In recent work, I’ve been reminded of the importance of using performance reviews as an effective component of workplace communication. They are often a focus of questions when I present workshops on conflict, and in my conversations regarding effective conflict skills I am often led to quote conflict specialist, Dick Mayer:

“A well done performance appraisal process is probably the best tool a manager has. The systems are ineffectual primarily because most managers will not confront competently; they are uncomfortable doing so and lack the necessary skills. Without the ability to express differences and manage conflict, they often can’t generate meaningful goals and expectations. Thus, they don’t develop worthwhile standards of performance. Whether or not they have such standards, they judge performance; yet, more often than not, they don’t fully confront poor performance. Doing so is simply too uncomfortable, so they find ways to rationalize their avoidance. (From Dick Mayer’s book, CONFLICT MANAGEMENT)

My own experience tells me that conflict response modes- FLIGHT – FIGHT – and FLOW, dictate performance review styles. Dick Mayer’s description, above, addresses a FLIGHT response to conflict. All too often, poor performance is glossed over in the spirit of conflict avoidance. “Flighters” have a tendency to want to be good people and to behave in nice ways. The truth is their judgment of performance is unspoken or expressed in indirect ways.

Not long ago I was asked what a group should do about a new-hire that was not performing well. I was told the individual was lacking some important skill sets and showed no initiative for self-learning. She was also consistently late to work. The group was considering firing her for poor performance.

I knew this woman had just had her performance review, so I simply asked how the concerns had been addressed at that time. I was told a decision had been made to keep the critique light because it was only the worker’s ninety-day review. She had been invited to a congenial lunch with her managers and given supportive feedback. The only issue that had been addressed was tardiness.

I was fascinated that the associate was so close to being terminated, so soon after receiving a pleasant performance review. Of course I advised against termination. I suggested that the group admit the error, revisit the performance review to provide honest / direct feedback, and establish a performance improvement plan with clear objectives and checkpoints.

All too often, employees are allowed to err themselves right out of a job for lack of effective performance reviews. Often the first associates to be cut in a “Rightsizing” are under-performers who were never given the benefit of constructive feedback and the chance to improve. Most of the time they are told “it’s nothing personal – only a business decision” and no opportunity for learning or growth occurs. If they actually receive a true explanation for why they are being let-go, they are extremely shocked to receive it so late in the game.

The FLIGHT response/style in performance reviews is very common, yet the FIGHT approach is equally destructive. (The distinctions between the two may become blurry when behaviors are covert.) “Fighters” see themselves as right and tend to play win/lose games. In this more aggressive style the performance review can be used to punish, manipulate, or limit.

I remember one small company that was having a slow year. Several associates in the company were due annual raises. That year, each walked out of his or her performance review in shock. They had all been berated for vague points of low performance and told they would receive no increases until the ill-defined performance issues improved. Although the company’s owners effectively circumvented the year’s salary increases, the benefit came with an irreparable loss of trust.

“Believe it or Not!” –

Executives of another company were caught instructing junior level respondents to give negative reviews on anonymous 360 performance surveys. The intention was to balance peer and supervisor responses that were expected to be positive. It was feared a positive 360 would over-bolster a subject’s self-esteem and thereby lessen executive control.

It’s typically necessary to separate maintenance (interpersonal) issues from tactical or strategic issues when working with conflict in corporations. People often unconsciously transfer the source of a conflict from type of issue to another. Likewise, a bad performance review can get substituted for an honest revelation of interpersonal discomfort.

One Director of Operations found his Manufacturing Manager to be absolutely exasperating. He just didn’t feel the guy respected him. Although the Manager’s productivity was exceptional, the Director always found a way to penalize him in performance reviews as a covert retaliation for his assumed lack of respect. Eventually, frustrated with the periodic whipping and resulting loss of promotion, the Manager quit. Unfortunately, he was very difficult to replace. A truthful exploration of the issue of respect might have enhanced the relationship and assured continued high productivity for the company.

In many other instances performance reviews are used as the only communication of dissatisfaction in a given period, and so capitalize on the single opportunity to put forth a long list of complaints. This usage ensures a response of resistance and resentment.

The FLOW response/style for conflict is characterized by truthfulness and a desire to find what will make things work. A manager with a FLOW approach avoids using communication “techniques” and backs all interactions with a commitment to open communication, or dialogue. A flow approach to Performance Review is rooted in a Win/Win perspective.

One client offers a great example of the FLOW approach to performance reviews:

“My Review is usually a pretty comfortable experience. Although my boss and I don’t have a perfect relationship, she really makes the time to consistently provide “Just-In-Time” direction and correction. So, I usually know where I stand. The periodic review is truly a review. The formal process gives us a chance to discuss long-range objectives, and also check how I’ve done with some on-going or incremental suggestions for performance improvement. We use it as a time to openly discuss any unspoken tensions and clear the slate. We celebrate the goals I’ve met, and acknowledge any consequences for missed opportunities. I’m not always perfect, but somehow I always feel better afterwards. I know what’s expected of me and have a sense of how to achieve it, and I feel like staying around.”

Additional suggestions for performance reviews that FLOW:

  • Be willing to confront – offer objective truth
  • Include “maintenance” issues and interpersonal behaviors as benchmarks
  • Own and speak your personal truth
  • Base measures on reality / verify accuracy
  • Openly publish criteria & standards
  • Involve people in setting objectives
  • Offer correction – not criticism
  • Explore solutions / build in checkpoints
  • Correct behaviors / encourage people
  • Build on interests / seek alignment
  • Check for clarity and be specific
  • Intend to work with love

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