Alice Waagen is the president and founder of Herndon-based Workforce Learning. We met to discuss performance management — the toughest part of being a manager. The following is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
What do most managers get wrong about performance management?
Providing consistent negative feedback is the main issue, as most managers are naturally uncomfortable with those conversations. For many companies and managers, performance reviews only consist of an annual appraisal, typically linked to a salary action. Many managers treat these as the only time to provide guidance. That’s nowhere near often enough – feedback needs to be provided throughout the year. Otherwise it’s all saved up until a situation is egregiously messed up, and they’re forced into a painful meeting to provide a backlog of negative feedback.
How do you help managers get out of these painful situations?
First, realize that your goal is not to simply “deliver” performance feedback. Your goal is to actually improve performance. Your goal is to ensure your employee hears the message and changes their behavior, and that requires both more thought and less confrontation than simply delivering bad news and criticism.
So the goal is not to provide feedback, but to change behavior. What is the best strategy for that?
Effective performance management requires planning. Plan a meeting where you can discuss at most one to two key points. If your list is longer, provide feedback more frequently. And be sure to prioritize your issues. It helps remove the pressure of time, and gives you both the opportunity to dive into an issue and improve performance.
It’s vital that you tell the employee what the meeting will be about. Sometimes people argue with me on this, because they think it builds up more anxiety. I disagree – no one wants the rug pulled out from under them. To reduce anxiety, set the tenor of the meeting as one of support and help – you’re just looking to hear from them about their take on the issue. You just want things back on track and you haven’t pre-judged them. That way, since they know ahead of time what the meeting is about, they have a chance to plan their side of the conversation.
At the end of the meeting be sure to ask, “What can I do differently to help you with what you’re doing?” It opens the door for them to provide you with feedback and reverses the direction of the feedback flow. Getting organic feedback about your management effectiveness gets more difficult the higher you climb up the corporate ladder if you don’t start asking for it early.
So that’s how to structure the meeting, but where do you actually conduct it?
Offices with open floor plans make performance meetings a challenge. If you deliver good news publicly, but only use meeting rooms for bad news, then the rooms themselves get stigmatized, like you’re back in school and being called into the principal’s office. Balance the types of meetings that occur in these rooms. Otherwise your employees may experience a Pavlovian anxiety attack whenever you send out an email meeting invitation.
If a manager has not consistently provided balanced feedback, where can they start?
Focus on one simple thing you can change gradually, and monitor it over time so you don’t backslide into old habits. Start by delegating a month-long task. Structure a first meeting to assign the task, sit down and explain it, then listen and discuss it with your employee to make sure the task is well understood. Then set frequent check-in meetings, until you are certain the work is going smoothly. Then gradually begin to spread the meetings out.
So you are saying that performance management is not just about delivering bad news, but about creating a framework for a productive dialogue?
The ultimate goal is to build healthy give-and-take work relationships based on trust. It’s harder than it sounds. There’s no specific answer for how many times to meet with people. It depends on the staff member and their level of confidence. It depends on the types of assignments you give your staff. It could be anywhere from daily, weekly, to quarterly (hopefully no less). But ultimately it’s about relationships, not whether you’ve checked off a box on a form.