Leadership and the Power of Honest Performance Reviews

Performance reviews are generally disliked by most people. Why is this the case?

As leaders and supervisors in the public sector (government), we love to compete with our brother and sister organizations and are willing to take on the world in our efforts to accomplish our various missions and goals, serving the American taxpayer. However, we seem to lose that aggressive attitude when it comes to our own people, particularly when it comes to the Performance Management Appraisal Program (PMAP).

I am strongly of the opinion that excellence, just like mediocrity, is a choice, and in our hiring, in our performance standards and in our organizational or program processes, we can be extraordinary or something other than extraordinary. If we as a team or as an organization want to be among the very best, we not only have to talk about it, but we also must hire the right people with relevant skills, set standards and expectations for excellence, and be willing to lead and guide our people in that direction. 

People, our staff members in other words, are funny, and though there is no doubt they can frustrate us and do the most irrational things, they can also surprise us in very good ways and exceed our expectations if we let them by leading and guiding them in the right ways. If we are asking them for nothing or aren’t clear about our expectations, then nothing or confusion is generally what we will get in return, but by that very same token, if we ask them for something better and support them in their effort, they are very likely to give us all that we would ask of them and possibly much more. All of that is truly up to us as leaders and is hidden in what we are asking or not asking for.

Take the Right Approach to Performance Reviews

Rather than approaching those biannual or annual reviews in the same way we approach a colonoscopy or a dental appointment we have every so often, I suggest going into them aware of where we are, aware of where we want to be and prepared to talk about what it is going to take for us, both as individuals and as a team, to get to where we want us to be.

If we truly have a process in place and our people have clearly defined roles and responsibilities, then these annual or biannual reviews are truly nothing more than a recap either confirming success or providing an opportunity for improvement of what’s been accomplished since their last evaluation. If they have done well and met or exceeded our expectations, tell them so and in the most descriptive, specific terms you can come up with.

Hopefully in your last performance review you took the opportunity to define success for them, and if they were in fact successful, this review and evaluation needs to be nothing short of a celebration. If in that last go round you laid out clearly defined goals and expectations and they were not met, we can redirect the efforts of our staff member and understand what is holding him or her back and why. The one thing these sessions should never be is a confrontation. No matter what they are a path forward.

Susan M. Heathfield of the Society for Human Resource Management says, “An effective performance management system sets new employees up to succeed, so they can help your organization succeed. An effective performance management system provides enough guidance, so people understand what is expected of them. It provides enough flexibility and wiggle room so that individual creativity and strengths are nurtured. It provides enough control so that people understand what the organization is trying to accomplish.”

The heart of any performance management system is our people understanding what we expect of them and our stubborn insistence that they perform.

Why Do People Dislike Performance Reviews?

It seems as if nobody, and I mean nobody, likes performance evaluations, and that is for the simple reason that over the years, government organizations big and small have made them more ceremonial than objective and more a means of checking the organizational boxes than the actual review of an individual’s performance that they can and should be.

Another reason they are universally disliked is because the process behind them tends to be fractured and prone to bias. Even worse, they are often seen as nothing more than a required task or a burden if you will and not as the vehicle of growth and accomplishment they were designed to be.

If my organizational role, as laid out in my performance plan, is to process and approve 100 Inter-Agency Agreements in a year and I process 130 and my annual review says I was somehow less than successful or highlights that I was late to work three times and ignores those many Inter-Agency Agreements as somehow inconsequential, how am I supposed to spell success? But more importantly, why would I work harder to be successful if getting there is so ambiguous?

I know that we will want to say this isn’t happening, that it isn’t representative, but according to the 2022 OPM FEVS results, 46% of those who responded were dissatisfied with the recognition they received for “doing a good job” and 58% do not believe differences in performance are recognized in a meaningful way. At the very least, we have a serious perception problem.

We can, with these biannual and annual evaluations, define and highlight success and maybe even reward it. We have a similar opportunity to provide guidance and identify available paths toward improvement and success. Our employees’ success or failure is our success or failure as leaders and as mentors.

Harold S. Geneen, a leader in the business world, said, “It is an immutable law in business that words are words, explanations are explanations, promises are promises but only performance is reality.” How real are your performance evaluations? How would your staff members answer that question?

What reality is coming out of your biannual and annual evaluations? The truth might just set us free.

About the Author

Brian Canning recently retired from the National Institutes of Health (DHHS) as a Change Management Specialist in addition to 30 years in the automotive repair industry with many senior leadership positions. He has been a business consultant and leadership coach and has over 70 articles published, mostly on leadership and business process.