She says progress is being made when it comes to performance reviews, and successful organizations are making them really work.
“I think what’s changed primarily is engaging the employee more. It’s about them. It’s getting them involved in that conversation and that goal setting and that problem solving. It’s also thinking of it more as an ongoing workplace conversation, not a once-a-year, intense conversation.”
Armstrong agrees and says the modern, good manager needs to get used to having continuous conversations with his or her employees.
This is one of the first steps to making any performance review more beneficial. If a manager and employee are comfortable with each other to begin with, any conversation will go smoother.
“[It] involves a lot of things — catching people doing the right thing, and redirecting them gently when they need it. So, by the time this once-a-year . . . [conversation happens], you’re really just summarizing all of those tiny meetings. It’s a culmination of all of those discussions and it’s not such a big deal. I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves — a lot of stress — when we think of this once or twice a year [talk].”
Armstrong stresses the manager’s mantra of ‘When you see it, say it’, but managers can’t do it alone. They need training, she adds, and support from the organization to be more engaging with their employees.
In addition to all of this, accountability is a big part of achieving success.
“So the boss’s boss not giving the boss any increase until all his supervisory functions are complete to the level that they want it. That involves having these conversations, and the conversations are not just about looking backwards in terms of what you’ve done and how you’ve added value, but looking forward. What are our goals for next year? How does that trickle down to us at this level? Where are you going to add value? How can we plan that ahead for you to do well in this area and help us achieve our mission? How can I help you develop? Those are all important aspects that need to be looked at.”
Introspection at any level is also key, and Armstrong notes that a good manager also asks his or her employees about, well, his or her performance.
“You have to grow another inch of skin a little bit, because often you’re going to hear some things that might surprise you. I have a way to phrase that for a manager — ‘What are three things I’ve done in the past six months that’s really helped you? What are three things you want me to do in the next six months?’ Then, you kind of hold your breath hoping they can come up with three things, but what better way to get feedback?”
She also adds that if you, as a manager, create an open dialogue with your employees, you shouldn’t hold it against them later. In addition, open dialogues can lead to more productivity because the onus can be taken away from personalities and put on the matter at hand.
“[It] puts the emphasis on what’s getting the way. What are the barriers? It’s not about you as a person — but, ‘How can I be that conduit to better processes for you? What can I do for you?’ That is a real partnership. If people did that, you wouldn’t have to drag them into those rooms to have the meeting.”
Performance reviews are historically used to make sure the manager and the employee are on the same page. Armstrong says that most poor performance reviews result from lack of communication and not talking.
“So, what happens during those meetings are surprises. There should never be a surprise on the part of the employee, and if you find there is, you shouldn’t note it in the review at that point. Managers haven’t done their role if they haven’t communicated effectively.”
There is also the worst-case scenario — the lawsuit.
“Having unclear communications or lack of concrete goals, lack of good record-keeping, whatever those issues are, can get us in a lot of hot water. Performance appraisals really are often the first things to be reviewed during any type of legal investigation.”