Supreme Court Justice Potter said ‘I know it when I see it’ about defining hard-core porn during a court case. Many of our performance management practices appear built on this.

Alan Weiss talked recently about feedback in his Monday Morning Memo – and his biggest point was that feedback says far more about the person giving it than about anyone else.

In managing performance effectively, these two areas create issues for most founders and managers.


The best feedback is where you ‘catch someone doing something right’ and tell them specifically to do more of that. It needs to be immediate and specific to help increase productivity. ‘That report you wrote last month was great’ is as useless as ignoring it would be.

When you have an issue with an employee’s performance, the first step to effectively solving the problem is not usually correcting the employee. It is discovering what created the error in the first place.

Do you consider the actual cause first? How do you know that the issue is the employee’s fault? And how do you explain the correct way to perform the task so that the employee learns and applies new knowledge.

I bet you can see where I am going with this – and it is not to simple beliefs. Pairing up good comments with a message of poor performance does not work.

Performance Appraisals or Reviews

Most organizations still have some form of performance reviews, whether annually or more frequent. Decades of research indicating that such appraisals have no positive effect on performance has not been enough to eliminate them.

If you have a performance review program, it is most likely to have a numeric rating (1-5 are most common) or 3-5 phrases (‘fully meets requirements’ is a common version.)  If yours is similar, can you answer each of these questions fully if an employee actually asked them today?

  • What is the definition of each attribute or standard (such as: Teamwork or Customer Service)?
  • For each attribute or standard you use:
    What is the specific actual definition of a ‘5′ rating for my position and level?
    What is the specific actual definition of a ‘4′ rating?
    What is the specific actual definition of a ‘3′ rating?
    What is the specific actual definition of a ‘2′ rating?
    What is the specific actual definition of a ‘1′ rating?
  • How can I get from a 3 rating to a 4 rating on X attribute (again, for each)
  • What training or development will you provide to help me do so?

What Works?

On Feedback

Paying attention to employees and reinforcing their strengths is basic management – and very rarely done. Tell people what they are doing well when they do it or as close to that as possible. Be specific and give details.

Example: “We just had a call from customer X who said that your calm, positive attitude really made him confident we could fix the issue. And that is really important to our attracting and retaining good customers, so I appreciate your work.”

When it is a simple problem – perhaps a behavior pattern of late arrival or early departure – do address this quickly.

  • Say: I noticed you were late 3 times in the past two weeks, then give the days and amount of lateness.
  • Ask if there is an issue you do not know of. If there is, perhaps it is a medical treatment issue, offer support if feasible.
  • If the issue is the employee’s or there is no issue, then tell the person what the consequences of the next late arrival will be.
  • Then follow-up as needed.

When you have a performance or attitude issue, consider what created the error. Most errors are caused by systemic problems. Errors can also be caused by a lack of proper training, poor directions or delegation by a manager, or a lack of resources. You have to address the cause before you address the employee.

You have to create a positive environment where growth and change are seen as valued first. Then you have to create the conversation that allows the employee to learn what you want them to do differently and how to do that. Finally, you have to support their learning and recognize improvements.

On Performance Reviews

Consider ditching them altogether. Why are you actually doing these? Is it for documentation? Documentation done at the time is far more valuable and reduces risk better as well. Is it for compensation decisions? Again there are smarter ways to address pay.

If you want to enhance performance, you might consider a periodic performance discussion. These can be done every 2-4 months depending on your work needs and growth rate. The best such discussions involve the manager and employee in a guided process, which can also be documented simply for the record.

One such option is to have a goal related to company needs and a professional development goal related to the employee’s future set up at the beginning of each period. The employee has input into their goal, understands the organization’s goal and how it applies to them via a discussion with the manager. At the end of the period, the employee provides input to both goals. The manager and the employee have a discussion around that – and you can keep a one-page form or email record of the meeting. Done!

Want more information and ideas, give me a call.