The first thing I learned about performance management when I entered federal service was quite clear: it’s a huge stressor for everyone. There are few topics quicker to engender eye rolls, sighs, or head shaking. No one likes talking about it, and dealing with it is downright painful. So why is this? There are many in-depth analyses, but the simple fact is people don’t like being critiqued.
People will tell you that how you view performance management depends on what type of system your agency has: 3-tier, 4-tier, pass fail, etc. And while this is true for some employees, I hear the same frustration from colleagues at agencies with various systems. People also think supervisory style plays an important role in how employees view performance management. And while this is truer than what type of system an agency has (employees much prefer to talk to someone interested in a dialogue, rather than sitting through a lecture or being berated), there is still aversion to participating in the process at all.
Everyone has a trigger phrase: the one thing someone can say to you that makes you want to hurl four letter words faster than your mouth can articulate. Mine is “don’t take it personally.” It’s a phrase I always hear in reference to work: that work isn’t personal, and you can’t interpret it that way (my response to that is appropriate for a whole different blog). But “don’t take it personally” is also the mantra many supervisors have about performance management. They are simply evaluating your work, not you as a person, so they have a disconnect when employees cry, yell, or simply disengage from the conversation. None of this is productive and leaves both sides feeling frustrated and disillusioned.
In listening to colleagues, customers, and friends, a trend plays out that is likely not surprising (or if it is, then talk to some of your female coworkers) to anyone: women tend to find the evaluation process much more frustrating than men. A perfect example is my husband. When it comes time for his annual review, he gathers up all the work he’s done over the last six months (for his mid-year) or year (for his annual appraisal), puts a table of contents on it and sends it to his boss. They have a 15-20 minute conversation about it after she receives it and then she provides his evaluation. That’s the extent of the process. He doesn’t stress, practice what he’s going to say, or prepare for how he’s going to react to what she has to say. And while I would love to take my husband’s tact, I long ago realized it wasn’t going to happen. So what I have done to mitigate the stress is push it out of my mind until the day before it happens. I tell myself that stressing out is pointless and that it’s going to be what it’s going to be. I write my self-assessment and look forward to getting it over with. And while this technique isn’t foolproof, I have found I am a lot less frustrated at the prospect of my performance review.
So how do we all get better at the performance evaluation process? What can we do to make the pain go away (or at least) lessen significantly?
- When you initiate the conversation, welcome your employee and thank them for their contributions to the team.
- Have a dialogue with your employees: you have important points to make, but likely, they do as well.
- Accept that no matter what you say or do, your employees are not going to like being critiqued about their performance. But if you make them feel at ease and listen to their input, the process will run smoother.
- You’re never going to like being evaluated, but it is a part of your job so get used to it. You will have several evaluations over your federal career: the sooner you accept it, the better.
- If practicing what you’re going to say works for you, then do it. If practicing feels like you’re having a root canal, then don’t. Bottom line: find what will make the process smoother for you.
Women, Introverts, and Feelers
- You will agree with some parts and disagree with others: maintain perspective.
- Becoming emotional is counterproductive. Write down what is being said: it will focus your mind and distract your emotional instincts.
- If, after the meeting, you find you were too frustrated or too upset to share your thoughts, take several deep breaths, regain your composure and decide your next course of action: either schedule a brief follow-up meeting; or, if this seems too stressful, compose and send a follow-up e-mail with your two to three most important points.
Will we ever evolve into people who find performance management painless? It’s possible. But until then, all we can do is use the strategies at our disposal to get us through another evaluation season.
Kim Martin-Haynes is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.
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