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As a manager, one of the tasks that is usually part of the job is giving feedback in the form of writing and delivering a performance review.

Not many managers look forward to this task.  It is not easy.

But, I must say, for me they are not as difficult now as they were then.  I’m going to tell you why … but not right away.  I first need to share some of my pain.

*     *     *     *     *

Performance reviews almost always involve anxiety and apprehension, by both parties.

The anxiety and apprehension of the subordinate is pretty straightforward. There’s the possibility of a lower merit increase, the possibility of diminished job security, and the possibility of a self-esteem hit.  And, of course, just the general feeling of being weighed and measured…

The anxiety and apprehension of the manager, though, is multifaceted and complex.

Manager anxiety and apprehension comes from a variety of factors—

  • not being organized;
  • not doing your homework;
  • not knowing the jobs being assessed, or how they’ve really done them;
  • not having the skills to deliver critical feedback;
  • not having the skills to deal with the conflict;
  • not knowing how to give an honest assessment without demoralizing;
  • not having detailed examples to cite in defense of critical feedback;
  • not knowing how to balance the expectations of their boss with their own perception and assessment

… and on and on … but I won’t go on and on.

Suffice it to say, performance reviews tend to be uncomfortable, emotionally-charged interactions.

I can personally vouch for that.  As a manager, I have experienced several performance review discussions that were emotional.

But two were significantly different than all the others.

These two performance reviews were with women.  Each of the women were smart, very talented, and strong performers.  Each of these reviews was emotional.

For me.

In each, I needed to pause, to regain my composure.

What?  you say?  Didn’t you say each of these women were strong performers?

I did say that … and they were.

I saw two rising stars.  My critical feedback was intended to propel them to another level of contribution and success.

When I shared my perceptions of their improvement opportunities, they each took exception to my feedback.  They each pushed back on some of my judgments.

I thought I took great pains to position the critical feedback within my predominant assessment of their work as substantial, and positive, and valuable… More simply, the good stuff dwarfed the critical feedback.  And there wasn’t any bad stuff.

Didn’t matter.  They each didn’t particularly care for what I said.

And this was pretty tough for me to take.  ‘Nuff said on that point.

I could have easily delivered a stellar review to each of these talented women without any critical feedback whatsoever.  They could have been the easiest reviews ever.  There could have been zero contention, and only the good kind of emotionality.

But noooooooo …

*     *     *     *     *

I’ve learned two important lessons regarding performance reviews,.

First, there is a ridiculous amount of pressure placed on managers to make accurate, definitive assessments.  The expectation is unreasonable.  It is simply too high a bar.

The assessment needs to be — must be — a shared responsibility.  In creating a shared accountability space, associates really do step up with meaningful observations that lead to insights that drive learning and performance.

Second, and most importantly, the secret sauce of really effective performance reviews is authenticity.

My moments of emotionality in those two reviews were pure, unadulterated, authentic moments.  While, when recalling my emotionality, I sometimes am ashamed, I mostly am not.  They were real reactions.

But: they were not productive.  They did not contribute to learning and growth.

Except for me.

What I’ve learned is to shift that authenticity into my judgments, and my words, and my delivery.  I try — hard — to be aware that I confidently know some things, things that I can compellingly support with detail and facts; I know other things that I believe are true but I don’t have a lot of evidence in support; I suspect other things that I simply can’t be sure of, and I wonder about other things without knowing at all how they are created or influenced.

From that awareness, I’ve learned to say what I can, and no more.  And, for what I say, I try to say it with the appropriate level of certainty, and no more.

So when I know that you have opportunity to stay on point more in discussions, I’ll cite my evidence in support of that judgment.  When I believe that you can plan better to prevent last minute fire drills that, while producing acceptable solutions they also produce unnecessary drama and stress, I’ll cite my observations that lead me to that belief, and I’ll ask you to speak to my perspective and add your own.  When I suspect that your nerves get the better of you in meetings with higher level people, I’ll ask you to weigh in on my conjecturing.  And when I wonder why you don’t take the initiative to broaden your network and build stronger relationships, I’ll simply open that up for discussion.

So while conducting performance reviews is still not easy for me, they are easier.  And way better.

When the assessment is authentic, the dialogue is generative.

And when there is generative dialogue, there is no more crying.

By either party.

🙂

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