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Why do so many supervisors give lame performance reviews to their staff? They race through the process, offer scattered observations about the employee’s performance, announce the annual salary increase, then end with a perfunctory “good job.” There are always lots of excuses for these drive-by reviews, including the classic one about being too short of time. But frequently such hasty appraisals are a sign that bosses are not doing their jobs. Some supervisors aren’t convinced of the value of reviews. Others are reluctant to confront poor performers. Many may simply not know how to give a constructive review. But this process should be taken seriously. Conducting a meaningful review is vital for developing and retaining good lawyers. Even if you’ve been communicating throughout the year with your staff about their performances, formal reviews are still in order. Quick assessments delivered day after day lack perspective. It’s worth the ritual of sitting down together once or twice a year for a good hour or so to talk over the long-term perspective. The review is the perfect setting to clarify expectations, demonstrate leadership, and motivate employees. A wide-ranging, well-executed review can re-energize an employee’s performance for months to come. This won’t happen by just checking off boxes on an evaluation form. It requires a thoughtful, individualized approach for each employee. One common dilemma is how to deliver negative comments. Supervisors may cringe at the prospect of delivering bad news. Some managers get over this problem early. Others never do. “Earlier in my career I used to agonize over it,” says Catherine Lamboley, vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary for Shell Oil Company in Houston. “Giving news to somebody who is a good person, but maybe not performing … was something that I would fret over. Maybe there would be hurt feelings, maybe he would overreact to the message.” Lamboley’s thinking shifted when she broadened her perspective. “I came to the realization that my job and my focus need to be on the whole organization, as opposed to being so focused on the individual attorney,” Lamboley says. “Then it became much easier.” Giving meaningful comments often leads to better performance. Peter Bewley, the top legal officer at Oakland, Calif.’s The Clorox Company, says, “What gives me the courage to deliver a balanced — that is, positive and negative — review is the successes I’ve experienced in the past. In at least three recent instances, after an honest review, I have seen dramatic positive change in the performance of an employee who had been written off by others.” Helping people develop and grow on the job can add to a supervisor’s own job satisfaction. Employees do appreciate thoughtful feedback, even if it contains criticism. Says Bewley: “Most employees hunger for coaching and a dialogue about how they can grow in their jobs. Rather than looking at negative feedback as delivering bad news, I look at it as providing the employee an opportunity to develop. The result is usually a more engaged and productive employee.” In any event, don’t sit on a problem, Lamboley warns. “Think about the future,” she says. “If you don’t deal with this problem now, I can guarantee you it will not get better on its own. It’s only going to get more difficult.” So how do you develop the finesse and diplomacy necessary to deliver criticism effectively? Mastering these basic appraisal techniques will help smooth the way: � Cut to the numbers. Give the salary and bonus at the beginning of a review session so that the suspense is gone. Fit the individual’s numbers into an overall distribution of raises and bonuses, so that the employee can judge how he or she is faring compared to others. � Be specific. This means giving examples and details, not meaningless conclusions. For instance, a statement like “Your writing style is poor” is not particularly helpful. Instead, say something like, “One of the areas that would make you more effective here would be to upgrade your writing. For instance, you could use spelling check, ask someone to review your material before sending things out, and work with one of our other lawyers who was a professional writer before coming here.” In other words, prove your case with observable facts and offer a solution. � Don’t forget the good things. And be as specific as you are when dissecting the negatives. Instead of a meaningless “You’re doing fine,” try saying, “You responded within 24 hours to the manufacturing team’s questions; you sent them a memo that was right to the point; you met with them directly afterwards to answer follow-up questions; and best of all, you took initiative.” This helps an employee build up a checklist of positives rather than a catalog of negatives. � Defuse defensiveness. One approach is to present a performance issue as a dilemma for both of you. Take the focus off “you” and put it more on “we.” Rather than saying, “You really didn’t give the manufacturing people timely advice this year,” try offering, “How can we make sure that the manufacturing people get more timely responses in the coming year?” In that way, the remark seems less judgmental; it also emphasizes improved, future performance. The point is to use a team approach to problem solving rather than forcing the employee to wallow in past misdeeds. � Don’t sidestep the issues. “I think there’s a danger in soft selling,” says Lamboley. “If you’re not direct enough in your message, if you’re not clear enough or candid enough … you may not get your message across.” One solution is to ask for a self-evaluation. “Many times I’ve found that when I’ve brought up an issue to someone that is a deficiency in the performance, they’ll acknowledge it,” Lamboley says. “It’s almost like a hidden thing. They’ll welcome the honesty. That can open up a conversation where the individual identifies issues without the manager having to jump on him.” � Ask for feedback. After delivering your views, turn the conversation into a two-way street by asking for comments on your performance. This models for employees the idea that everyone, with no exceptions, must strive for improvement and be open to criticism. So that the employee won’t feel nervous about criticizing the boss, focus on facts and behaviors. At Clorox, Bewley breaks the ice by asking employees, “What do I do that bugs you the most?” or “What can I do to help you do your job better?” A truly effective review requires that you actually care about your employees’ needs and development. If you don’t, you can’t expect them to perform at their best. Winning loyalty and commitment is much easier if people believe you are dedicated to their future success, as well as your own. Holly English, a former litigator, is principal consultant with Montclair, N.J.’s Values At Work, a management firm that focuses on performance issues. Her email address is: [email protected].

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