Annual performance reviews can be one of the most challenging parts of the job for federal managers. The ability to give effective feedback is an essential skill that can mean the difference between leading a high-performing team and creating a collaborative work environment – or its opposite: an uninspired and low-energy workforce that feels stuck and unable to move forward.
What is “resonant leadership” and how can it help improve individual and team performance?
In “Becoming a Resonant Leader,” authors Richard Boyatzis, Frances Johnston and Annie McKee draw on what we know about emotional intelligence and brain science, advising us that when leaders are tuned to their team’s feelings of optimism, hope and positive vision of each other’s “ideal self,” people are “energized to learn, change and develop.” Tapping into what they call “Positive Emotional Attractors” or PEAs, managers help their people identify a vision of work-life that marries their passion, values and identity to a core purpose. With this information, a leader can design a performance review to align passion and talent with the mission of the organization.
But first, leaders need to get curious. They need to learn about the people with whom they work. What motivates them? What are they passionate about? What values do they hold? How do they view the mission of the organization and their role in carrying it out? Does their work provide them an opportunity to honor these values?
Having this information gives leaders clues on what skills they need to dial up to inspire and guide high-impact performance. “Coaching into the PEAs” means having conversations and exhibiting leadership behaviors that inspire hope, create possibility and form alignment with deeply held values. Identifying tasks, learning opportunities and leadership roles that allow team members to lean into their ideal selves will reinforce resonance throughout the organization.
So when it comes to an annual performance review, a great place to start is with what I call “the highlight reel.” Use questions like
- “Looking back at the last year, what stands out for you?”
- “What accomplishment are you most proud of and why?”
- “What skills did you see yourself developing?”
- “What made you curious? Excited? Made you want more?”
As a supervisor, I responded with my own observations on their highlight reel, what I valued about their performance and why, where I saw growth and possibility, and at times, where I’d like to see more.
Building on the highlight reel, a resonant leader turns the conversation to the future. Aligned with the organization’s mission, what should the team or the team member do next to build on these achievements? I often asked, “Imagine we are having this conversation a year from now. What accomplishments do you want to be able to report on? What would make this a great year for you? Why is this important to our mission? What might get in the way?”
At this point, I would often turn to the so-called “areas for improvement” part of the discussion. I might start by asking my team member what areas they want to work on. If they are reticent to discuss this topic, I might ask where they think they have struggled or where they think they may need help, training, guidance or more support. If I am looking to see a change in behavior, I focus on the future – what I would like to see more of, explaining where I have seen missteps and opening a conversation about what could be done differently. By keeping to a forward-looking perspective, one avoids defensiveness and relitigating a past incident.
And what about the poor performer? Even a resonant leader may have to deal with performance failure. In those cases, action is better taken as concerns rise in the course of the year, through coaching, training or disciplinary action with a focus on the specific behavior. The annual performance review then becomes a time to evaluate the behavior and the response to see if further action is required. Woe unto the manager that newly introduces a festering and unaddressed concern into an annual performance review.
The final part of the annual review is more personal. I would start by asking what professional development goals my team member had for the coming year. What skills were they looking to develop? What training or learning experiences interested them? Beyond that was the question of where they were headed in their career. What did they see themselves doing next, and did their current role and responsibilities align with their long-term career goals? Whenever possible, I would begin a brainstorming conversation on how those goals might be achieved.
Annual performance reviews needn’t be a dreaded rite of passage for managers and leaders. They can be opportunities to open up conversations about passion, purpose and possibility. When done well, they lead to high-performance teams and positive work environments, creating places where people feel they can do their best work.
Neil Levine retired from federal service in 2017 after 30 years. He taught Strategic Leadership at the National Defense University’s Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Policy. Neil is a certified professional coach with over 20 years of experience in advising individuals and groups on setting the conditions for success. Neil has a M.S. in National Security Strategy from the National War College (2008), a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University (1986) and a B.A. from Earlham College (1983). In 2017, he received his Executive Coaching certification from the College of Executive Coaching.