If it’s not a change the recipient can make, keep your thoughts to yourself.
Is the feedback helpful? Ultimately the purpose of all feedback is to be helpful.
Let’s say you’re on the receiving end of too much feedback. What should you do? It’s ok to say “no thank you” to feedback. Here’s what you could say:
“Thank you for taking the time to bring this to my attention. I really appreciate it. You’ve given me a lot of feedback today. I’d like something to focus on that I can impact right now. What’s the most important thing I should do?” You’ve validated the other person and demonstrated openness and interest. You’ve also set some boundaries and expectations of what you will and won’t do.
“Thank you for taking the time to share your requests about… We won’t be making any changes to that and here’s why.” It’s ok not to act on all feedback, simply tell people why you won’t.
“I appreciate your concern. I’m not looking for feedback on that right now.” Can you say that to someone? Yes. Should you? Sometimes. To your boss – no. To someone who offers unsolicited advice that’s outside of their lane, yes. They’ll get the message.
People can only act on and digest small amounts of feedback at a time. Be judicious and assess your motives. The purpose of feedback is to be helpful, when the feedback is requested and when you have the relationship to give it.
If you receive too much feedback or unsolicited feedback, it’s ok to decline. You’re not the 7-11, aka you’re not always open.
When you use GPS in your car for driving directions, the GPS only provides one direction at a time. GPS tells you what to do now and what to do next. Your car can only go one direction at a time. And humans can likely only remember one or two directions at a time. When you coach people, you are their GPS, supporting them in achieving a desired goal efficiently.
Coach and give feedback like your GPS. Give one or two pieces of feedback at a time. Then give the person time to make changes and improve before giving more feedback.
What I hear every day, and every day it makes me shudder:
Manager: “One of my employees has been making a lot of mistakes. He seems disengaged (p.s. “disengaged” is Cap’n Crunch, vague and thus not real feedback). I’m not sure what’s happening.”
Most people hoard feedback. We wait for the right time, aka when we’re comfortable. That time will never come. The right time to give feedback is when something happens or shortly thereafter. Practice the 24-hour guideline and the one-week rule. Wait 24 hours to give feedback if you’re mad, but not longer than a week. Give feedback when you’re not upset, but soon after the event occurs, so people remember what you’re talking about.
Feedback is hard on the ego. The more feedback we receive in one conversation, the harder it is to hear. People need to feel successful. Receiving too much feedback at one time makes us feel we can’t be successful, so why bother. Pick the biggest and most impactful behaviors. Wait. And then give more feedback.
When it comes to feedback, keep this mantra in your head – recency, frequency. Recency, frequency. Short, weekly, feedback conversations – five minutes long – are better than sixty-minute feedback conversation once a month or quarter. You’ll see more behavior change and protect team member’s ego. Shorter and more frequent is better.