Mary, a manager in a manufacturing company, recently told me about a very stressful performance review she conducted. She gave her employee, John, some challenging feedback about how poorly he did his job.
John was aghast. Not only did he think he was doing well, but he had been expecting a raise. He left the meeting in tears, and Mary found out later that he complained to a half dozen employees about what happened. Not good.
What went wrong? Let’s begin the exploration with a question: When does an employee want to know how well they’re doing? Answer: All the time, but they rarely ask.
Ongoing Direct Feedback vs. Yearly Reviews
So why are performance reviews so often the only time employees receive direct feedback, only once or twice a year? The answer is usually because it’s uncomfortable for managers to do them. I’m against performance reviews. They don’t work, mostly because of how people relate to them.
Managers have a feeling they should do them, but often avoid the task. If they get past the procrastination, they don’t enjoy it, and it’s at best a neutral, perfunctory meeting.
At worst, the employee becomes upset because the feedback they got comes far too late, compounded often by their expectation of a raise. In most companies, performance reviews are built up with stress and anxiety on both sides. They pressure managers and don’t give employees what they need: valuable, real-time feedback about how they’re doing.
Studies show that mentoring and skill development are at the top of the list of what employees want, especially the younger generations. When an employee is mentored, they get feedback about their performance so often that performance reviews aren’t necessary.
What happened above is that Mary avoided giving direct feedback to John when he needed it, allowing him to create a fantasy in which he was doing well. While his gossiping was unprofessional, it’s understandable. His manager failed him.
What It Means to Mentor an Employee
One way to describe the role of a manager is to keep employees in reality: A manager ensures their people don’t think they’re doing any better or worse than they are. All of us need help from others to see ourselves clearly, and we need it far more often than most people think.
When reviews are seen as some kind of annual feedback event, managers often assume they don’t need to provide honest feedback at any other time.
We do the same thing in romantic relationships, right? By the time a couple has an honest conversation about how things are going, pent-up emotion on one side and the feeling of being ambushed on the other makes communication more difficult.
Don’t Avoid the Uncomfortable
Managers make excuses to avoid uncomfortable conversations. “Well, I’ll wait to see if it’s a pattern,” they tell themselves, allowing the pattern to form. Or they say, “I don’t want to micromanage,” when it’s the small nudges that are most effective for course correction. Or they say, “It’s not that big a deal, I’ll let it go,” when the mistake the employee made is likely part of an overall pattern. Or they say, “I don’t want to embarrass them,” when social science tells us embarrassment actually supports change.
The result is that frustration builds up, and broaching the subject becomes more and more difficult. This is what happens with any kind of procrastination.
Act Fast for Better Results
The fact is that the shorter the time between a mistake and feedback, the greater the possibility for change. The only thing a manager serves when they wait is their own comfort, and this is a disservice to everyone involved.
Yes, it may be difficult in the moment, but those small, difficult conversations pay off over the long run. If you do decide to do performance reviews to comply with company policies beyond your control or to create paper trails for legal reasons, make sure you do two things.
First, periodically communicate to employees that compensation reviews and performance reviews are two completely separate processes. Second, give employees feedback often enough that nothing in that review would surprise them. If there is any surprise, that’s an indication you haven’t been as direct as you could be.
The article above was originally posted on Forbes.