Recently, I had a chance to engage in a deep conversation with my parents. Two members of the greatest generation who also happen to be two of the greatest people I know. That association happens a lot with that generation, doesn’t it?
Both of my parents were born during the 1930’s. I’m stating the obvious here, but they know not to buy green bananas if you know what I’m saying. However, in my mind I still see my dad throwing me batting practice, and my mom reading Dr. Seuss books to me. Perhaps they were feeling a bit of nostalgia that day too, because our conversation was very reflective.
They reminisced about growing up without much. My dad remembered his military experience and told a Navy story or two. They skipped over stories about their early marriage, instead turning the spotlight on the kids and our families and the pride they felt raising us to adulthood. Like many in their generation, they delayed personal gain so their children could afford college and many other things. Funny thing, they never used the word “sacrifice.” It was just what that generation did.
Then, almost as if on cue, my dad worried out loud if he had done enough to provide for my mother, the kids, and the grandkids after he was gone. He chastised Wall Street for manipulating his retirement funds. Even at 85, his concern remained on others. At the apex of the conversation, he asked me point blank, “Do you think I have done enough?”
So what does all this have to do with performance evaluations?
Well, my dad’s question went a little deeper than finances. In a weird, Twilight Zone kind of moment, he was really asking me if I thought he had done a good job as a father. Did his performance match my expectations? He was giving me the green light to evaluate his career as my dad.
To get to that special point in the conversation, my dad had to feel comfortable, and that is the first rule to administering a successful performance review.
RULE ONE – Set the right environment.
I doubt seriously my dad entered into our conversation expecting to ask me such a vulnerable question. But the conversation unfolded in such a way that he felt perfectly comfortable asking it.
In his book, Mindwise, University of Chicago professor Nicholas Epley studied the psychology behind the performance evaluation and found that setting the right environment was the most important factor for a successful meeting. Removing the natural barrier that exists between manager and employee can only be done when the employee senses that it is safe.
My dad really wanted an honest answer. Your employees want the same when you discuss their performance. But they’ll never hear what you have to say until you make them feel comfortable. And by the way, a once a year fifteen minute visit isn’t going to accomplish that. Setting the right environment is a year round event. Nobody’s expecting you to be their best friend, but you shouldn’t expect them to be relaxed either if you only talk to them about their work during an annual evaluation.
RULE TWO – Listen more than you talk.
I would not have read between the lines and understood the real meaning behind my dad’s question if I wasn’t aware of the context. And I wouldn’t have understood the context unless I listened.
The walk down memory lane with my parents took about twenty minutes. The financial part was about the last thirty seconds. The question may have occurred during the end the discussion, but it arose from a lifetime of memories.
Your employees have constructed their own memories about their performance that will probably not match yours. To keep the environment safe, let them tell you those memories from their perspective. It is so much easier to direct your feedback if you know how to position it. The more you listen to your employees, where to place that feedback becomes crystal clear.
Only after listening and building the context of our conversation could I properly frame my dads’ question—which brings us to the final rule.
RULE THREE – Leave no room for misinterpretation.
When my dad asked, “Do you think I’ve done enough?” I was able to see through the superficial question and understood the deeper one. So I answered, “Dad, I can tell you that we will NOT rate you as a father based on how much money you leave us. We will rate you on the perceived value of our last Christmas gift from you.” (I was still trying to make him feel comfortable! After a good laugh, me more so than him, I went on.)
“Seriously, you have given us so much more than money. You instilled in us the value of hard work. You taught us how to love God and country. You showed us how to respect, serve, and treat people of all types. You were a great example of keeping commitments to mom and us. You preached to us that when it got tough, to hunker down until it was over. Have you done enough? You bet. And it has nothing to do with money.”
Do your employees know where they stand with you? Do your interactions with them leave them guessing? The most important responsibility you have as a leader in your organization is to provide clarity around what’s important through your words and deeds. If you don’t, employees will fill in the blanks with their own interpretation by the way.
My conversation with my parents was a rare, unguarded moment—the type of interaction the greatest generation normally suppresses. So, we immediately went into the kitchen and ate double stuff Oreos as my mom went back to doting on us. But after those brief few minutes, my dad knew where he stood.
And that, my faithful readers, is the goal of any performance evaluation.