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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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Making performance reviews less of a burden

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere



Once every year most managers suffer the agony, or experience the joy, of writing performance appraisals.  Consider your own situation.  Can you imagine anything more bothersome?  Can you imagine anything more satisfying?


Your answer, I suspect, depends on the quality of the performance of the person you are evaluating, as well as on the quality of your working relationship.  Whatever your situation, whether your task is to commend or to criticize, things may go better if you follow these basic guidelines.


Keep good notes on both accomplishments and shortcomings.  The time to begin gathering evidence of a job well done or examples of inadequate performance is not when you sit down to write the appraisal.  If you take detailed and specific notes throughout the year, you’ll have a much easier time developing and supporting your evaluation.


Leave no surprises for the assessment.  Your staff members will be more likely to meet your expectations if they know throughout the year how you perceive their performance.  There is little point in withholding praise or criticism until the annual review.


Talk as well as write.  It’s good practice to meet with the person whose performance you are evaluating, either before or after writing your assessment.  This enables both you and your employee to verify your perceptions and to correct any misunderstandings.  One approach is to use a draft of the appraisal as the basis for your conversation.  Any new information or inaccuracies that are identified in the meeting can then be reflected in the final draft.


Start and end with the positive.  People tend to be more open to criticism if you lead off by recognizing their accomplishments and if you conclude by expressing your confidence (or at least your hope) that they will perform successfully in the future.


Be specific when calling for change.  Describe any shortcomings in performance, and specify how your employees need to improve or change.  If appropriate, identify the penalties for continued inadequate performance.


Be respectful when offering criticism.  In How To Say It, Rosalie Maggio offers advice on writing a letter of reprimand that is relevant here:  “Your goal . . . is not to get revenge or blow off steam – it is to effect a change in employee behavior.  The best way to do this is to be encouraging and respectful.  Avoid condemning, belittling, haranguing, preaching, scolding, or patronizing.”


Allow staff members to respond in writing.  Whether your employees agree or disagree with your assessment, it’s only fair that they be given a chance to enter an opinion into the record.


Invite staff members to assess your performance as a manager.  This may seem bizarre to some (and threatening to others), but more and more managers are making performance appraisals a two-way street.  In “When Workers Rate the Boss” (in the March 1993 issue of Training), Robert McGarvey and Scott Smith offer an amusing anecdote:  “After six straight box-office flops, movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn knew he had a problem, but he didn’t know where.  So he decided to ask those who should know:  his underlings.  ‘I want you to tell me what’s wrong with me and MGM,’ he ordered, ‘even if it means losing your job.’”


Now that you know how to go about preparing for and conducting a performance appraisal, you’re ready to write.  If your company does not provide you with a standard format, you may find it helpful to organize your review under these five categories:


1. Regular job duties (based on job description)


2. Special assignments and miscellaneous projects


3. Service and professional development


4. Working relations


5. Communication skills.


If you still have trouble writing performance appraisals, remember your employee’s perspective:  At the end of a long, hard year, the most concrete measure of their contribution may be your carefully compiled, thoughtfully composed record of their accomplishments – that and a handsome raise.




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