When performance conversations mean something

Posted by: on June 23rd, 2020

Who does not remember their first performance evaluation? Mine was delivered by a woman named Ruby for whom I had great respect. We sat across from each other at a child sized table in the apartment where I worked with emotionally disturbed youth. I had no idea what was on the paper in front of her and do not recall the words she spoke. I was too busy trying to read her facial expression, body language and tone of voice in order to interpret what she thought of me. I do not recall asking questions or discussing my pay.

I was just out of college. What I disliked the most about the experience was not knowing what was coming and feeling unprepared. I wanted to make a good impression but the experience felt unfamiliar and made me uncomfortable. I don’t think it was a bad review but the important point is that the impact was low because I was distracted by what was not being shared with me.

The follow up to that performance review was much more impactful. My direct supervisor, Josie, asked, “so how did it go?” I told her I was not sure. She smiled and we sat together like two people do when they are talking over a coffee break. She shared what she and Ruby discussed before the performance review and what she wanted me to know about her assessment of my performance. She did not want to step on Ruby’s toes by speaking to me before the review but my wonder was why she did not give the performance review in the first place since she obviously knew more about my performance than Ruby?

I was lucky that both women were fine people and excellent at their job. I understand now that Ruby needed to know about each of the counselors under her watch and that included some one-on-one time with me. One of the challenges of performance evaluation in organizations is that many of us are not particularly good at delivering feedback but building a practice of feedback inside an organization is bar none, the most valuable core competency an organization can develop.

Imagine if BEFORE that performance review, the entire counselor team for the apartment met with Ruby to talk about core competencies that are critical for success. What are they? What do they look like in real time? How about when they are absent? How could we improve our collective capacity? How well do we rate ourselves as a group?  It is important to imagine that this is not once and done, but an ongoing conversation, over coffee and in a place with little distractions and spills out into weekly team meetings.

My experience in working with organizations is that this is hard to do because like me, people feel that conversations about performance are uncomfortable and unfamiliar. One of the ways that we can come at this challenge is by building just enough structure into the experience to create a sense of trust.

I like to quote Charlie Manuel, Manager of the Phillies, who said, “Structure is the foundation of trust.” And in this context, enough structure means you create a time, space and enough leadership to get the ball rolling – or hit if you like!  Enough leadership means you start the conversation, you set the tone and allow others to be heard. We value good conversation in every aspect of life, why not make it the center of our performance systems?