Having Authentic Conversations

Leaders often say that the most difficult part of annual evaluations is having that conversation with that employee who is under-performing. There are a number of reasons why many managers find it hard. For one thing, they know that in most cases, it’s not going to be well received. Let’s face it. No one wants to hear that they aren’t doing a good job. Managers also fear the evaluation will be contested, and the disgruntled employee will make things worse by their attitude, which will affect the work of the entire team. On top of that, everyone fears the threat of lawsuits.

What often happens is that instead of having an authentic conversation with this kind of employee, managers tend to place their marks to the middle. Instead of being honest about the manager’s perspective on the employee’s performance, they mark the form a 3 out of 5, which labels the employee as average. This is often accompanied by very few comments or written remarks.

What is the result of this kind of evaluation? Not much that is good. The employee doesn’t really hear what he or she needs to do to improve. The manager doesn’t really clearly communicate his or her expectations, and the rest of the team is left to continue coping with a colleague that they all know is less than adequate. But the evaluation says he/she is average. If a move is made to terminate him/her, it is very hard for the legal department to defend the termination in a lawsuit because the evaluations will all say that the employee is, in fact, average. (3 out of 5)

So is the problem the evaluation form itself? Well, not necessarily. It may need to be improved, but the real problem isn’t the form—it’s the culture.  An unwillingness to have a frank discussion with employees about performance reflects a culture that doesn’t truly value accountability. And without accountability, mediocrity is much more likely to infect the organization. That’s because accountability, along with encouragement, is absolutely necessary for workers to do their best.

Confront problems when they arise. Don’t wait until it’s time for the annual evaluation. Have an honest conversation at the earliest possible moment. You may dread it, but if you put it off until the evaluation, it will only be worse.

A friend of mine who is a City Manager says, “Bad news doesn’t get better with time.” He’s right. Can you imagine a football team that waited until the end of the season to point out a player’s mistakes or areas where he needed to improve? The only way to improve is to identify your mistakes and develop a plan to overcome them.

Mike Mowery

Written by:
Mike Mowery
Director of Leadership Development, Strategic Government Resources

2 responses

  1. The “bad news evaluation” used to be a real challenge for me. What has helped make it easier for me is to focus the evaluation on 2 core points, the organization’s mission and the employee’s development. Keeping “the unpleasant facts” focused on the organization’s needs (“you can’t contribute to the organization if you are tardy”) and on the employee’s constructive development (“you make a lot of errors in this area; would some more training be helpful ?”) makes the conversation both positive/constructive as well as focused on the needs of the organization (not the personalities of the conversation participants). Since adopting this approach several years ago I have actually had employees who I ended up terminating (after progressive discipline) actually thanking me for trying to work with them.

    1. Wow. Thanks so much for your extra insight, David! Really helpful.

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