How to Make Performance Management a Two-Way Conversation

The calls have already started coming in this week – two weeks earlier than I expected. Annual reviews have started to be delivered. Results from 2013 are being shared. Promotions are being handed out and denied. And performance management feels like a sentence.

Performance Management as a phrase, refers to the ongoing management and communication of how an employee is achieving the expected results. It’s more effective if it’s done on an ongoing basis, but most companies tend to go through the cycle only once a year. Because it sucks. For everyone.

The idea behind it, or let’s be honest, what employees are told about performance management, is to celebrate the accomplishments and wins from the previous year and also plan for new projects and areas of focus for the year ahead.

What did you do great, crappy, and what can you be assigned going forward?

For managers, it’s a toss-up. It’s supposed to be an official forum for them to reward, describe, request, and share your work accomplishments. But there are so many rules around it, that it becomes a washed-down version of mediocre language.

And that’s just the written document.

The conversation is usually more painful – even if everything has been great. We aren’t taught in school, how to sit down across the table from another person, and listen to our skills, strengths, and weaknesses pointed out. But that’s exactly what it ends up being.

After being on both sides of that conversation for many years, I started thinking about if we were ever really having the Conversation necessary for performance management. Is there dialogue? Is it even allowed in this type of space?

Is Performance Management a Conversation?

For most people, absolutely not. It’s an uncomfortable conversation with the outcome being am I going to get a raise, get shafted, or lose my job.

It’s not an environment that leaves little room for asking questions, truly building on skills or areas of opportunity, or discussing true expectations.

The employee has to essentially “sit there and take it” – ask the right questions when they have a different perspective, appear to “soak in the information” while it’s being shared, and put a fake smile on their face. Regardless of what their boss just told them. Otherwise, you get quickly labeled as Unreceptive to Feedback or Difficult.

The manager has to share their perspective without being able to fully transparent because more than likely, they sucked at managing the situation during the year. They never set the right expectations or told you (several times), to get back on track or that things weren’t going as planned. And let’s not forget about “Legal implications” of being too direct or delivering undocumented information. So instead, they hand you a piece of paper that reads generically. Then address everything in conversation that they weren’t able to write down.

So the true conversation never really happens, or if it does, the piece of paper in front of you doesn’t align with what’s really going on. Which is confusing as an employee. What are you supposed to change? How do you make it better for next year? And my personal favorite – what if what’s being talked about has absolutely nothing to do with how you do your job, but a personal bias?

The answer: It’s up to the employee to make performance management more than just something that happens to you once a year.

I’m not going to lie – the official performance management conversation is going to be difficult to change. And may not be the right place for you to even attempt it. You do want your official record to be devoid of “unreceptive,” “combative,” “appealed review.” But that doesn’t mean you just sit there and take it!

Turn performance management into a weekly or bi-weekly activity. Drive this bus and document. Here’s how:

1. During your 1:1 meetings with your manager, start asking the right questions.

It may be awkward at first to completely change the way you interact with your manager, but the results will be well worth it. The most important questions to ask during these meetings are:

  • How do you think this (project) is tracking towards the intent of this (goal, stated expectation, etc.)?
  • What feedback do you have or have you received about my participation in (project)?
  • Did (enter project or result) meet your expectations?
  • What things would you like to see improved for next time?

These are stated in end-of-project language, which I know doesn’t happen twice a month. So adjust them to be phrased as mid-project updates, and check in. You want to be sure that:

  1. Everything is “tracking” towards the expected result
  2. Ask for feedback
  3. Establish expectations – and agree on them
  4. What can be done better next time

2. Document each and every conversation on this topic that you have.

I know it sounds cumbersome, but trust me – it’s not. In fact, it will help you pull together that once a year document, even faster. Create a simple tracking system for yourself. I have clients who use Evernote to track meetings and notes, and some who sent emails to their manager and bcc themselves for a copy and recap, and so on.

I did a combination – I inserted updates in a project planning worksheet that I shared with my manager. Weekly updates in those four areas were tracked and inserted into the document. That way, I had an ongoing tracker of each project and what was reviewed. My boss had access to add input or make changes if I didn’t capture the conversation correctly, but essentially, it was our track record.

As long as you have a way to ensure that there was a conversation with and buy-in from your manager, you are already a step ahead of the “annual process.”

3. Address things early and often.

The entire point of performance management is to help you grow, learn and stay on track as an employee. It’s easy for these things to fall between the cracks – everyone is so busy trying to meet deadlines and put out fires, but it’s imperative to pay attention so you aren’t blindsided later.

When you are in a more relaxed environment of a regularly scheduled 1:1 meeting, your manager will feel more comfortable to have the difficult, but necessary, conversations. But you will have to address them – when you ask the four questions above, if the answers aren’t screaming awesome to you, ask for more.

Dig deeper. Ask for resources you need or guidance that is missing.

Address all of the little things as they come up, so they don’t surprise you later down the road.