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Performance reviews gone bad

How to avoid the three most common problems that plague employee performance reviews

by Dick Grote

Dick GroteIf you've ever conducted a performance appraisal with an employee, you know about the awkward moments that sometimes arise. For example, the employee who is silent, or makes excuses, or turns the conversation around so that you're caught up in irrelevancies.

Silences, excuses and irrelevancies are the three most common difficulties that arise in the course of discussing a performance evaluation. You can overcome each of these by keeping firmly in control with a few simple techniques.

Silences
Silences make us feel awkward. If the individual doesn't answer a question promptly, the reason may be that the person is uncomfortable or doesn't know what to say. It may also be a manipulative power play.

Silence can be used to intimidate. Make sure you're not the one who's being intimidated. Ask a question and wait. When your anxiety level rises to the point where you have to say something to break the silence, simply ask, "Do I need to repeat the question?" That will surely provoke a response. If it doesn't, call the performance appraisal meeting to a halt and explain what the word insubordination means.

Excuses
Excuses are the most common discussion difficulty. The reason we find them so difficult is that we typically deal with them so badly. We foolishly argue with the merits of the excuse, and by doing so legitimatize it.

While it may not be a conscious choice, any time a person offers an excuse for poor performance, the person proffering the excuse is trying to absolve himself of personal responsibility. Our response needs to focus not on the excuse but on the issue of personal responsibility.

Start by agreeing with the fact of the excuse: "I agree, Mark. Having deadlines that frequently change in the middle of a project does make your work difficult." Then put the responsibility back where it belongs: "And as we've discussed before, changing deadlines is a fact of life in our business. How are you planning to handle that challenge so that you can make sure that your projects are always ready when they're needed?"

The appraiser can increase the probability that the employee will change and resolve a problem if the manager discusses the need for change in terms of the choices the employee makes. We each have the capability for choice. An effective appraisal discussion makes that fact clear to the individual who might prefer to play the role of victim.

Irrelevancies
A final discussion dilemma appraisers confront is the irrelevancy trap. All of a sudden, in the middle of a discussion, you realize that the subject you're talking about has nothing to do with the core issue of the appraisee's unacceptable performance.

Labeling an irrelevancy as such is unproductive. It only generates arguments. Don't waste your breath.

When you discover that you're in the middle of an active discussion of an irrelevant topic, the technique to use is "dismiss and redirect." Wait until your counterpart pauses for breath and then say, "As far as the way they used to handle this situation in your old company is concerned, I'd like to talk about that separately. First, I need for you to agree that you will let me know any time a project deadline is slipping."

The keywords are separately and first. The magic dismiss-and-redirect technique can be used anytime a conversational counterpart raises an issue that you want to make go away. You don't say that it's irrelevant, unimportant or unconnected with the matter at hand. Instead, you graciously acknowledge its importance and then, with a sweep of misdirection, consign it to the nether world of irrelevancies and return to the primary issue on your agenda: "I appreciate your bringing to my attention the fact that the attendance record of other people in the department should be examined, Betty. I'd like to deal with that separately. First, I need your agreement that you will come to work every day on time." 

Or you may say: "I understand that many employees are looking for additional sources of income after the company announced the wage freeze last week, Carlos. But I'd like to talk about that issue separately. First, I need you to get your hand out of the cash register."

Dick Grote is a nationally renowned consultant and speaker on performance appraisal and author of the book, The Performance Appraisal Question and Answer Book. President of Grote Consulting Corporation, he lives in Dallas.

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