When That Dirty Rotten Performance Review Is...Right

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Finding the coaching in the feedback isn't always easy

In many offices, some version of the following happens annually: employees are asked to complete a review assessing their performance against some set of criteria. Managers then review each employee against the same criteria. Then the two meet to discuss their findings and try to reconcile any disparities. It's an onerous, occasionally banal exercise that often ends with hurt feelings, unworthy praise or lost opportunities for coaching and mentoring. 

It doesn't have to happen like this.

Some companies are trying to overcome the stigma of the annual review by experimenting with new models.

"Companies are more interested in tracking performance than before," said Nikki Waller, the management and careers editor at The Wall Street Journal. "So as the annual review falls to the wayside, we're seeing a lot of different review structures."

Waller says companies are experimenting with peer-to-peer reviews, as well as using big data to evaluate employees more frequently using quantifiable metrics. The influx of new millennial workers is also forcing companies to accelerate evaluations for a generation accustomed to receiving quicker and more regular feedback. 

But can employees do anything from their end to improve the process? Human resource departments spend time training managers how to assess and deliver reviews, yet employees are taught little more than how to properly complete their self-evaluation form. 

Sheila Heen, a lecturer at the Harvard Law School and co-author of the Harvard Business Review article, "Find the Coaching in Criticism," says receiving feedback should not be a passive experience. She lays out three strategies that employees should adopt to ensure the evaluation is meaningful and constructive. 

  • Understand: "As an employee, if I'm going into my review, one of things I want to have as my mindset is that my first job is just to understand," said Heen. That's your first act; understand through careful questioning what behaviors led the manager to make that assessment. "What is it they observed me doing? What did they expect me to do that I didn’t do?" said Heen. Then, understand what the review means looking ahead. "If I think that this is accurate, well then what should I do about it? Both, what does it mean for me in terms of compensation and opportunities and role, but also, if I’m going to try to get better, can you be specific about what I might work on?"
  • Control: The second step is to manage yourself. How are you wired to receive feedback? Don't let the tension you feel when you get your review dictate your response. Take time to digest the message and consider what may or may not be valid criticism once the shock or surprise has passed. For example, if you're sensitive to feedback, Heen advises, "Cut yourself a little bit of slack. Recognize that right now, it feels like there’s nothing right with you, but you can come back to have a follow-up conversation."
  • Distinguish: Finally, be sure to distinguish between the type of feedback. Is it purely backward-looking criticism? Praise? Or did your manager offer coaching suggestions for improvement? An evaluation can be helpful, but Heen says, it's not what is going to drive your learning. For that, you need coaching. "And one way to get coaching is to ask a very specific question, 'What’s one thing I’m doing or failing to do that you think is getting in my way or that you think would improve things?'" Heen says research shows that people who ask for feedback (and not just compliments) report higher job satisfaction and actually get higher performance reviews.

Feedback is alive and well at the office and employees should find a way to take ownership of it.