Leadership Within – Evaluations

Posted on: February 4, 2020

“Evaluations are the single greatest indicator of your long term success in business. They support accountability and create performance environments.”

Organizations without a strong evaluation framework are what we call operationally focused. Each day they bring a new set of challenges, which must be resolved prior to the execution of other business tasks or goals. Once the operational management approach takes hold, it is extremely difficult to break. We begin to prioritize tasks that are “in the moment” (telephone calls, someone walking into the office, walk in traffic) rather than tasks that are strategically focused to advance our organizations. Often, this leads to task “bumping” due to the artificially inflated importance of what are actually routine tasks.

Management functions that tend to suffer are the routine tasks such as; HR functions, report writing, goal tracking and issue resolution. By diminishing the completion of these tasks we actually cripple long-term performance through the erosion of accountability.

As such, evaluations are the single greatest contributor to your long-term success in business. With them expectations are clear, standards are defined, accountability is enforced and lack-luster performance is corrected. While we often view evaluations as the formal year-end sit down meeting with staff, effective evaluations are made and delivered constantly. They are the informal observations we make of our team, the positive actions we notice, and the daily issues that need to be resolved.

By constantly focusing on measurements of success, we raise individual and team expectations, creating accountability and enhancing the performance environment for all team members, management and senior leadership.

As business leaders, we typically undertake evaluative actions within one of four focuses:

  • Internal – What am I doing, what will the impacts be, and is this what I want?
  • External – What is happening around me, does it influence me, and do I want or need to take action?
  • Directive – Assessing and acting on a situation, with a subordinate, in which I am seeking a specific outcome
  • Supportive – Assessing and acting on a situation, with a subordinate, in which I am open to various outcomes

Evaluations skills are a foundational component of our leadership tool kits. We use evaluation skills to redirect, correct and acknowledge performance in our subordinates. We also use evaluation skills to assess, reframe and solve complex issues in our workplaces, and; we use them in the daily execution of our own duties to focus our actions for results.

Setting up Evaluation Meetings

If your organization does not have a formalized (and well used) evaluation system, staff often sees your evaluation process as punitive (focused on discipline rather than growth).

When regular discussions surrounding performance do not occur, your staff sees performance-based meetings as indicative of problems, not solutions, future focuses or praise. 

To set up a performance conversation in your organization here is the process you should follow:

  • Advise staff when you will be hosting your evaluations.
  • Give them at least two weeks advance notice of their meeting date.
  • Tell them to prepare for the meeting. They should bring the following with them:
  • A copy of their expectations (from their employee manual) and notes on how they have met the requirement
  • A list of accomplishments they feel they have achieved in the prior year.
  • A list of issues or challenges they may have experienced and solutions to those issues
  • A plan for what they would like to learn in the next 12 months that will advance themselves and the organization
  • Feedback for you, as a leader on your relationship with them in the past 12 months.
  • Tell you staff that you are expecting an honest and open conversation, that you will respect their privacy and that you are open to whatever they bring to the meeting. The challenge in this is you will have to check your ego at the door, and suspend your reactions to what you may hear during the meeting. If you ask for honest feedback, be prepared to get it, and listen to what is said.

Here is a sample evaluation notification:

Good Morning Bob,

I am looking forward to sitting down with you at 10:00 am, January 12th for our annual performance conversation. As this is our first formal conversation, I’d like to outline my expectations for the session, as well as detail what I’d like you to bring with you.

My expectation is that we will have an open and honest conversation about the last year here at XYZ Company Ltd.  I am open to any feedback you would like to bring to our session as we discuss your progress and contributions in the past year.

I would also ask that you prepare for our meeting by doing the following:

  • Taking some time to reflect on strengths and challenges you have experienced in the past year, based upon our evaluation framework, and any general observations you may have.
  • Consider whether any learning, courses etc., may benefit you in the next year. If you have something you would like to learn that would benefit the company, bring dates, costs, and how it will benefit us at XYZ Company Ltd. And we’ll explore our options.
  • Finally, bring forward any challenges you may have had in the past year regarding our organization, including ideas or suggestions on how we can resolve the challenge.

As I said earlier, I am looking forward to seeing you January 12th. If you have any questions, drop by my office any time………

While this is an example of a formal letter of evaluation, yours can be more casual in nature. What you are trying to accomplish in the notice is that you are having a focused meeting; you will be discussing performance over the past review period, and set the stage for discussion on how to help grow the organization through feedback.

The point of the notification is to have staff walk into the meeting already thinking about what will occur and the kind of conversation they want to have. Most employees would rather avoid confrontation, are under prepared and are unclear about the expectations. By setting the stage early, staff should arrive at the meeting well prepared and focused on having the right conversation.

As with all things, some times the best of intents goes sideways, to help reduce the chance of this happening, be aware of these divisive methods of evaluation.

Method One: It’s good, but!

Inexperienced managers often use this technique. They start with a review of one or two positive aspects of behavior and then launch into the “but” section. This section focuses on the negative aspects of behavior that the manager feels need correcting. It often does not seek to determine root causes.

Method Two: The Critical Coach / Honesty is the best policy

Some managers feel brutal honesty is the best method for dealing with poor performance. They believe the only way to correct unproductive behavior is through a clear and obvious observance and chastising of the subject behavior. Critical coaches tend to use “You” statements, such as, “You really did a lousy job of that.” These types of statements undermine self-confidence and often destroy manager/employee relationships due to their inherently negative nature.

Method Three: The Reluctant Friend (the Pacifist)

The reluctant friend is a form of evaluation we often see from team leaders who have been hired from within the work-unit they now supervise. They tend to try to maintain friendships while soft-pedaling on performance issues. The reluctant friend may use phrases like, “[my supervisor] has asked me to talk to you about….”

Method Four: The Bully (Belligerence wins!)

We most often see the Bully emerge from managers who are either emotionally unintelligent or from managers who actually feel ill prepared to manage others. Either way, their style is to bulldoze through the evaluation, telling the employee what s/he is going to do and how s/he is going to do it. The often alienate their teams and manage through intimidation. They use phrases like, “here’s what you’re going to do…”   

Instead try this positive evaluation framework that I use:

Break the position into key areas of focus such as: Financial management, Project execution, communication etc.. These focus areas allow you to be specific about both the skills and behaviours you would like to see. This process should be done at the beginning of the performance year, so that the employee is well aware of the framework around which their performance will be assessed. Once you have a framework built, the next step is to crate a scoring metric that allows you to determine how well on a scale the employee is meeting those expectations. I’ll cover this in a later column.

Once you have your core areas defined, use a template to record your thoughts on each area of focus.

I like to start with a review of areas that I think the employee excels at, and then move into areas that I feel the employee can work on. While I will make anecdotal notes regarding these, I also ensure I have specific examples to reinforce these, if the need arises (see positive behaviours section below). 

I move through each of the focus areas using this same methodology. When you complete the evaluation, discuss learning and development options for the coming year, and set clear goals where any issues may exist, as well as timelines to resolve these issues.

As you become more confident in your core evaluation skills and abilities, a defined format becomes less important to achieving success in the meeting. while recording the discussion remains critical at all times, as part of your due diligence.

As the Leader within your unit, you must be seen as a positive force for development and relationship continuation, therefore, constructive evaluation behaviours are the key to how you come across professionally.

Behaviour One: Go in prepared

Ensure you have spent the time necessary to work on the issues and your positions before the session commences. A good negotiator knows what they want, where they are going, and what they are willing to give up to get there. Preparation is a critical step in the confident delivery of an evaluation. If you are uncertain about how to proceed in an evaluation, seek out a peer or HR professional who has dealt with a similar situation before, to guide you.

Behaviour Two: Rehearse

Rehearsals provide opportunities to examine and explore your messaging before the evaluation begins. A key part of your rehearsal should be how to respond should you have a disagreement. Some people rehearse internally, some with a trusted partner, and others do it in front of the mirror. Sometimes the simplest method of rehearsal is to read your thoughts and comments out loud. Do they sound reasonable? Do the logically get you to the end result you want?

Behaviour Three: Be Respectful

Short-term gains at the expense of relationships will cost both the organization and its employees productivity and confidence in the years following a bitter evaluation. Be respectful of each other’s positions and needs and speak highly of those you are working with.

Behavior Four: Clearly Communicate Concerns

When employee issues are present, employees need to know they exist, or else they will not be able to respond appropriately to rectify the situation. Most issues should be dealt with at the time they happen; however, if you are using the evaluation session to resolve longstanding issues, you must clearly identify these and gather appropriate feedback. As an evaluator, its really tempting to gloss over your concerns, and focus on the good, in order to maintain harmony. As a leader this strategy will cause you long term pain. When issues or concerns are not raised, they percolate and fester, often growing bigger over time. A quick conversation at the beginning of challenges can nip things in the bud. If it doesn’t, you’ve begun the process of disciplinary accountability. 

Behaviour Four: Focus on the Issues

When reviewing issues with employees, it is a better practice to identify why something such as a behaviour or poor performance is occurring. In some cases poor performance may be a result of not having the tools, resources or skills required to perform at a required level. By focusing on the issue and not the person, you will allow non-defensive discussion, during which critical context may be revealed. Often issues are symptoms of something deeper. Having the issue focused conversation allows you to zero in on the root causes of the issue.

Behaviour Five: Know your Buttons

Everyone has “buttons” or triggers that initiate self-defense mechanisms. Once enacted, these triggers invoke a subconscious verbal offensive, which can subvert our intended goals. Know your triggers and don’t be led into defensiveness. Some employees will attempt to deflect the constructive criticism by deflecting it to you, or by pushing your buttons, to take the focus off themselves and their behaviours.

While every manager is somewhat responsible for the negative behaviours that can exist in a work unit, an evaluation is not about you, it is about the employee being evaluated.

Behaviour Six: Take Time

Seasoned evaluators will take the time necessary to ensure the conversation has time to mature and unfold. A critical error in evaluations is to limit the time together to less than 30 minutes. Your staff will feel rushed and unheard if you do not allow time for a more relaxed discussion. Part of this strategy is to log off the computer, turn off the cell phone and not answer the phone. The employee deserves to receive your full attention.

Behaviour Seven: Ensure the Employee is Heard

Always ask for feedback and incorporate the employee’s thoughts, ideas and issues into the evaluation document. Employees who feel heard are more trusting and connected to your organization and perform at a much higher level.

When it goes Sideways…

 Use ‘I’ statements

‘I’ statements tell others how you feel in a non-threatening way. You have an opportunity when using ‘I’ statements to express your feelings and emotions in concert with the context of the situation. The ‘I’ statement starts with an expression of feeling, moves through the observed behavior and finishes with a suggested course of action to deal with the conflict.

Use softening language

Words like “do”, “will” and “can” are all action based. Conflict thrives on active energy. To soften the impact of words in a conflict or stressful situation try using softer language like “may”, “could”, “might”, or “perhaps”. Staying with the theme of ‘I’ statements, we start with the feelings, move into the observation of the behavior and then move to action of resolution.

De- emotionalize the situation

De-emotionalizing is a key aspect of moving past conflict and focusing on issues. To identify the issue that created the conflict situation, remove all the subjective aspects that may be inflammatory and picture someone else in the same scenario. What would you suggest is the key issue? What would you suggest they do about it? Take your own advice and proceed accordingly. When appropriate, take a break to release some steam. Anger can lead to unnecessary conflict and undermine the evaluation. 

Look for common ground

Effective evaluations are based on common understanding, and in some cases, agreement on key issues. In some cases it is enough just to understand the other person’s viewpoint and acknowledge that they think in differing terms than we do. In other situations, nothing short of complete agreement is required to move forward. Determine where you may find common ground and go from there.

Evaluating “Personalities”

The Bulldozer

The Bulldozer is pushy. This person covers their inabilities and challenges by asserting their viewpoint loudly and aggressively. They tend to talk over others and dominate conversations. In evaluations they will often try to push your agenda aside and dominate the conversation with their own viewpoints. The Bulldozer tends to blow their own horn and diminish the roles of others when talking about workplace successes.

Strategies for the Bulldozer:

  • Circulate an agenda
  • Stick to the point
  • Always have a time limit and reinforce it as often as needed
  • Ask questions that scratch the surface, to get at the real background
  • Cautiously elevate tone and volume to match level of concern
  • Never fight or argue about issues
  • Set individual standards or revisit group standards and expectations

The Dis-creditor 

This person always blames other team members or the organization for their challenges or issues. They tend to avoid any direct confrontation and deflect the blame elsewhere. In regards to successes, similar to the Bulldozer, they are quick to offer up their contributions as the key aspects of any workplace success.

Strategies for the Discreditor:

  • Ask lots of questions that scratch the surface
  • Ask if others would support the given version of events
  • Ask for solutions to the issues at hand
  • Ask other team members for information before hand
  • Set ‘group’ standards to rectify issues without confrontation
  • Revisit standards and expectations with the group

The Crier

Similar in nature to the “Meek” or “Shy”, the crier tends to become emotionally distraught when faced with performance or non-performance issues. S/he can tend to shut down under direct confrontation and does not usually excel in pressure situations. The Crier tends to downplay both their successes and failures and often will not draw attention to themselves if it is avoidable. 

Strategies for the Crier:

  • Use soft language when addressing issues
  • Ask about others on the team (nibble around the edges)
  • Ask what they would propose as a solution to the issue
  • Focus on the issues
  • Focus on positives and deal with as few negatives as possible in each meeting

The Meek or Shy

The Meek or Shy will not stand up for themselves, nor will they talk about anyone else in the work unit. They tend to give you the answer to your question and very little extra information. The Meek or Shy will not intentionally discredit anyone or cause any ripples. However, when asked direct questions they will provide a fairly accurate and honest response. They often do not see themselves as having created success; they usually promote the teams’ success.

Strategies for the Meek or Shy:

  • Ask direct and clear questions that focus on the issues not the people
  • Use softer language
  • Do not directly confront (you may end up with a “Crier”)
  • Ask for their input or ideas to resolve situations
  • Wait for the answer, they often take time to respond
  • Take breaks to allow for decompression and reflection

The Oblivious

Every once in a while someone comes along whom is absolutely oblivious to his or her own performance issues. These people react with surprise and genuine bewilderment when confronted with performance issues. The Oblivious can react very strongly, feeling cornered, because they didn’t see the issue coming.  In regards to successes, it’s all about them and their contributions; others often don’t seem to exist in their mind.

Strategies for the Oblivious

  • Constantly assess and address performance issues
  • Clearly identify what the issue is, why you believe it exists, and ask for feedback
  • Ask, “What would you do in a similar situation?”
  • Ask, “What are you prepared to do to resolve this?”
  • Create a written plan of action and follow up on it.
  • Ask about other’s roles in the work unit

The Normal

Most employees will not cause any overt problems, or issues. In these circumstances, it is how you present your position on issues, advances and the future that will make the conversation successful.

Most normal employees will not present significant issues or challenges and may even have little or no idea on where to go in tier future career with you.

Strategies for the Normal

  • Help them to find accomplishments
  • Ask them to dig into issues and assess why they happened
  • Help guide or direct them toward learning goals that benefit them and the company

Give them time to consider what you have said, before finalizing your evaluation.

As you get more comfortable delivering your evaluations, you will find it easier in general terms to redirect where required and build where appropriate at all times. Evaluation skills are powerful communication, negotiation and conflict management tools you can use throughout your life. There’s no better time to start developing them, than now.