For many of you, it’s that time of the year when you are required to provide feedback to your reports as part of the annual performance review exercise. You can delay things a bit, but there is absolutely no getting away from it. The easy part is completing the form and if you are lucky, it’s just a few boxes on a sheet of paper to fill in. The real challenge thereafter is to provide performance feedback explaining the rationale for your assessment and its consequences on the annual pay rise. Easier said than done, it is not uncommon for a meltdown of a carefully nurtured working relationship.
That is largely how I felt about annual performance reviews until I had the privilege of working for an outstanding people manager and seeing first-hand how this rather mundane, much maligned and dreary corporate process took on an entirely sublime form. No matter what the feedback outcome, every performance meeting with this manager left one feeling valued and energised, ready to renew their commitment and go beyond the requirements of the meticulously crafted job description. Many years and many managers since, none have demonstrated the art of performance management better. So what are some of the things this manager did with such panache and succeeded in leaving such an indelible impression?
First and foremost you were a ‘person’ and not an inanimate direct report or a depleting piece of human resource. You were genuinely known by the manager; your interests, aspirations and ambitions were all well understood by the manager. Time and care had been taken to get to know you as a human being – simple things like the name of your partner, your kids, your likes and dislikes, your strengths were all well known by the manager. Put simply, you mattered and the manager had made the effort to get to know you.
Second, the manager had provided continuous feedback on your performance throughout the year and therefore the year-end discussions were not anything new. You already knew the good and the bad; the performance conversation was another opportunity to discuss anything that had been overlooked. There were no surprises waiting.
Third, filling and going through the form was merely the by-product of the conversation. It was not the purpose of the meeting. The meeting itself was about how to optimise performance for the future, how to harness your strengths and enable you to develop new experiences to fulfil your potential. The classic eighty twenty rule was tacitly followed. Eighty per cent of the meeting was future oriented and only twenty per cent, possibly even less, was spent dissecting last year’s performance – the proverbial crying over spilt milk.
Fourth, every meeting was a genuine conversation;. The share of voice was always balanced in favour of the report, never the other way around. Every conversation always gently but surely stretched capability, and constantly extended the performance requirements to reflect your improved skills mastery levels.
Finally, there was none of the disruptive parent-child or adult-child posturing. Every conversation was one of equals, free, open, honest and achieving agreement. Trust in the relationship was implicit and carefully built. What the manager said and meant were the same thing and what happened was consistent and in line with what was discussed.
It’s been many years since the time I worked with this manager and while there is the inevitable romanticism of time, it does not come as any surprise that this manager has progressed to exalted heights of global executive leadership.
So, for all those of us out there getting the powder dry for the seasonal flagellation of the performance conversation, it does not have to be quite like that. Invest the time and effort in your people. In return, you will get more commitment and engagement than you had ever bargained for. Your business results will be better and you will be more successful.