Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

From peer to supervisor – Part 13: performing your first performance reviews

Posted in HR and personnel, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on November 17, 2010

This is my 13th posting in this series on transitioning to management, and in a way it focuses on both the most challenging and the most easily mismanaged task a new manager faces. The immediately preceding posting in this series dealt with trust and this is in many respects a direct continuation of that. Teams, after all, work effectively where members of those teams trust each other and their manager, and any erosion in that trust can cause damage that can be difficult or even impossible to repair. The best members of your team will start doubting your judgment and even worse, your intentions if they find themselves in a position where they serious question or doubt your trustworthiness. These are the people you can least afford to loose and who you would have the most difficulty replacing. And the easiest way to instill doubt and to erode trust is by mismanaging performance reviews.

If I were to offer a single point here as a take home lesson from this posting it is that you take a perilous course if you simply performance review according to any simplistic, stereotyped pattern. You will be given standardized performance review forms and processes to follow, but effective use of them always means reviewing the individual as an individual, and not according to some cookie-cutter formula.

I have seen a variety of one size fits all approaches that cause real problems and even overt discord when a manager tries to apply them to one and all. One that jumps out at me as I write this is where a new manager (or an experienced one) takes the approach that no matter what, and even for their best and most enthusiastic team members they have to “find something to fault for your own good.” Low ratings on one of the performance parameters have consequences and enter into permanent employee records. They can have negative impact when determining eligibility for bonuses and if simply repeated as an easy way to find that something to work on, they can block promotions. Simply repeating this as an easy way to complete a review can even make an employee more vulnerable if the business is contemplating layoffs or downsizing.

I am not by any means stating here that you should never indicate a problem or a performance area where improvement is needed. If you do find a problem area you really do need to respond to it in the performance review you are conducting with that member of your team. But if you do not find a specific issue, do not simply pick one at random. There are other ways and better for grooming a member of your team for higher level performance and for advancement.

I add here that if you do find and identify a problem area in a performance review, talk about this with the team member in question and about what they can do to address it and improve on it. Work with them and offer positive feedback where they are improving, and actionable advice they can work from where more is still needed. Sound like and look like you are on their side in finding ways to improve performance and that you value them for their trying, and for their successes in other areas.

I have seen and heard managers take incredibly arrogant and short sighted positions when dealing with their teams they supervise, and with members of those teams. These people are, I add the ones I have not chosen to advance further and to more senior level management positions. I have occasionally shifted someone back from being a manager, if they have been unwilling or unable to learn from their own performance review criticisms. And here I point out what should be obvious. The way you performance review the people who report to you will be an important consideration in how you in turn are going to be performance reviewed yourself. That, I add is why I never, ever performance review a new manager until I have seen how they do this themselves. It is also why I am adding this posting here in this series before covering performance reviews from the other side of the table, with preparing for your own first performance review as a new manager.

When you performance review the members of your team remember these are your most important assets in accomplishing your goals and priorities as a team leader. You need to be able to work with them on an ongoing basis and after you performance-review them too. So you have to be scrupulously careful to be fair and transparent in how you rate them in your performance reviews. You should strive to maintain and to even reinforce that sense of trust that ongoing performance and commitment to excel stem from.

If a problem is developing with a member of your team or you see an area that they need to work on, do not wait until it is time to performance review them. Work with them and mentor them to do better so that this is, if possible, resolved before you even get to that formal performance review. Be proactive, and remember you have failed as a manager if you let problems simply fester and grow without responding to them early and quickly.

And remember you have been a member of a team and you still are, and at several levels. Don’t approach performance reviews feeling full of yourself or as someone of greater value or importance then the people you review. Especially as you move higher in management, you will be reviewing people who have crucially important skills and experience that your success depends on, but that you do not yourself share hands-on. Be honest and with yourself about this and be humble enough to approach the members of your team as equals in striving towards shared goals with you.

My next posting in this series is going to look at your first performance review as a new manager, and probably some time fairly soon after you have gone through performance reviewing the members of your team who report to you for that first time. You can assume that your manager will meet at least informally with some of the people who report to you so see how that went, in preparing to performance review you.

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