The importance of performance evals

12.07.12 Thumbnail EvaluationHumans are highly impacted by having even their small successes noticed. You don’t need to give awards or assemble the team for a public presentation. Just notice and acknowledge. You don’t have to say “good job” — just acknowledgement by a person in a position of authority is pleasant. And being ignored is unpleasant.

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12.07.12 Blog EvaluationIt’s the end of Q4 and leaders are once more pondering staff performance evaluations.

Most people evaluate too little too late. Here’s how you can get way, way ahead of the curve for 2013.

As I’ve mentioned before, you’ll make your staff happier — and you’ll be more effective — when your evaluations are:

*Specific to Observable Behavior
*Connected to their Role

Here’s what you should do, how to do it, and why. For additional guidance on giving feedback, consult the “basics” page at, my go-to resource for many of the fundamentals of good management.


The sooner you give someone feedback on their performance — good or bad — the better. It’s true of any organism that can learn — the quicker in time the feedback is, the easier we learn, and thus the more effective that feedback is in helping us alter our behavior.

Ideally, you give feedback within a few seconds or a minute of seeing something, and 80% or more of your feedback should be either “neutral” acknowledgments (which your people will interpret as “positive” — see below) or actually be positive. Only 20% should be negative or “correcting” feedback.

(One exception is in training when you expect to give lots of corrective guidance.)

Feedback can also be extremely brief — one or two sentences, and less than 30 seconds. So a restaurant manager can walk by the hostess and say “Eyes up, ten feet” and that’s feedback — if the hostess was previously trained that part of her job is to keep her eyes up and to acknowledge with a smile and a word every customer who comes within ten feet of her. And in the context of the hostess having just done it correctly a few seconds earlier, the manager can say this with a smile and a thumbs up, and it’s neutral or positive feedback.

As we learn from the exceptional book “The Progress Principle,” humans are highly impacted by having even their small successes noticed. You don’t need to give awards or assemble the team for a public presentation. Just notice, like the restaurant manager above, and acknowledge. You don’t have to say “good job” — just acknowledgement by a person in a position of authority is pleasant. And being ignored is unpleasant.

Overcome Reluctance

Most leaders give far too little feedback, usually for these underlying reasons:
a) we don’t know how to do it well, so we put it off
b) we don’t know how to do it quickly, so we put it off
c) we’re afraid it won’t be well received, so we flinch away and put it off

The key to being timely is:
a) practice a proven formula that works
b) use a system for capturing and delivering feedback so we can do it quickly
c) have previously built enough trust that we know it will be well received

Also, once you get over the hump and give feedback regularly, you can (and should) easily keep track of the larger examples, making your more formal, quarterly and annual performance reports, almost trivial to write.

Specific to Observable Behavior

We hate feedback that’s vague. So if you give feedback that’s vague, it’ll be badly received regardless of your trust level with the recipient. It also can’t be arbitrary.

Feedback is vague when the listener can’t tell what specific, observable behaviors were involved.

Feedback seems arbitrary when the standard of right and wrong is unclear or not agreed in advance.

Get away from those two pitfalls by mentioning specific behavior — a loud tone of voice, a smile, eye contact, eye rolling, being on time with an assignment, being late to a meeting, etc. If the behavior could be caught on a video camera, then it’s behavior you could describe. Being “rude” is not behavior — it’s an interpretation. So is being “polite.”

If a person is late to a meeting, you have to separately establish that lateness is not okay with you. (And that means you have to be on time yourself.) And by “separately establish” I mean you have to have mentioned it before this instance of feedback, or, you acknowledge that you hadn’t — “Hey, I don’t know if I’ve told you, I really like to start meetings on time. Can you support me in that in the future?”

Connected to their Role

Staff evaluations, both annual and via in-the-moment feedback, are even more powerful when the specific praise or correction is connected to a role — and that role has to be defined. You need job descriptions.

Good feedback would then involve connecting language, such as “because, as the receptionist, you’re responsible for making appointments…” There’s nothing wrong and a lot right in making these connections.

I’m constantly amazed how many employees have no job or role descriptions, and how many others have written job descriptions, yet work jobs that have evolved away from that description.

What if you lack role descriptions?

Take 90 seconds at a staff meeting and pass out blank forms with just their name written in on top, and ask each person to write down the 3 to 10 major outcomes they believe that their role is, or should be, responsible for.

For example, a receptionist at a medical clinic might write:

*set and change appointments
*friendly greetings and goodbyes to all visitors
*collection of copays
*distribution of paperwork to, and collection from, patients
*clear and timely communication among doctor, medical assistant, and patient

The clinic director might edit this list later to include

*communicate with pharmacies and suppliers

Merge these lists to come up with the new, agreed role description. Total time investment — just a few minutes. (You can also search for pre-written standard job descriptions at the US Department of Labor’s O*NET web site — however I would do that only after asking for staff input.)

Practice It

When I start an interim job, or start leading a team, I keep a log. It’s just the date, time, person, and what they did and what I said.

When first learning it, use a fill-in-the-blank format first, build the 1-2 sentences, look it over, then go deliver it.

Once a group of managers were all practicing this feedback format, literally based on notes and filling in a form. Then they role played with each other. Several of them had examples that involved other people who were also present, so I had them practice with the actual target.

The delivery was, of course, stilted and a little rough.

How did the speaker feel? “It felt awkward! It was unnatural. The sentences seemed stilted.” (Like every other new behavior you’ve ever tried.)

How did the listener feel? “I loved it.” Didn’t the speaker seem a little … awkward? “Yeah, I didn’t care.”

If your feedback is honest, brief, heartfelt, timely, and 80% positive — believe me, people will wait very patiently for you to say the words.

From Feedback to Evaluations

Stick your log entries into a folder and revisit them at the end of each quarter. Have each staff member self-evaluate each quarter. You then edit that and turn it into your evaluation of them, adding in any positive or negative feedback that’s relevant. (If your evaluation differs from their self-evaluation, you’ve not done a good job giving daily feedback. Fix that quickly before another quarter goes by. If one of your people is surprised by a bad review, that’s your fault.)

At year-end, consolidate the quarterly reviews. Bingo, you’re done, and your staff are unsurprised at the results.

Tom Cox is a Beaverton consultant, author and speaker. He coaches CEOs on how to boost performance by building workplace trust. Email comments to [email protected].

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