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The end of a year and the beginning of a new one often signal performance review season. What’s the best way to prepare for these critical conversations? Don’t wait to have them!

As noted in a recent study from Reflektive and Wakefield Research, 94 percent of executives believe employees are satisfied with their performance review processes — but that’s not really true. Sixty-one percent of employees feel the process is outdated; 22 percent feel performance discussions are too generic, 6 percent feel they are too infrequent, and 62 percent say these conversations are often incomplete.

For both managers and employees to find performance reviews meaningful, everyone has to buy in. One of the best ways to get that buy-in and boost the value of performance conversations is to make feedback more frequent and consistent. Forget long, drawn-out meetings that take place only once or twice a year. Give feedback in real time and in conjunction with regular one-on-one sessions. These sessions allow managers and employees to get comfortable with talking about what is going well and what could be better, and they prevent the unwelcome surprises that often accompany yearly performance reviews.

Performance Management Is a Continuous Coaching Process

Rather than viewing performance management as a periodic event, we need to understand it as an ongoing cycle consisting of three phases:

  1. During the planning phase of the cycle, performance and development goals are established.
  2. In the managing phase, current performance is reviewed and feedback is provided.
  3. In the review phase, results are appraised through two-way dialogues and objectives are adjusted as needed. And then the cycle begins again.

At some point in the process, a manager may have to coach an employee. While some managers are more adept than others at coaching, all managers can be more effective coaches by following two simple steps.

Step 1: Listen

Listen not to reply, but to understand what an employee is really saying. Active listening means being present by focusing not only on the words a person is saying, but also on the emotion or meaning behind the words, which is often evident in a person’s body language or tone of voice.

Be sure to limit distractions as well. Put away the cellphone, close your email, and commit to the process. If employees sense their managers are invested, they will give more.

Quite often, we forget to close the loop in a conversation. By periodically summarizing what has been said, employees and managers can ensure they share the same understanding, agree on needs and expectations, and determine the most effective ways the manager can support the employee.

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Step 2: Ask the Right Questions

Employees aren’t always entirely open about their performance struggles, and managers must sometimes dig deeper and prompt dialogue with open-ended questions. Questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no” only serve to stifle conversation.

Instead, ask questions designed to elicit more specific, in-depth responses:

• “How can I best support you?”
• “What do you like best about your role?”
• “What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of your role?”

In addition to fostering a genuine back-and-forth exchange, these questions help lay the groundwork for stretch goals and open avenues for growth.

As coaches, managers need to be aware of their own motivators to make sure they are not asking leading questions that detract from employees’ opportunities for self-discovery. Ask questions that encourage employees to take ownership of their own development. Stay focused on meaningful conversations instead of trying to simply move things along. Avoid doing all of the talking, and be careful not to exhibit behaviors that demonstrate approval or disapproval.

If either of these steps proves challenging, consider seeking feedback from a trusted colleague on how to improve your coaching and listening skills.

Not Sure Where to Start? Try an Assessment

If you need help finding the most effective way to frame your coaching conversations — or even finding the best starting points — consider looking into some of the coaching tools available. The assessment market offers a variety of coaching guides and coaching reports that can help managers understand their employees’ strengths, motivators, work styles, and inhibitors — all of which can be invaluable information when developing career paths, setting stretch goals, and uncovering the reasons for performance shortfalls. Personal development reports can also be shared with employees to help them become more aware of their strengths and areas for improvement. Prepared with such knowledge, managers and employees will be able to zero in on the ideal launch points for their action plans.

Before you select any employee-assessment product, research the provider to make sure the coaching and development tools they offer are scientifically validated. You usually get what you pay for, and the truly valuable assessments often pay for themselves by helping you increase employee productivity and engagement.

To sustain momentum throughout the performance-management process, remember to continuously and consistently engage in the complete cycle. Remember to provide recognition to employees not only for their improvements but for the continued application of their existing strengths. When employees know their managers are committed to their success, they feel good about their accomplishments and are more open to feedback about growth opportunities. Instead of dreading or resenting yearly performance reviews, they’ll be excited to talk about next year’s opportunities.

Melinda Kennedy is an organizational development consultant at Caliper.

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