Pretty Good at Managing Employee Performance? What About Bob?

Go to training. Learn how to manage people. Go back to your work group and deliver all those promised results. Sweet!

Ugh…then reality turns sweet into sour. Live situations don’t match the training role plays or the workbook exercises. 

Our success as managers is a function of our ability to select and apply the best practices we need to solve the performance issues staring at us. 

Here’s a test case for you the puzzle through. See what you think and then we’ll compare notes at the end. 

What about Bob? You decide. 

Bob is an individual contributor who wants to become a supervisor. He’s been after his supervisor, Gail, for an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership skills and his readiness for a promotion. 

Recently, Gail’s work group customer satisfaction ratings had declined, so she wanted to determine the root cause. She saw this as an opportunity to give Bob a chance to lead a team to develop an improvement plan. 

Gail met with Bob, explained her expectations, assigned three coworkers as team participants for two hours each a week, and gave Bob a deadline to deliver an action plan. She also asked for bi-weekly progress reports

After the first team meeting, Bob told Gail that he didn’t think the right people were on the team. He also requested more detail about what kind of action plan she wanted and tried (unsuccessfully) to negotiate more weekly meeting time. 

After each team meeting, Bob was in Gail’s office asking for more particulars about what she wanted and for her approval of his meeting minutes before sending them out. 

Bob then started having disagreements with team members and asked Gail how to handle them. He complained again that they weren’t the right people. Gail was spending almost 3 hours a week dealing with Bob. 

To make matters worse, Bob submitted the action plan a week late. It lacked substance and did not have the full endorsement of the team. 

What would you do? 

This situation challenges us to put into practice all aspects of what we’ve been taught about managing employee performance.   

Here’s my take on the performance management techniques that were at play. (The bold is what I focused on.) Gail used some techniques effectively but not others—at least not yet. What did you see? 

Employee development: Gail decides to give Bob a chance to lead a team, an opportunity for professional growth aligned with his career aspirations. The project was important and created an opportunity to engage other employees by making them part of Bob’s team. 

Project managementGail recognized that process and accountability are important to team success, so she built that into her stated expectations for Bob when she asked for bi-weekly progress reports. 

Coaching: When Bob started having disagreements with two of the team members, Gail needed to coach him on how to resolve conflict effectively, including some self-examination by Bob about his team leadership approaches. 

Time management: Bob’s reluctance to act and/or inability to solve problems independently was costing Gail almost 3 hours a week. She needed to reestablish her expectations with Bob and hold him to them. 

Performance feedback: Bob delivered an action plan… that lacked substance which was unacceptable on several levels. So, that assignment needed to be redone with or without Bob. Bob needed specific, documented performance feedback about his work, including initiatives for further supervisory skills development. 

We need all the pieces. 

Using performance management techniques in isolation only gets us part way. Each situation we face demonstrates how different best practices intersect, strengthening each other and delivering greater benefit to the employee, the company, and ourselves. 

Effective management is both art and science. The people we work with are pieces of a complex puzzle which challenge our ability to solve problems. Individual performance management techniques are part of our toolkit. When we use them well and together, we can create a positive workplace experience. 

So how do you size up this situation?

Photo from alasis via Flickr

How Performance Reviews Brand the Reviewer

It’s a draw. All the arguments about performance reviews are correct. The process can be fair or unfair, useful or a sham, legitimate or bogus.

It all comes down to us—the reviewers.  

Do you care? 

For many supervisors, it’s about the paper, not the process. We whine about writing comments, deciding on ratings, and holding those dreaded employee review meetings.

We forget that performance reviews are about feedback. The process is supposed to be a way to help employees do their best.

Samuel A. Culbert, a professor in the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles raises serious points about performance reviews in his NY Times article, “Why Your Boss Is Wrong About You:”

“In my years studying such reviews, I’ve learned that they are subjective evaluations that measure how ‘comfortable’ a boss is with an employee, not how much an employee contributes to overall results. They are an intimidating tool that makes employees too scared to speak their minds, lest their criticism come back to haunt them in their annual evaluations.”

He adds: “Think about it. Performance reviews are held up as objective assessments by the boss, with the assumption that the boss has all the answers.” And, of course, s/he doesn’t.

It takes two….

We often forget that job performance is a partnership. Supervisors and employees need to work together so that right effort generates desired results.

This only happens when the supervisor is clear about what each employee needs to do to achieve stated goals. There needs to be a conversation about this—a face-to-face dialogue so employees understand what they need to do to help the cause.

That means supervisors need to be evaluated on how well their employees perform. Why? Because the supervisor is supposed to provide direction, support, and encouragement so that their employees can succeed.

Culbert proposes “the performance preview” where “both boss and subordinate are held responsible for setting goals and achieving results.” This way, he adds, “…bosses…learn that it’s in their interest to listen to their subordinates….”

Too many supervisors don’t (or can’t) write measurable/observable goals, engage with employees, or collaborate with their teams. That makes the supervisor culpable when employee performance falls short.

Face yourself.

If you asked your employees, what kind of performance reviewer you are, would they say, you:

  • Just go through the motions
  • Are biased
  • Don’t really know what they do
  • Have no basis for evaluating them
  • Are objective and goals-focused
  • Care about their success
  • See your own performance reflected in them

Their answers brand you.

Horror and hurrah stories 

You don’t have to be in the workforce too long to experience the upside and downside of performance review. Here are examples of mine:

Horror: As a high school teacher, my supervisor was expected to observe me in the classroom at least annually. One year he chose a day when I was giving a full-period test. He sat in the back of the room, watched me pass out the test, give instructions, monitor the students, and collect their papers. My rating—Outstanding (My reaction—disgust)

Hurrah: As a corporate manager, I worked for a VP who knew the drill. Annually, he laid out his department goals, requiring each manager to do the same for his/her work group. I met with the VP to discuss and finalize my goals.

At quarterly status reviews, we’d discuss which goals were in good shape and which ones were at risk, framing recovery strategies that made the best use of remaining time and resources.

Each year there were never any surprises during my formal performance review.

(I  was expected to (and did) follow the same process with the employees who reported to me.)

Earn a positive employee rating. 

There’s no hiding the truth from your employees. They decide about the kind of person and supervisor you are by the way you review them, more than the rating itself. A strong team starts with a supervisor who’s part of it. Let that be you.

Photo from Robert Higgins via Flickr

Why Managers Don’t Confront—Fear of Crying

Remember Tom Hanks’ line in the movie, A League of Their Own, about a girls professional softball team: “Are you crying? There’s no crying. There’s no crying in baseball.” Hanks’ character isn’t the only manager who recoils from crying on the job. 

For the most part, the “crying” issue is about women who “might” cry or have had a “history” of crying on the job. The very prospect makes many (usually male) managers’ blood run cold. 

Get a grip 

Our job as managers is to confront work-related problems on our watch. It would be paradise if every employee performed perfectly from day one. But last I checked, all the apples were eaten.

 The reality is that we don’t know for sure what anyone’s reaction will be to the feedback we give. It could be:

  • Dead silence or an angry retort
  • Jubilation or rapid-fire questions
  • A sigh of relief or CRYING  

Most managers would say, “For everything, except the crying, I’d know what to say or do. I wouldn’t feel so helpless or hard-hearted.” 

The crying game 

As managers, we are not psychologists. It’s not our job to analyze our employees. But we do know that crying is an emotional response by certain employees when caught off-guard by unwanted feedback. 

A crying employee is not the same as a crying family member or friend. It’s not appropriate for us, as managers, to comfort physically or to change our message. So what should we do? 

Here’s a scenario: At a performance feedback meeting with your employee, you explain that her performance is unsatisfactory and she’s being placed on 3 month’s probation. She begins to cry. 

You next steps are to: 

  • Remain quiet at your desk or conference table for a couple minutes, giving her time to compose herself
  • Then ask if she is prepared to continue the conversation about next steps
  •  If she says “yes” continue with your message
  •  If she says “no” or it’s obvious that she’s too distressed, tell her: “I can see that you  need some time to gather yourself. Let’s postpone the rest of our conversation for now and get together in an hour.”
  • Resume the meeting as rescheduled and complete what you need to cover 

Please remember: You did not create the problem that led to the actions you had to take. The employee did.  

Employees have many ways to respond emotionally to situations. Although crying is one, it’s rare in most business settings. 

Any manager who does not confront an employee because s/he fears potential crying will soon deliver this blaring message throughout the office: “If you want to keep the heat off yourself, cry every time I (your boss) look at you cross-eyed.” 

Men cry and so have I…. 

I once contracted with an outside training consultant, gave him lots of work, and provided executive entrée. I treated him as an ally until he started abusing these privileges. When I confronted him about my lost trust, he broke down. 

At a critical time in my career, I was asked to manage a huge department where I was in over my head. My VP mentor, John, initiated a meeting with me and the senior VP, where he volunteered to give me a hand. I was overcome with feelings of inadequacy, struggling to disguise most of my tears. 

In both cases, the confronting launched the fix, the tears dried, and right outcomes were achieved. It’s difficult but it makes for positive change. 

There’s no crying in business…. 

The odds of an employee crying when you deliver bad news are slim. If s/he does, that’s okay. It’s a manager’s job to manage. You shouldn’t be cold or insensitive when confronting but factual, balanced and fair. 

That’s how you set the right context for your message and minimize any emotional response.  To abdicate your responsibility to manage fairly is a disservice to your employees. If you let the fear of crying make you a less effective manager, everyone loses. 

Have you had a “crying at work” experience? What caused it and how was it handled?

Whose Job Is It Anyway? | Set Boundaries. Create Accountability.

I loved that TV game show, “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” emceed by Drew Carey from 1998-2006, featuring masterful comedy improv artists like Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie, and  Wayne Brady.

In each episode, the performers were given surprise, off-the-wall situations to enact, making up dialogue off the top of their heads. They had to take on peculiar roles and follow weird rules. The pace was frenetic. Their creative antics were hilarious. And the winner, that Drew selected, was the comic who did the best job meeting his unstated expectations.

Your job is your role.  

Supervisors assign performance expectations. Employees act on them. There’s feedback along the way to make sure everyone is on the same page.

But then things break down and supervisors find themselves:

  • Catching careless employee mistakes and fixing them
  • Double-checking work before it gets released
  • Answering endless how-to questions on routine tasks
  • Uncovering neglected office procedures
  • Facing push-back on performance feedback 

Many supervisors struggle with holding employees accountable for their work. When it’s time to address weak performance, they feel bad about doing it.

Whose work is it anyway?

When employees don’t deliver what’s expected, they shouldn’t be able to win. But they do win if their supervisor:

  • Does the work for them
  • Catches their mistakes for them
  • Answers all their questions
  • Coddles them when their work is slipping 

When supervisors are doing work that belongs to their employees, in whole or in part, the company is paying two people to do the same work. No business model survives that way. Boundaries help everyone succeed.

Gotta know your lines! 

Unfortunately, boundaries can blur easily. It starts with incidents that seem so innocent, so minimal, and occasional. But they creep up on you.

So you have to keep your guard up and your “lines” ready. Here are typical scenarios that most supervisors face:

Situation 1:  Martha comes to your office (in fact, interrupts your work) to ask you the latest information on a company policy while her customer is on hold. She’s been trained on the policy and how to access the company’s on-line FAQs.

Your lines: “Martha, you have access to that information. Please tell the customer you will find it and call him back in 15 minutes.” 

Situation 2: John is responsible for ensuring that there is sufficient inventory to cover monthly demand. He failed to meet that standard again this month. In his own defense, he told you that his suppliers were not delivering on time.

Your lines: “John, this is the third consecutive month that inventory has not met demand. I need to review the initiatives you will put into place to deal with suppliers? Please prepare a written plan for me to review and discuss with you before noon on Friday.” 

Situation 3: Sylvia’s performance has been declining in two areas: meeting monthly internal communications deadlines and launching a social media marketing team. During your feedback session, Sylvia argues with you, defending her performance.

Your lines: “Sylvia, I have described my expectations for these areas of your performance. I have just  given you specific examples of work that has fallen short. I hear the justifications that you are giving me but that doesn’t change my expectations. I want you to succeed here and am willing to support the efforts you make. I would like to meet with you again tomorrow and talk about what specific steps you will take to improve.” 

Let your boundaries propel accountability.  

As a supervisor, you are accountable for the collective output of your work group. But each employee is accountable for his/her own work. Your job is to ensure that accountabilities are being met by being supportive but without taking on their work. Being business fit means staying focused on what needs to be done and by whom. When your employees know whose job it is, your job is a lot sweeter!

Were you ever in a situation where someone tried to off-load their work to you? What were your lines? How did everything resolve itself?

What’ll It Be? Truth or Lies? | Feedback as Career Currency

Are you tough enough for American Idol style feedback? I wish I were, but know I’m not. Applause and praise are what we want. Booing and criticism are not.  Truth is, the route to success takes us down both paths.

Eat up all your feedback. It’ll make you strong.

Successful people gobble up all the feedback they can get. Sometimes it’ll be negative feedback—criticism directed at their faults and shortcomings. Other times, it’s positive—praise for accomplishments and talents. They’ll take it all.

Without feedback, we can’t get better. So why, do we: Avoid it? Resist it? Contest it?

Because it’s scary. It’s likely to expose truths that we may not want to face or unsettle our fragile self-confidence.

The good news about feedback 

It’s simply information. The more specific it is to us and the situations we’re in, the more useful it is.

It’s ours to accept or reject. We’re the ones who process it, assess its validity, and apply what makes sense.

It’s alive! Feedback is a function of how we interact with others and perform at our jobs. Negative feedback one day can become positive feedback the next.

It’s also ours to give. We can even provide feedback on the feedback we’re being given—the content, the style, and the relevance.

It’s evidence. Feedback reveals the realities of our work environment—standards of behavior and performance, attitudes of bosses and co-workers, and the culture of our companies.

The bad news: All feedback is not created equal! 

The only feedback worth taking is delivered by good people. I mean people that we respect, who hold themselves and us to high standards, who are fair, balanced, and knowledgeable. It’s their feedback that can help us become more successful.

Feedback given from people who wish to demean, insult, ridicule, weaken, or control us is to be rejected.

The power of feedback is granted by us. Although some feedback may be hard to swallow because it forces us to take an honest look at what we’re doing, it should not be hurtful.

The best feedback is constructive and empowering. It gives you specific things to do, change, watch, master, and practice and a way to measure how well you’re doing.

How it works—No lies, Pinocchio! 

1. Years ago when I was teaching English, I gave a student a “C” for one quarter. She started sobbing. Her parents came to complain, expecting me to raise her grade. I explained that it made more sense to give her honest feedback on her writing now rather than wait for her to flunk freshmen comp on their dime. After all, I let my students rewrite every paper after I’d graded it, recording only the better grade. Her parents backed off. She worked harder and improved.

2. There was man in my department who had been second in command before I came on as manager. For years he had been responsible for the preparation of IT proposals that were all but incomprehensible. I gave him feedback and collaborative assistance. He refused to accept it despite the objective data. He was both unwilling and unable to see beyond his own reality. His career stalled and he retired early.

3. I had to face the hard truth myself as a corporate manager responsible for an organization of nearly 500. The managers kept coming to me with their problems, expecting me to propose  solutions. I was overwhelmed to exhaustion. One of the VP’s gave me a tough “behind the woodshed” talk about holding people accountable and not owning their problems. I listened, chewing on my lip pretty hard to keep from crying, and got the message. It saved me.

Open up and let the feedback in 

Our careers thrive when we get the right feedback at the right time by the right people. Asking for feedback is the best way to build your business fitness. Be specific. Say, “I would like your feedback on my work? How can I do better?” Honest feedback is money. When you get it, invest it immediately in yourself, and watch your returns go wild!

What’s the best or worst feedback you’ve ever gotten? What happened in the end? I’ve bet you’ve got some good stories!

It Takes Heart to Fire a Poor Performer | The Measure of a Caring Supervisor

Ever fired anyone? Been fired? We assume it’s only the employee who suffers the sting of it. That would be wrong.

Firing someone who breaks the rules doesn’t cause the hard pain. It’s firing for poor performance that does.

Not to fire is to deny the truth. 

No company wants to admit they made a bad hire or that their training didn’t work. Too often, supervisors won’t admit to themselves that an employee can’t do the work.

Instead of addressing performance deficiencies head on, supervisors try to recalibrate the job. They:

  • Shift work around
  • Team the weak employee with a strong one
  • Send poor performers to endless training classes
  • Arrange a reassignment (This is the card game, Old Maid, corporate style.) 

What supervisors should do is:

  • Provide regular performance feedback from the get-go
  • Alert the employee when his/her performance trends downward
  • Withhold raises
  • State exactly when performance must be improved
  • Document discussions 

Most supervisors will do anything to avoid firing, even if  it reflects negatively on them.

Firing a non-performer is an act of kindness. 

Can you imagine what it must be like going to a job every day when you aren’t succeeding? And worse, how about if you don’t really understand why?

I fired a perfectly decent guy at 40 when he should have been fired at 26.

He’d worked for over 20 years at a field location that was autonomous and tightly knit. At the time, I managed the corporate management training group.

One day, my boss called to tell me that an employee from the field, who was finishing up a special assignment (there was a clue!) in the corporate PR department, was being transferred to me.

“Why?“I asked.

Answer: “It’s a better fit.” (Uh oh!)

The sequence of events was long and complicated, taking about two years. In summary, this fellow, now an internal training consultant reporting to me, alienated his clients, infuriated his colleagues who were carrying him, and demeaned the administrative staff.

For months I mentored, coached, documented, and gave feedback. Then I gave him no raise, three months to show change, and finally the bad news.

He fully understood what was happening and actually complimented me on how I’d handled everything.

He also said, “I just can’t believe this is happening to me.” After that, I helped him put his things in his car.

This whole ordeal was exhausting and emotionally draining for me. But there was more to come.

When the word got out, my phone started to ring. First, the manager who’d supervised my employee in the field called. Then his VP.

“Hey, why did you fire him, Dawn? He worked for the company for 20 years. Everyone out here is really upset.”

I explained the reasons. And they each said:

“Well, yes, he was like that here too. We actually had to defer his pay increase once. We thought maybe we’d have to let him go but hoped he’d do better in corporate.”

Yeah, I thought, “Why would that be? They’d gotten nowhere in 20 years.”

Before my employee left on his last day, I asked what he’d wanted as a career. Without hesitation he said, “Oh, I always wanted to be an elementary school teacher, but my father thought I should be a businessman.”

How about that! If those field executives had done the right thing and fired him early in his career, he would have had the chance to go back to school and become a teacher, fulfilling his dream. The waste of this still infuriates me.

Always do the right thing especially when it isn’t easy. 

Supervisors need to balance the needs of their companies, work groups, customers, and individual employees. Business fitness helps you keep things in perspective, weighed and balanced, so you feel confident in your decisions. That’s how you sleep well at night…zzzzzzz!

Do you have a “firing” experience to share? Not the happiest subject but a vital one. Your insights will help.