I’ve recently published a series of articles that describe how annual reviews reveal more about the manager than the employee. The examples I’ve provided focus on examples of bad management practices that could cause damage and general resentment in the manager/employee relationship. But of course not all annual reviews are conducted poorly.
I know that for some of you out there this might be hard to believe. Just as it is easy to recognize poor management practices in action on an annual review, there’s the ability to identify when a review is done well. Here are some examples of markers of a well-conducted employee performance review:
Marker #1: Level of detail
A well-conducted annual review will show that both the manager and the employee have a mastery of the details of the role being reviewed. The details should include specific actions that the employee performed. The manager can demonstrate involvement in the actual work by discussing how she actually reviewed the work and found it at the desired performance level and what the impact of the work is, or is anticipated to be.
Marker #2: Agreement of metrics
First, let’s assume that there are success metrics (yes, numbers) that are documented somewhere on the review. That is a good sign. Second, let’s say that the manager and the employee BOTH refer to the same numbers on the review. That’s another good sign. So then we know that both the manager and the employee seem to be striving for the same numbers. That’s a third good sign. (We’re taking baby steps here. I would also be great if the metrics were tied to drivers of business/organization success – but let’s start really basic and have the employee and manager agree on a few metrics first.)
Marker #3: Referencing performance feedback/strategy sessions
When either the manager or the employee reference in the review actual feedback conversations (or what I also refer to as “employee strategy sessions”) that happened external to the review context, this is a good sign. That means that the manager has taken an active interest in the employee’s ability to perform the job well, and has taken the time to coach the employee. Also imagine the employee referencing in the review having been coached, taking the feedback and applying it, and then getting better results. That would be even a better sign.
Marker #4: The performance feedback/strategy sessions are related to the job functions and results
It’s one thing to have feedback discussions throughout the year, but it’s another to have feedback discussions that actually revolve around performing the job better. Many times managers stick to things that are closest to the manager, but are at best indirectly associated with doing the job:
“Jeff is late for our team meetings”
“Anne didn’t attend the all-team meeting”
“Isabelle needs to speak up during the team meetings”
“Mark brings up problems during 1:1 meetings”
OK, so those seem to be things revealing a lot about the employee/manager logistics, but nothing about the job. How about instead:
“Jeff created a strategic business plan that researched the competitive landscape. We identified some new tools he can use to create deeper understanding of our competitors, and he introduced to them to the organization.”
“When we found errors coming from our vendor, Anne identified the top issues and worked with the vendor to reduce errors and costs.”
“In looking at the contracts Isabelle writes, they are consistent, keep the company’s interests at the forefront, and delivered on time.”
“Mark is skilled at finding issues in the organization, and raising them such that they help the team run. One example is our outreach efforts to our partner teams. He identified that this was an issue, and he proposed that he and I meet with them to better understand how we work together. The result was that the partner teams have included us in key decisions that we wouldn’t have been involved with otherwise.”
Marker #5: An outside party can actually identify what the job is by reading the review
If you look at the above examples, you can actually start to guess what the employee actually does. This should be the focus of a review – most of the commentary should be on what the employee did, and how well, and whether they met the goals or improved things.
These are some (not all) of the markers of a well-conducted annual review. If you have managers that display these markers, perhaps you should praise them for doing this well?
Have you seen these markers on an annual review? Or is it more common to see the markers of poorly conducted reviews?
The annual review reveals more about the manager’s performance than the employee’s performance (part 4)
In my previous articles (here, here and here), I discuss how the annual review process reveals more about the manager than the employee. The annual review’s text may be about the employee’s performance, but what really is powerful about the performance review is the subtext – what the review reveals about the manager’s practices as a manager.
Here are some more examples of what you can see in a performance review and what it says about the manager:
1. The incident that defines the whole year
Annual reviews were developed to review the whole year. Yet many reviews boil down to a particular incident during the course of the year. Both the manager and the employee may recount the incident, and use this as the basis for the employee’s performance. It might be interesting to see what the incident is. Did the employee disagree with the manager? Was the employee supported by the manager through the incident, or left hung out to dry? When this is observed, know that employees will work extra hard to avoid “the incident”, or work hard to re-define “the incident.” In any case, it should be rare, not common, that a single event could define someone’s work, and if that’s the case, it should be reflected in their goals.
Many employees fear that their manager has a bias toward or against various members of the team. The annual review is a great place to test this thesis. Does the manager reveal in the comments a preference to one employee over another? Is one employee looking for attention and another basking in it? One can read for tone as well as content to reveal the answer to these questions.
3. The lack of performance-based language
The Manager by Designsm blog writes frequently about using behavior-based language, also known as performance-based language (read here for a primer on how to tell if you are using performance-based/behavior-based language). The annual review should be a bastion of performance-based language, yet it is often the opposite. “Michael is the best!” “Andrea is a real go-getter!” “Pete doesn’t have what it takes,” “Aaron needs a better attitude.” These are generalizations and value judgments that reveal that the manager does not think in behavior-based terms, which indicates that the employee is probably being evaluated on impressions rather than performance.
4. The difficult review discussion
External to the actual form, do you have managers who dread the review period, talk about “difficult” reviews, and otherwise find the process difficult and cumbersome? This teaches you that the manager could be letting the management tasks slide until the review period comes along. There will be a lot of pent-up angst when this happens, and the review discussions will be necessarily difficult if you are trying to resolve a year’s worth of issues in one discussion. Remember, it is supposed to be a re-view, not a view into the employee’s performance.
5. The wildly variant employee ability across time
In this situation, the employee is a “star performer” one year, and a “weak performer” another year. What changed? It could be the employee, but if you assume that, you’re going to be right only some of the time. Other things probably have changed – the manager and/or the work challenge. If an employee was great on one team and terrible on another team, is it really the employee? If the employee was supported, had good processes and reasonable expectations, and they did well, that’s great. If the same employee joins a team with no processes, unreasonable work expectations, and a difficult political environment, we have just learned the difference of the managers (and the manager of managers), not the employee.
6. Only things the manager observes
A manager often comments on the review the things about the employee they have directly observed. This is generally a good idea, because the rest is hearsay. But what if we learn through the comments what it is that the manager has directly observed? If the manager only comments about the behavior of the employee during 1:1 discussions, team meetings, and emails/status reports to the manager, then we know that the manager is evaluating only employee behaviors in the context of interacting with the manager. You can forget about the work output, how the employee interacts with colleagues and customers, and other areas of performance. But if that employee is quiet during the team meeting, then it will appear on the review.
7. Relying on what “others” say
Similarly, a manager may focus on what others say to rate the employee. This could come from the boss’s boss, other team members, or the prior manager. If there is a dearth of other areas that are examined about the employee’s work output and ability to produce results, then this should be a cause of concern that the manager is more focused on political aspects of the work environment (“what are others saying”) and less on the work output and ongoing behaviors (“what did the employee do.”)
So for the budding Management Designers out there, how do you use the Annual Review to understand the management behaviors? Or are you leaving this rich artifact on the table and relying on other channels to learn about your managers?
Let me know your stories of how managers reveal their management practices on performance reviews.
The annual review reveals more about the manager’s performance than the employee’s performance (part 3)
In my previous articles here and here, I discussed how the annual review process reveals more about the manager than the employee. The annual review’s text may be about the employee’s performance, but what really is powerful is the subtext – the manager’s practices as a manager.
Here are even more examples of what kinds of things are revealed about a manager in an employee performance review:
1. The Fight
Two articles ago, I cited “the debate”, which I characterized as a disagreement on the review over what happened over the course of the year. But sometimes you’ll see actual arguments spill over onto the review. The argument may be over points of fact, or points of interpretation, but if the two parties are extending their argument into written form when the annual review is written, then you know, at the minimum, that the manager is comfortable not resolving disputes, and letting them extend into a variety of forums and formats, and it probably doesn’t stop at the review.
Many managers will talk about their own actions and contributions on an employee’s review. It’s one thing to talk about the team accomplishments, but when you see a manager say, “I was able to help Jim achieve an increase in sales,” or “I made a great hire in Tammy,” you can infer that the manager has more focus on him or himself than the team. Just count the number of “I’s” in the manager comments and you can get a feel for this.
3. The one good thing one bad thing
I have commented on this in a prior article – but this is a good time to revisit it. Many managers believe that they need to be “fair” in providing one good piece of feedback and one bad piece of feedback on an employee. “Jim was able to deliver a high volume of work, but sometimes his emails can be too long.” Doing this makes little sense, because typically employees do go to work and then do one thing good and one thing bad. If there is something that the employee needs to get better at to do her job, then this needs to be articulated as something the manager and the employee are already working on. It reveals a lot about a manager who waits until the review to articulate the wrong things the employee does without having any reference to an effort to improve the employee in that area. Perhaps this frequently happens because the “bad thing” that is cited is often irrelevant to the employee’s performance, “Max didn’t go to the team event.”
4. Areas irrelevant to the performance
The annual performance review is often a treasure trove of irrelevant feedback. Many managers will cite events that are not relevant to meeting goals (what time the person comes in every morning, the length of emails, for example). Look closely at what the manager critiques and praises. Is there a connection to the team achieving the metrics, or is simply something that is generally considered bad (being late on occasion, being slow to respond on email) or good (setting up a weekly happy hour), but not necessarily directly connected to work output.
5. The blank career development area
There are lots of places on the form to fill out. Sometimes managers do not fill in certain areas. A common area that often goes untouched is the career development plan. Many review forms have a “looking forward” section that discusses what the employee plans to do to develop his or her career. If this section is blank – and it often is – then you know for sure that the manager isn’t engaging in this discussion with the employee. If the manager does have it filled in, and it looks robust and connected to the employee, then you know that this is something the manager is good at.
But wait, there’s more! Tune in next week for more ways the review reveals more about the manager than the employee. What stories do you have?
The annual review reveals more about the manager’s performance than the employee’s performance (part 2)
In my previous article, I discussed how the annual review process reveals more about the manager than the employee. The annual review’s text may be about the employee’s performance, but what really is powerful is the subtext – the manager’s practices as a manager.
Here are some more examples of what kinds of things are revealed about a manager in an employee performance review:
1. The lack of detail
The manager usually has a comment box in an employee review form. If the manager does not write much in it, what does that tell you? Probably that the manager has no idea what the employee did over the course of the year. Compare the following:
“Joe had a great year. He met all of this goals and is well-liked on the team.”
“Tiffany created a new system that was implemented across the team to improve communication, streamline processes, and create more accountability. She identified the largest issues facing quality teamwork, and her efforts in this area contributed to a better team understanding of the deliverables and timelines.”
In the second example, the manager appears to know what Tiffany did. In the first example, it is not clear whether the manager even knows who Joe is, and what he does.
2. The lack of discussion of improvement
One of the tasks of a manager is to facilitate an ever improving team atmosphere and capability. Or, at the minimum, get it to an acceptable level and keep it there. But what if you never see any language that expresses any effort to improve the team or its members?
Something like, “At the beginning of the year, Andy and I discussed improving his follow-through on resolving quality issues in his work. We worked together to identify how we can improve in this area, and during the year, Andy had many fewer issues in this area. In fact, Andy is now a team champion on how to assure our team’s work output is both timely and with quality.” This indicates a drive for improvement.
Instead we often see the flat, “Andy has quality issues.” In this case, we quickly learn that the manager sees no responsibility in improving Andy’s quality issues. This indicates a quality issue of the manager.
3. The disconnect from goals
Many performance reviews have a section that require employees and managers to compare the actual results of the work with the goals established at the beginning of the review period. It is often observed that managers will not comment on these goals and whether or not they were met by the employee, and instead focus on personality elements. Perhaps you’ve seen something like: “Joan brings a lot of fun to the team!” “We love Harry’s sense of humor and positive attitude.” That’s on the positive side. On the negative side, it might be, “Marty is always late for meetings” or “Patrick could improve his attitude” or “Maurice could be more helpful with other team members.”
If the manager writes something that is not connected to the goals and does not reveal her opinion as to whether or not the employee met the goals, we learn that the manager didn’t take the goals seriously in the first place, or doesn’t know whether they were met.
4. Comparison of goals across team members
Sticking to the topic of goals, one exercise is to compare the goals across the manager’s team members, which are usually documented on the annual review. Are they the same? Do they appear to lead to a team strategy? Or do they appear written independently by the individual members of the team? One team member may have tons of goals, and another may have hardly any. Are one set of goals very crisp and another set of goals unformed and vague? That can happen if the manager is not taking the goal-writing process seriously, and has not provided input.
5. Expectation of teamwork
The manager is ostensibly a leader of a team, not a series of individuals. However, the annual review typically has very little commentary about how team members helped one another. If the manager does not have discussions somewhere in the review (goals, what the team achieved vs. what the individual achieved) that identify the quality of teamwork, then we know that this is not a priority of the manager. Is this the kind of management practices we are looking for?
My next article will discuss even more examples of when a manager reveals more about herself on the employee’s performance review.
Do you have examples of when the review says more about the manager than the employee? Send them my way!