Many people (both managers and team members) fear performance reviews.

To help alleviate some of these fears, we spoke with Roberta Matuson, president of Matuson Consulting, and Jared Narlock, MPA, SHRM-SCP, a talent development and engagement consultant for Nemours Children’s Health System. They shared:

  • Two significant elements of effective performance reviews.
  • Why it takes two people to have an effective performance conversation.
  • How can training can help improve the performance review process.

Listen now:

The transcript of this episode follows.

Taryn:
Hello, and welcome to the Business of Learning, the learning leader’s podcast from Training Industry. I am Taryn Oesch, managing editor of digital content at Training Industry.

Sarah:
And I’m Sarah Gallo, an associate editor at Training Industry.

Taryn:
This episode is sponsored by the Certified Professional in Training Management program.

Sarah:
Today we’re discussing a topic that has been around for some time now, and some people have mixed feelings about: performance reviews. To learn more about what makes a performance review effective, what doesn’t, and how to train managers on giving performance reviews, we’re here with Roberta Matuson, president of Matuson Consulting, and Jared Narlock, talent development and engagement consultant for Nemours Children’s Health System. Roberta and Jared, welcome.

Roberta:
Thank you.

Jared:
Thank you.

Taryn:
To kick things off, we know that some people claim that performance reviews are an ineffective way to improve performance and give feedback. So do you see performance reviews as an effective way to do that, and to also advance employees’ professional development? Jared, why don’t you start us off.

Jared:
Yeah, thanks. Performance reviews, I think they’re one of those things that people see in different ways. So, I do think it is a great way to help people grow and develop when it’s actually done in a partnership, and I think that’s where so many things are missed out on. I’ve been in organizations where the formal side of it was done on an annual [basis], and then it changed to a quarterly [basis], and where it was really effective though, was for leaders in partnership with those that they were leading really focusing on it on a daily basis, and going through things [with] a metric space approach, through talking with people, and growing off of that to where, when that formal aspect may come, it was just another conversation in the process. And so ,when they’re able to bring it into their daily and their weekly and monthly focus, and not just, “This is the set time we’re going to have this conversation,” that’s where I’ve really seen [performance reviews] be the most effective for me, as a leader, [and] in the roles that I’ve been in, and for the different leaders that I’ve worked with over the years. Where I’ve seen it be that struggle is when it’s that set conversation, and it’s looked at as an add-on, on top of all the things that are already on people’s plates, versus that ongoing conversation. So that’s where I would say that [performance reviews are successful], when it’s looked at and focused on by the leader and the employee, and it becomes that true partnership on a regular basis, it can really be a successful thing that catapults individuals, myself included. When I’ve had that approach with my leaders, it’s just been such a refreshing experience, and I’ve looked back in those timeframes with those leaders to see my growth and development, and it’s been a completely different level of exposure and growth during those times.

Taryn:
Roberta, what are your thoughts?

Roberta:
Well, my thoughts are [that] nobody likes performance reviews. Nobody likes doing them. No one likes having them done to them. And I think it’s for the very same reasons that Jared spoke about, and that is the fact that performance should be managed daily. What’s happening in most organizations is [that] a performance review is an event. And so it’s that time of the year … If you’re lucky, it’s more than one time of the year where your leader sits down with you and gives you a list of everything, in many cases, you’re doing wrong. And so, I think in the most effective organizations, and what I see with my clients, is when these performance conversations are taking place daily and when a leader is giving feedback in real-time, then the performance process is enhanced and can be very beneficial for career development, as well as increased productivity and engagement.

Sarah:
What topics should learning leaders really be training managers on in order to actually give effective performance reviews? Roberta, do you want to start us off with this one?

Roberta:
Well, I think that the key area that leaders need to really fine tune is their communication skills, and they also need to learn how to give feedback. Feedback has become such a negative word. I was recently given some feedback, and because I was really receptive to what that feedback was, it’s made a huge difference in my life. I took the feedback, and I made some pretty dramatic changes, and as a result I’ve been 10 times more successful than I would have been, had I not been open to that. However, the person that was delivering that information was [effective in delivering it]. He really had my best interests in mind. He wasn’t telling me these things to tear me down. He was telling me this so that I could become a better version of myself, and because I trusted him, I was able to take that feedback. And so, I think it comes down to teaching leaders how to communicate in an effective manner and how to build trust, because if your employees don’t trust that you have their best interest in mind, then they’re not going to really accept this feedback that you give them.

Sarah:
Jared, do you have any other thoughts?

Jared:
Yeah, I think those are wonderful pieces that I’d just elaborate a little bit on in that, as Roberta said, the communication [is important], and one of the biggest things that I’ve actually brought into the process for myself over the last year was, I had the opportunity to be certified in Dr. Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead. She talks about giving engaged feedback and the courage that comes with that, and I think that’s a big piece; that is a skill-building piece for people, and it was kind of an “ah-ha” moment for me when it came to performance reviews, because here we are in the training industry, and we talk about so many different things from an objective building standpoint of, “We’ve got to define it,” and do these different things to get into the application and approach, but I’ve met so many leaders that, while they’ve worked toward that with communication, they haven’t had the opportunity to do that with something along the lines of performance reviews. And so they’re not necessarily connecting those pieces together, and we’re not designing it that way, and at the same time, doing that for [our] employees as well. So when we do focus on the performance reviews, we talk about training the leaders, but it is to me so much that partnership, [it’s important] to also take the time with our employees because they do communicate different ways, and so helping them in that style, to be able to bring that forward to their leaders, just the same as we’re working, as Roberta said, with those leaders on communication so that we’re meeting people where they’re at in that mindset — and it’s not such an intimidating or overwhelming or uncomfortable process for both parties — but [it’s critical] that they’ve been able to take the time and effort and energy [to give feedback], just as we would with other soft skill building topics, and building on those objectives through knowledge base and giving them some opportunity to get into that application, creating a more comfortable, hopefully, and engaging environment through that process.

Sarah:
And Jared, you had mentioned the importance of courage and its application in giving feedback and performance reviews. Do you have any tips for leaders that are maybe trying to embrace their courage and actually put that into play when giving feedback?

Jared:
Yeah. I think one of the biggest things is to remember to be clear with it, and that clear is truly kind, and that comes from Dr. Brené Brown. That was just such an engaging piece for me when it comes to [having] that courage, to say, if I’m continuously being clear, as Roberta spoke to and we talked about the daily importance of performance and building off of that, if we’re clear in that each and every day of how we have those conversations, that small thing that may be a piece, that’s something that someone did great and you’re like, “Wow, there’s some true potential there that we can build off of with this person in their performance,” or on the opposite side that there might be that small thing that, “Oh, that’s not necessarily in alignment with what we were hoping for. Let’s talk about it,” and it doesn’t become this big thing because we’ve waited until this designated time to talk about it, but that we’re being clear, and we’re assuming positive intent. It’s truly my belief that people come [to work], and they want to do a great job. So this person in front of us, while today their best may not look like their best yesterday, that they’re trying. And so we keep that in mind, that hopefully they’re going to give us that same grace when we step into courage and have that clear conversation to say, “Hey, I noticed this, and I just want to talk to you about it.” By the time that formal time maybe comes, we’re able to really focus on that continuation of what we’ve built through having those small moments of courageous conversations along the way.

Taryn:
So we’ve talked about trust and courage. What are some other so-called soft skills that leaders need in order to be able to give effective performance reviews and manage their employees?

Jared:
Well, I think one of the biggest pieces is the understanding of the different communication styles. I’ve had the opportunity to work a lot with engagement and all different types of engagement in workplaces, and so often [when] you see where employees in the workplace, half will say, “Oh, well, communication with my leader is great,” and half will say, “Yeah, this is one of the biggest areas for improvement.” And so, working on the ability to be able to see and understand, and have that self-awareness in the way that I communicate, and understanding where that works well with different types of people, and where I’ve got to become more comfortable coming out of my comfort zone [is important]. The example that I use is when someone has an attic in their house that they go up into very infrequently. For us, we went up there to get decorations for the holidays, and that’s usually the only time is when we’re going to get those decorations and when we are putting them back. And so, with those people that communicate differently than me, it feels very uncomfortable. It feels like I’m going up there to get those decorations because it’s not where I go normally, versus those people that I communicate with that are similar to me, it’s like walking to my refrigerator and getting a drink in the house. I do that so common, so often, it feels very comfortable. And so, forcing myself and wanting to develop [myself] to where I go up in that attic more and more, and it becomes more comfortable, and I’m able to flex my communication in a way that connects with those individuals, and I’m able to both listen and understand what they’re asking for, even though they may be asking for it in a different way than I’m used to, and able to communicate back in a way that is comfortable and welcoming for them.

Taryn:
Roberta, anything to add?

Roberta:
I think Jared did a great job of answering that question.

Sarah:
Alright. We know that performance reviews can be stressful for some, maybe even most employees, so how can training help managers ease that stress while still ensuring the review is effective in what it needs to achieve?

Roberta:
Well, I think that it’s like anything: if you do it enough times, or if you participate in something enough times, you know what to expect. I think, as Jared has stated, if leaders are clear, they’re clear on the expectations, they’re clear on what good performance looks like, and they’re communicating regularly, then it’s just going to be another conversation. I think that’s really the key is you’re having a conversation. You don’t need to have balloons in the office and a celebration here. This is a conversation that you’re having with the other person’s best interest in mind. I think the interesting part about performance reviews is that we often forget that it takes two people to have a conversation. So you know, you’re not doing something to someone when you’re a leader. You’re not giving them a performance review. They’re participating as well.

Taryn:
Jared, any thoughts?

Jared: 
Yeah, I think Roberta hit it right on there, that it’s truly two people, and having that connection and keeping that in mind that, so often leaders are thinking, “Oh, this may be uncomfortable for me,” especially newer leaders that I’ve worked with as a coach … and realizing that it’s the same [stress on both ends]. We’re human beings, so that person that’s in the other chair is probably feeling similar, and so how can we work to connect on a repeated basis so that in those moments it becomes more and more comfortable, just as Roberta said.

Taryn:
So we’ve talked a little bit about keeping them [like a conversation], performance reviews should be part of continuous conversations with employees. I’m wondering if you have any tips for training organizations on how to really incorporate performance reviews into the rest of the talent development process for employees?

Jared:
Sure. I think it’s thinking about, what are those daily activities? And this is a big piece that I’ve seen organizations do really well, and I’ve [also] seen organizations struggle in helping their leaders plot out, what does that standard work week look like for them? And we know things happen all the time, but that’s the difference between those organizations that I’ve seen do this really well and the ones that struggle is the word firefighting is used a lot. The leaders will say, “Well, I can’t do that because I’m putting out one fire after the next,” and [the] reality being that when we’ve sat down with those individuals, and I say we, different teams, organizational development teams and talent development teams that I’ve worked on, what we’ve seen is that these leaders [aren’t giving enough feedback to] them because it hasn’t been laid out in a clear way of what’s important for the organization, what’s important for those that they lead, and no one’s actually talked to the leader about what’s important to them as well, to work toward aligning that in a way that they see that [feedback is important]. What I mean by that is this leader over here, leader one, it is really important that they’re engaging daily with their people, but they see it this way, and leader two, they don’t think about engaging on a daily basis. They think about it from this metric standpoint, “I’ve got to stay on that. So, how do we bring that together differently for leader one and leader two, where ultimately, though, they’re still accomplishing that outcome where they’re engaging with their people on a daily basis? And I think that’s something that we have to bring into the training environment of, how do we put the needed business results that so many leaders are asked about by their one-up with the needed people results, what our people want, what the employees are asking for, what they’re looking for, and how do we connect those so that it doesn’t feel like, “I’m doing this on top of this,” but that, “This and this are integrated, and while I’m accomplishing this, I’m also accomplishing this,” and we’re not having these 60, 70 hour work weeks, but that we’re managing it in the time that’s truly allotted because they’ve come together? And yes, that’s easier said than done when that environment doesn’t exist, but working toward that environment gradually [so that], when it does exist you see it, and there’s examples out there of organizations that are thriving because they built their organizations up [in this way]. A lot of startups that I’ve seen over the last 10 years have built it that way so that the business and the people results are integrated, and their leaders are able to engage in different ways.

Taryn:
Roberta, anything to add?

Roberta:
Well, Jared brought up some really great points, and that is when you are working in the training and development field, you are there to support the goals of the organization. As you know, right now we’ve got record levels of unemployment throughout the United States, and companies are just struggling to keep people because there aren’t a lot of people to replace these people with. And in my new book, “Evergreen Talent,” I talk a lot about the need for employee retention and the need to communicate and provide feedback because [for] today’s employees, that’s what they really want. They want to know, “How am I doing?” And if you don’t tell them, somebody else will, and that somebody else will be at another company. And so, as leaders in the training and development industry, it’s really important that you help your leaders make sure they are communicating at all times, because all it takes is one phone call from a third party recruiter or somebody from another company on a bad day for that employee to say, “Yes, I will agree to come interview with you.”

Sarah:
And could you both maybe share an experience that you’ve had either giving a performance review, whether successfully or not? Looking back, is there anything that you would have done differently? Roberta, do you want to start us off?

Roberta:
Well, I would love to share a performance review that was given to me, and I write about this in “Suddenly in Charge,” my first book, and in “Evergreen Talent,” because it has stayed with me for that many years. I once had a manager say to me, “Roberta, you are not meeting my expectations,” followed by the following statement: “Although I’m not quite sure I ever told you what they were.” And I sat there, and as I’m speaking, I can still see my face, and I thought to myself, “Hmm, well, she went to Harvard, and I only went to Northeastern. Maybe they taught mind reading at Harvard, but I know at Northeastern we didn’t get that class.” And so I was left thinking, “How on earth could I know what you expected if you never told me?” And that’s a lesson that I take with me everywhere. When I’m speaking at conferences and when I’m in organizations working with leaders, I’m constantly reminding them that, unless there’s a new course out there that I’m not aware of, your people have not taken Mind Reading 101, and that if there’s something that they need to know, you need to tell them.

Sarah:
Yeah. That definitely is so important, just on a basic level.

Roberta:
You would think.

Sarah:
Yeah. Jared, do you have an experience you’d like to share with us?

Jared:
Yeah. One that comes to mind that was such a great learning experience for me was in a leadership role giving feedback to this individual, and the individual had so much potential. They were struggling with that mindset of, “I’m going to stay in this path. This is my work, this is what I’m supposed to do,” and they weren’t necessarily the best team member from the perspective of their team. It was one of those instances where I gave the person feedback but I hadn’t known them that well, and this is where I say, I guess from a learning piece, is it’s just so vital to know your people and to know the different communication styles, as Roberta talked about earlier and did such a wonderful job of going through. I was just shaking my head as I was listening to her, because it was in that moment where I had seen a couple of behavior patterns with this person that I thought, “Wow,” you know? And I had lost sight of remembering that each person has different experiences, just like the experience that Roberta shared, and the fact that I’m sure that plays into different ways that she chooses to give feedback and different times when she’s listening to someone. In this instance, I had given this person feedback, and ultimately it turned out really well, but at the time I had gotten feedback just shortly after that my tone was very strong, and that took me by surprise. I had never gotten that feedback before, and I was explaining to someone about a leader that I had [in the past], an executive-level leader that I had had at one time, that used a very strong tone with me. It was one of those things that I was very intimidated by this person, and I said to the person that was giving me feedback that, oh, my, if they thought that that was a tough tone coming from me, imagine this. The person said, “Well, what if they’ve never experienced that, and the toughest tone they’ve ever had was you?” And it was [by] relating [to] that experience [when] I thought, “Oh my, if they’re thinking of me like I’m thinking about that executive leader, I felt horrible.” And so, as I went back and I got to know this person more, I realized that [it] was like that. They hadn’t had anyone truly giving them feedback to grow and develop to where they cared, and the person shared that with me that, “Now that I’ve gotten to know you better, Jared, I know how much you care and where that feedback was coming from,” and they did take that feedback and they grew on it, and they were doing some amazing things. By the time I left as the leader in that role, I had seen that person blossom, and they had shared their memory of that experience. And so, it was a learning moment for them and a learning moment for me, of how important it is to know our people, and that we can do that through these experiences to be able to bring that into play, that what I thought was a direct tone but very calm and kind, for that person, that was the first time they had ever experienced that. And so, just because I had experienced something that was more difficult to deal with from my perspective didn’t mean it was any different for that person. But then, just commending the process of her being a partner in that, and giving me that feedback, and then how she took it and she grew from it, and how it’s helped me in my career as well.

Taryn:
Those were both really great examples. Thank you for sharing. So, a lot of people who are listening to this are not just providing training to managers, but may also be first time managers themselves, brand new training managers, so what advice would you give a brand new manager before they’re going to give their first performance review?

Roberta:
I’ll start with this one. I wrote the book called “Suddenly in Charge,” and that book is for new leaders, so I feel like I have a lot I can contribute on this question. I think that it also goes [back] to what Jared is saying. You have to know the kind of person that you’re going to be having this conversation with. I mean, some people, they need a lot of praise, so you might start the conversation off by telling them everything they do really well, and that part of the conversation may take 20 minutes. Someone else may not really have that need, so maybe you spend 10 minutes with them [on that], and then you focus on areas of needed development, and then you can dedicate the rest of that time to really asking questions and listening in terms of, where do they want to go from here and what do they need from you in order for them to achieve their dreams? So it’s really knowing your people. Then the other piece is you have to be prepared. I see a lot of new managers go into performance reviews, and they’re not prepared. They wrote the review maybe a week or two ago. They don’t remember what they said in the review, and so they try to wing it, and then things go off the rails and they don’t know how to come back [from that], or the person gets upset. And so, you have to just be prepared and if you need to, if you have a coach, you might want to run through a conversation, especially if you anticipate that [the] conversation might be a little bit more challenging than most.

Taryn:
Thanks. Jared, what about you?

Jared:
Roberta, I love what you said about the preparation. I agree so much with that, and I think that’s the big piece there. And for those new leaders, working with them to see where they’re at, and hopefully they realize the wonderful opportunity that they’re getting, to be able to impact people’s lives in a different way, and remembering that, being prepared [is important,] because for this person that is sitting across from you, they are probably excited about this. They’re getting face time with their leader. They’re wanting to hear, and depending on where the relationship’s been to that point, how to grow, how to build off of that. And so as a new leader, working to be prepared for those conversations, taking the time and the investment, and knowing how much of a gift that can be for those that you lead, and at the same time, for you, to be able to pick up [on] things through listening in that conversation. I had an individual that I had worked with … she had gone four years in a leadership role without having someone willing to invest in her, and so as we first started talking about performance management, she said, “Oh, my goodness, I haven’t done these things,” and it was difficult for her to go back and start doing some of them, but she was able to see that change when she did, just as Roberta said. She would go into the conversation lacking preparation and come out and say, “Well, it’s not that important to them,” and that was the story that she was telling herself, because it felt that way. But when she started to work toward that preparation, and really making sure that it was a unique investment for each person that she was talking with, she saw the value both for herself and those that she led, and having different outcomes. I would definitely reiterate that point from Roberta, that preparation is key in that, and that with that preparation comes, from my experience in working with others as a coach, much more comfort in the process as well.

Sarah:
That’s some great advice. Thanks, Jared, for that. We know that today’s employees want opportunities to grow and just develop in their roles, and that organizations also need to keep developing their talent just to keep up with the pace of change across businesses today. So with this in mind, how can leaders actually keep performance management top of mind all year round like we had discussed earlier?

Roberta:
Well, I like to tell my clients to conduct what I call time-out for a coffee, moments where they will set aside [their time for] an hour a week, and it’s like their office is open, and people can come in and have a cup of coffee and just kind of talk about what’s going on, what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, how the work is going, and share that with their manager, as well as with their colleagues. I find that when you’re in a more informal setting, and I mean, just think about it, whenever you have a cup of coffee in your hand or a cup of tea, you seem to be a lot more chatty than when you’re across the desk from your boss. And so, I think espresso machines are quite inexpensive these days, so if you can get one and bring it in with a frother, you can do this. And if you don’t have those resources, you can certainly head down to the kitchen. Everyone grabs a cup of coffee and back up to your office.

Sarah:
That’s a great idea. Jared, do you have any other thoughts?

Jared:
Yeah. I think, as Roberta said, connecting in different ways is so important. One of the things that I and some of my colleagues have had the opportunity to work with leaders on is the mindset around this being sacred time with their people, that that face-to-face time, because our time is so valuable, and in today’s work environments, everyone is busy, that time with those that you lead should be considered sacred time. And so, throughout the week, you should be working toward building that, maybe not standard time across the board, but standard time that this is time dedicated, face-to-face time with those that I lead, and holding that time as sacred. So often, I’ve seen leaders say, “Well, yeah, this person needed a meeting,” and they just automatically accepted that meeting instead of negotiating with that person to say, “You know what? I already have a meeting,” because they do. It’s scheduled on their calendar that this is time for their team members, and maybe they didn’t have a specific team member, but as Roberta said, their mindset was, “Oh, I’m going to go talk to Shelley and see if Shelley can go grab coffee at the coffee shop, and we can have 30 minutes to chat.” And so, treating it as though it is an appointment on your calendar, because it truly is, and going back to that person and saying, “You know what? I’m sorry, I don’t have that time available, but here are three additional times that I do have available [is key]. [Ask,] “Do any of these work for you? If not, let’s see what the next option may be.” And I’ve had a lot of success with that, as well as a lot of leaders that I’ve worked with, [who share] that, so often people get in that mindset of, “Oh, this person asked for that meeting so I’ve got to book over this time that I had planned with this person.” And when I talk with leaders, I’ll ask them, “What’s the first thing to go on your calendar?” And they say, “Oh, my one-to-ones with my employees because I can just reschedule that. They’re okay with it.” Are they actually okay with it? That’s important time for them, and they prepped for it, and they were ready for it. And so making sure that we keep that time as sacred each week and getting into the rhythm and the routine of it [is crucial]. There was a wonderful study done a few years back about what employees are looking for from their leaders, and the two biggest things were time and consistency, and so this builds that consistency while also giving time to the employees. We’re still meeting the needs of those that we’re serving in the organization by giving them options, not just coming back and saying, “No, I’m sorry. I’m booked during that time,” but looking to open that up and then being able to keep that sacred time with our employees. And so, I think that’s the essential piece of working toward that, or if you have that, making sure that you maintain [it and] keep that.

Taryn:
Well, that wraps up this episode of the Business of Learning. Jared, Roberta, it was so great talking with you both today. Thanks for joining us.

Roberta:
Thank you.

Jared:
Thank you.

Sarah:
For more insights on performance reviews and other performance management topics, check out the show notes for this episode at trainingindustry.com/trainingindustrypodcast.

Taryn:
And if you’re enjoying this podcast, of course, as always, we appreciate it if you rate and review us.

Sarah:
Alright. Until next time.

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