Using perceptions to manage: An example of how to transform a perception into improved performance feedback
In today’s article, I take an instance of when a manager feels compelled to use the line “There’s a perception that. . .” as a means to give performance feedback. For example, a manager may intend to “help” the employee by saying, “There’s a perception that you are difficult to work with.” The implied notion is that the perception is the negative impact, and “being difficult to work with” is the behavior that needs to change.
However, this is badly given performance feedback, and there is an alternative!
Citing perceptions as feedback is the reverse order of good performance feedback, so let’s turn it around.
Here are the (compressed) steps for giving performance feedback:
- Start with the context
- Describe the observed behavior
- (Only if it isn’t clear what the impact is) cite the impact of the behavior
- Offer alternate behavior.
Let’s take the example of a manager who attempts to give feedback by saying the following:
“There’s a perception that you’re difficult to work with.”
By leading with the perception, manager reverses the order of feedback and eliminates the other steps. It starts and ends with the so-called impact: The negative perception of being difficult to work with. Aside from the generalization of the employee being difficult to work with, there are no cited behaviors that lead up to the perception. The impact, however ephemeral, is the feedback.
In my previous article, I provided five markers of what a well-conducted annual review looks like. Let’s look at some more. It is possible to actually conduct an annual review well, but this is no guarantee. So let’s keep looking for those precious markers of a manager who knows how to use the annual review for good, rather than perpetuate it as a tool for suffering.
Marker #6: Improvement is germane to the discussion
If the annual review has any discussion about where the employee’s skills and performance was at the beginning of the year, and a comparative analysis at the end of the year – in those same skills – then this means that the manager is actually concerned with increasing the capability of the organization. I would consider this generally a good thing. For example:
“At the beginning of the year, we discussed how we can improve Alex’s presentation skills, as she frequently presents business partners. During the year Alex sought mentoring and feedback in this area, and the results show that this effort has paid off. Our partners have reported that they find her speaking style inviting and informative, and Alex has consistently been able to meet the objectives of the presentations.”
Marker #7: References to the goals
First, a marker would be that the employee and the team actually have some sort of goals. That would be the first marker of a good performance evaluation, as it provides something against which the manager evaluates the employee. Now, the second part of this is if the manager actually references the goals in making the evaluation.
“We had the ambitious goal at the beginning of the year to implement a new payroll system to further streamline what was before a highly labor-intensive project. Jeanine was a key part of the team that scoped the project, identified the goals of what success of the project was. Jeanine managed the vendor selection process, kept the team focused on the desired outcomes, and ensured that the team understood what was in scope and out of scope via her weekly communications. This was a key factor in assuring that the project stayed on track, which it did. The new payroll system was launched on time earlier this year, and has significantly reduced the processing time.”
Marker #8: Teamwork is referenced by both the employee and the manager
The individual performance review necessarily focuses on the individual. I consider this bad management design, as individual work is good, but teamwork can create greater outcomes. Almost all workgroups rely on teamwork. Managers and employees can transcend the design by invoking what teamwork happened during the review period. Let’s say that the manager talks about the great teamwork that the employee engaged in. Let’s say that the employee mentions how she contributed to building the team, and how she made an effort to improve the capability of the team, or looked out for the interest in the team. This would reflect that the manager and team are actually concerned with the power of teamwork over the expectation for an individual to perform independently of teamwork. Here’s an example:
“Jonathan demonstrated that he is an excellent team player by creating a process document that showed how to complete a task that many team members performed irregularly. This helped the team gain some efficiencies, and inspired other team members to make similar efforts. The team is healthier as a result of Jonathan’s efforts.”
Marker #9: Goals seem to have a similar voice and scope across team members
Many annual reviews have a section where the employee’s goals are documented. One could look at the goals of all the team members across a managers’ team. Imagine, if you will, goals that seem to have a similar tone, similar metrics, and similar scope across team members. They don’t have to be exactly the same, because not all roles are the same, but if the goals are all striving toward a similar metric or output, this demonstrates that the manager knows what the team is striving to do, and has actually infused it in the goals. When the goals seem to be similarly written, we also know that the manager has provided input and perhaps even co-authored the goals – or this is sometimes tough to imaging – this was done as a group. Too many times we see managers push down the goal writing process to the individual employees, which results in, by definition, different looking goals. Let’s celebrate those times when we see goals across the team show some kind of consistency across the team.
Marker #10: There is agreement between the employee and the manager
If a manager and employee seem to say that they agree about things on the performance review, this reveals that the employee and the manager actually talked about these things prior to the annual review. Differences in what the results were, what the impact of the employee’s actions and whether or not the employee performed at a high level – well these were resolved external to the review, as should be the case. Many managers wait until the review to resolve lingering disagreements, sometimes even using the review to create new ones, but those managers who seek alignment and understanding with their employees throughout the year, and don’t wait until the end of the year should be recognized as superior managers. Here’s what alignment looks like:
Employee: “I increased sales by 15% through my efforts to reach out to a new customer base.”
Manager: “I agree with the employee. He was effective at identifying a new target market, and then executing the strategy of accessing the market.”
See? no debate! Do you think that a debate might have happened during the year to get to this agreement of what the employee’s efforts were and what were the estimated results? Yes. Does it appear on the annual review? No, but the agreement of the results of the discussions do appear.
We should celebrate when managers do a great job on the perilous annual performance review, and do whatever we can to increase the chances of a well-conducted review.
Have you seen these markers of success on a review? Let’s hear your stories!
In my previous post, I describe how peer feedback from 360 degree surveys is not really feedback at all. At best, it can be considered, “general input from peers about an employee.” Alas, it is called peer feedback, and as such, it risks being misused by managers. Let’s talk about these misuses:
As a proxy for direct observations: Peer feedback is so seductive because it sounds like something that can replace what a manager is supposed to be doing as a manager. One job of the manager is to provide feedback on job performance and coach the employee to better performance. However, with peer feedback from surveys, you get this proxy for that job expectation: The peers do it via peer feedback. Even better, it is usually performed by the Human Resources department, which sends out the survey, compiles it, and gives it to the manager. Now all the manager has to do is provide that feedback to the employee. See, the manager has given feedback to the employee on job performance. Done!
Never mind that this feedback doesn’t qualify as performance feedback, may-or-may not be job related, or may-or-may not be accurate.
The incident that sticks and replicates: Let’s say in August an employee, Jacqueline, was out on vacation for three weeks. During that time, a request from the team Admin came out to provide the asset number of the computer, but Jacqueline didn’t reply to this. And worse, Jacqueline didn’t reply to it after returning from vacation, figuring that the admin would have followed up on the gaps that remained on the asset list. Then it comes back a year later on Jacqueline’s peer feedback that the she is unresponsive, difficult to get a hold of and doesn’t follow procedures. This came from the trusted Admin source!
In my previous article, I noted how setting team expectations can help a manager identify when and how to provide corrective feedback.
There is another value to providing expectations to your team: It allows you and your team to provide reinforcing feedback, and more of it. Reinforcing feedback, also known as positive feedback, is much easier to give and receive than corrective feedback. The key is to reinforce the right thing!
That’s where the expectation-setting comes in. If the team expectations have been set, then they can be reinforced. On the flip side, if no expectations have been set, then what gets reinforced will be generally random. Some of good behaviors get reinforced, and some of bad behaviors get reinforced.
So if you set team expectations, then you and your team are much more likely to reinforce the desired behaviors. As previously written on this blog, the manager should be spending a good chuck of time reinforcing positive behaviors.
In the example I used in the previous article, was the manager set the following general team expectation:
The team will foster an atmosphere of sharing ideas
In this example, let’s say the team actually conducts a meeting where the various team members support each others’ ideas, and allowed everyone to provide their input. The manager observes this and agrees that this reflects the expectation of “fostering an atmosphere of sharing ideas.”
Now the manager needs to reinforce this! The manager can reinforce this in a few different ways.
1. Feedback to the group at the end of the meeting
At the end of the meeting the manager can say:
“This meeting reflected what we are looking for in fostering an atmosphere of ideas. I saw people on the team asking others for their ideas, and I saw that ideas, once offered, weren’t shot down and instead were praised for being offered. This allowed more ideas to be shared. Thanks for doing this, and I like seeing this.”
In my previous post, I make the case that the manager is the most high impact trainer in any organization. The manager has the ability to subvert anything that was trained merely through one comment or gesture.
But what about the opposite? What if the manager reinforces what was covered in training? What happens then?
The answer: The employee performs according to the training.
Let’s assume, for now, that the training actually has something valuable in it. That the people who created the training did the research, know what the proper performance ought to be, and trained a great class designed to help employees on the job.
The employee leaves the training and now has to apply it to the work environment.
Here are the things that the manager can do to reinforce the training:
1. Ask the employee what he learned in training
How often has this happened? Not enough! If an employee goes to a training class, industry conference, safety briefing, or any other “learning”, this should be the first course of action. It is unlikely that the manager attends all of the training that the employees attend, so now the employee has to share the content with the manager. It’s the manager’s job to listen.
In recent articles, I’ve explored how a manager’s subtle or not-so-subtle behaviors can influence how a team operates. Think about this – the manager, through the subtle power of suggestion or through overt directive action, can shape how a team performs, make a difference as to whether the team succeed or fails, establish whether it is a good working environment or not, and contribute to whether the organization is successful or not.
This is because the manager is the most high impact trainer in the organization, and should be treated as such.
Many organizations have robust training departments. These departments might offer a series of training classes on technical skills, soft skills, legal compliance, team building, job safety, and the like. These classes might last as long as week or be as short as one-hour. Increasingly, “eLearning” offerings offer a tutorial on how to do something or stay in compliance. In many cases, these training organizations track whether or not the employees have taken a series of classes, and it is tracked with great robustness on the employee’s record in what is called a Learning Management System (LMS).
But note that these classes last for a finite period of time. The class, no matter how interactive or high impact learning the design may be, ends. The employee always leaves the training arena, whether it was eLearning or classroom, and then goes back to the job.
Then what happens? It’s now entirely dependent on what the manager reinforces or punishes.
Whatever cues the manager makes, no matter how subtle, will determine whether the employee will apply what was discussed, trained, practiced and reinforced in the training class.
Let’s look at one example.
In my previous article, I identified how a manager’s subtle actions can turn into not-so-subtle disasters. The subtle action is reacting negatively to “red” on a status report. The reaction is that employee will hide the “bad news” from you. Bad management and bad results ensue.
So let’s talk about how a manager can think through why seeing “red” on a status report (or receiving any other bad news) should not be responded to with anger, yelling or “just solve it.” We know that this creates a vicious cycle, so let’s identify some things that a manager should consider and say before sending marching orders to solve the problem.
1. It is entirely appropriate that there be items that are “red.”
Consider the following reasons:
The “red” item may be the de-prioritized item.
The “red” item is a new item and is being worked on to get to the point of “green.”
The “red” item, if it is on a scorecard, may be something with very low numbers, significance or sample size, and the “red” status isn’t as significant as others.
The “red” item may be the item that is calibrated to be in the worst shape of all the items, thus earning the status of red. That is, as the lowest scoring metric, it is by definition the worst, and is therefore red.
In other words, it is inevitable and desirable that there be “red” items.
Instead of getting mad, the appropriate response to these scenarios is to determine the significance and priority of the “red” items. Ask whether these “red” items are the high priority items.
A lot of things go wrong in business and at work. One thing that shouldn’t go wrong is the manager being the one who is surprised when things go bad. In fact, it is the specific job of the manager NOT to be the one who is surprised when things go wrong.
Have you ever had a manager who yells, “What happened?” “How could that have happened!” Then the manager gets mad at whoever could be responsible, or perhaps mad at the messenger, “I can’t believe you did this!” “What kind of incompetent crap is going on here?” “Go fix it and don’t come back until it is!” “How come this project line item has status of red?!!”
Ah, these are symptoms of a manager who acts surprised when something goes bad. So much to say on this topic! I’ll start with this: It’s the manager’s job NOT to be surprised.
The manager is supposedly the one with the greatest visibility of the work environment and output, who understands the best who is on the team, and what the team ought to be working on. The manager is the one who should know the approximate quality of the team output and what aspects of it can be better.
It is the manager’s role to know the risks of the work activity and where it could go bad. When a bad event from one of these risks manifests — whether it was a known risk or an unknown risk — it is still the manager’s job to know that this kind of stuff does happen.
When the manager is surprised by events, this is a clear indicator that the manager is managing from a deficit. In my discussion of managing from a deficit in previous articles, the manager attempts to take short cuts to managing, thereby announcing to the team that he is no manager. He is, instead, someone who was given the role of the manager, but is not performing the role of the manager.
My previous articles outlined the steps a manager can take to request feedback from employees.
In today’s article, I provide some specific phrases and examples for what a manager can say to employees to request feedback on how the team is managed.
1. Introduce your expectation that you will receive feedback
“I want to be a great manager to this team, and in order to get to that point, I need your help and guidance in providing me your feedback and ideas for how this team is managed.”
An example of tracking positive performance and praise of an employee in an employee performance log
A great manager needs to know the good stuff that is happening on the team. What you track shouldn’t be only areas you’d like to correct. In fact, it should be mostly positive! People come to work and try to get good things done all the time. If the manager doesn’t know what those things are, then the manager is missing lots of opportunities to provide thanks and praise. Also, the manager is going to quickly get a reputation for ignoring good work.
I advocate for creating an employee performance log to track employee behaviors. In previous articles, I provide a beginner version, an intermediate version, and an advanced version. While such a log can and should be used for tracking corrective feedback and potential issues with an employee (an example is provided here), a great manager should exert a great amount of energy identifying and understanding the great behaviors that are observed on the job, and the impact the performance of the team.
So today I provide an example of how this can be done on the employee performance log – a positive example!