At work, we’re finishing up the dreaded mid-year check in for the performance review process. I have never met anyone who relishes this process. Employees and managers give different amounts of energy and seriousness to the process, and since it is inevitably tied to one’s career and financial path, there is plenty of anxiety to spread around. As a manager, if I push too hard I can demotivate people who are already pushing themselves. As an employee, I may sandbag it for the rest of the year if my mid-year is too vanilla and I already expect the outcome. However, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Now before I go any further, I want to assure you dear reader that I am not secretly Toby from The Office. No, I don’t work in HR. Everyone may hate me, but that’s a different story. No, I’m writing this from the perspective of both employee and manager.
I had an incredible conversation with someone from my team this week. I’m going to mix around pronouns to appropriately obscure this person’s identity, so bear with me. Here’s roughly how it went. Coming into mid-year, I had gotten some fairly negative feedback about this person. S/He seems to go missing on certain things. Amazing on most deliverables, but the lack of consistency is a real problem. This team member has a very good history, so this is a departure from previous performance. Perhaps an analogy will help illustrate. As a student, this person would be on the honor role for good marks. However, in an almost complete about face, s/he gets D- in Algebra and doesn’t seem to be bothered by it; defiantly sticking the report card on the refrigerator for all to see. The problem here is that things at work are not so tidy to be divided into topics like English and Algebra.
As a manager, I was nervous about the upcoming check in. I was going to have to tell this otherwise very good performer that there was a pretty serious gap in performance that – in spite of saying it plainly before – has gone on for too long. I’m not one to shy away from a tough topic, but I didn’t want to impact the other great stuff that this person does for our team. I duly documented the performance concern and had it all formally printed and ready for the review. It felt wrong. So I sat and thought about it a bit. After some reflection, I detected the pattern of behavior. This person is very good on practically everything s/he touches, but has no problem doing poor or late work on a ‘category’ of task – even when it is clearly documented. The trick here was to discern the ‘category.’
A day later, when it was time to have the mid-year conversation, I scrapped the documentation in lieu of a real conversation. We blew the conversation open a few minutes in. I shared what I thought might be the pattern. My team member reflected briefly and then agreed. We talked about how this type of task that s/he doesn’t like is pretty essential to the job the way it is structured. So we talked about alternatives. Should we realign him/her to work that better fits his/her passions? Should we roll up our sleeves and brute force our way to the point that s/he becomes good at this certain type of item? We did not put ourselves under pressure to answer that question in this meeting. We had accomplished enough discovery for this time block.
I am confident that we both walked away from this mid-year check in with our heads held high. Rather than have some traditional performance review about how this performance isn’t good enough and yada yada, we adjusted the conversation to agreed upon strengths, weaknesses, and an important career discussion. We have a follow up meeting scheduled to draw our conclusions. I promised that if we decided to realign this team member, that there would be no ramifications – and there won’t. But I also promised that if we stuck with the current alignment, things would get more uncomfortable if the current patterns continued. There was full agreement.
The saying is true, “feedback is a gift.” However, giving and accepting that gift comes with great responsibilities. It is important that we not make things about ourselves – on either side of the coin. My team member was not showing me or the rest of the team intentional disrespect by being bad at this task category. Assuming that motivation would have turned this discussion into a power struggle. Rather, we focused on the cause and can now have a thoughtful partnership in developing the solution.
Wishing you pain-free performance appraisal check ins!