The Best Performance Discussion Guidance I Ever Borrowed

Both supervisors and employees often dislike performance reviews. They take time, effort, paperwork and may involve conflict and confrontation. It is a task that often gets pushed aside or ignored. Here is practical advice on ways to improve a performance discussion for employees and supervisors.

In the supervisory classes that I conduct, performance management in general – and performance appraisal in particular – is consistently identified as one of the least favorite tasks of supervisors.

Many of these folks are “working supervisors,” meaning that they have technical responsibilities as well as supervisory ones, and they often cite the time and paperwork involved in performance management as being burdensome. I think another major issue – often unspoken – is that many supervisors (I was one of them) dislike confrontation and feel that the performance appraisal process is fraught with possibilities for confronting employees on areas in which they need to improve. I often joke that human nature is such that 95 – 98% of us dislike confrontation – and the other 2-5% become attorneys, so that all works out.

I am convinced that whether performance appraisal sessions are effective or not depends on a number of factors, including preparation and approach. Several years ago, when I was doing some performance management training with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the agency was making use of a document titled “Performance Discussion Guide-EPA” that had been published in July 2002. It was developed by the Performance Evaluation and Feedback Workgroup of the Office of the Administrator’s Quality of Work Life Initiative.

The guide is so logical and so well written that I have touted it in dozens of performance management training sessions, in a wide variety of Federal agencies. It is not copyrighted material, but I decided that it was high time I credited the developers of the guide, if I could identify them.

I contacted EPA headquarters in an effort to track down the employees who contributed to this outstanding document, but have had no luck so far. I am hoping that someone who reads this article will know who the authors were and will contact me so that I can give them proper credit.

The document recognizes the importance of effective communication between supervisors and employees about performance, as well as the inherent difficulty of that process, and provides a great deal of helpful advice. It reads as follows, followed by my analysis at the end of each section:

Why Have a Discussion Guide?

“The purpose of this discussion guide is to provide managers and staff…with a tool to facilitate better, more effective communication related to work performance and its link to organizational effectiveness. The goal of the guide is to foster frequent, constructive dialogue that builds trust, improves transparency, enhances accountability, and promotes among all employees a greater sense of connection to the organization. The questions are intended to establish a model of communication between manager and employee. The guide is (not) mandatory, comprehensive (or) appropriate for all situations. Managers and staff still have to use judgment in determining which of these questions and/or what other questions are applicable or appropriate to use in a particular situation…”

Analysis: I like everything about this introductory paragraph, and I think the guide does provide a very effective tool that supervisors and employees can use to enhance their communication with each other on performance issues. It also reflects one of my repetitive themes, which is that perhaps the most important thing a supervisor can do is build trust with his/her employees. If trust exists on both sides, I believe that individual disagreements can be tolerated without adversely affecting the underlying relationship of trust.

When Should You Use This Discussion Guide?

“This discussion guide can be used in the course of formal mid-year and end of year reviews…More frequent feedback is encouraged. The guide can also be used as a tool for feedback given in other settings, such as the following:

  • Regular one-on-one meetings with managers and staff (weekly, every other week, 15-30 minutes)
  • Quarterly check-ins with staff (in addition to mid-year and end-of-year formal reviews)
  • Peer feedback.
  • Group debriefs, evaluations, and recognition after completion of a project
  • Feedback from customers
  • Group training opportunities (during staff meetings or at other times)”

Analysis: The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) strongly recommends that supervisors provide performance feedback to employees on a continuous basis. Despite OPM’s guidance, however, many supervisors only provide feedback to employees when formally required to do so, such as a mid-year review (this is now part of many agencies’ performance appraisal cycle) and at the end of the rating period. The EPA guide, which can be used effectively in any of the circumstances de scribed above, may encourage supervisors to visit with employees about performance on a more regular basis by showing both sides how such meetings can be more productive and less stressful.

Giving Good Feedback

“Good feedback is:

  • Direct
  • Timely
  • Relevant to the specific task
  • Only about the performance the employee can control
  • About both positive performance and areas in need of improvement
  • Balanced
  • Nonpersonal and mutually respectful”

Analysis: I believe that all of the items listed above are elements of good feedback. I know from having danced around so many “needs improvement” issues with subordinates that direct communication is important. It is also essential to provide timely feedback, because an employee can’t be expected to correct performance problems until she/he has been made aware of them. Interestingly, Corporate Leadership Council (CLC) surveys consistently reveal that employees would rather receive negative feedback from their supervisor than no feedback at all. And CLC surveys also show that the number one reason employees don’t do what supervisors want them to do is because they don’t understand what is expected of them.

As for “balance,” during my supervisory career I was almost always able to make some positive comments about an employee’s performance even when my primary purpose was to discuss areas in which the employee could improve. And I believe that conducting performance discussions in a respectful manner is absolutely critical to the success of those meetings.

Receiving feedback well requires:

“Active listening, including:

  • Eye contact
  • Not interrupting
  • Asking questions, responding clearly
  • Concentrating
  • Seeking meaning
  • Considering both nonverbal and verbal communication
  • Interpreting
  • Summarizing; and
  • Paraphrasing
  • Remaining open-minded and positive
  • Identifying problem performance
  • Forming a jointly developed plan”

Analysis: For supervisors, effective listening skills are arguably even more important than the ability to communicate effectively. It is very important that supervisors listen carefully to their employees (and vice versa) and I think this is a very good list of items for supervisors to review before going into performance discussions with employees.

And once the supervisor has identified problem performance, forming a jointly developed plan to resolve the problem(s) helps insure that the supervisor and the employee are on the “same page” and is more likely to result in buy-in on the part of the employee than a plan developed solely by the supervisor.

Who is Responsible for Effective Performance Evaluation and Feedback Discussions?

“Both managers and staff are accountable for effective feedback discussions and should operate under the shared principle of ‘no surprises.’ Feedback should focus on the staff’s performance standards, expectations and commitment to making the system work for them. Additionally:

Managers are responsible for making sure that performance reviews at mid and end-of-year happen and that other opportunities for feedback (like those above) are created and used. Managers are also responsible for conducting the feedback in a thoughtful and respectful manner, for listening actively, and for being well prepared.

Staff are responsible also for listening actively, for asking questions when feedback is unclear, and for thinking hard about their career goals and aspirations and articulating them when discussing developmental activities.”

Analysis: I think that one of the best aspects of the EPA performance discussion guide is its insistence that effective performance discussions are the mutual responsibility of supervisors and employees. Many employees would probably say that performance appraisal is the supervisor’s responsibility but doesn’t it make sense for the employee, who has much to gain or lose, to play an active and effective role in performance discussions?

In the next article, I’ll continue quoting from and providing analysis of the EPA performance discussion guide.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.