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Paul Baard's Motivation Matters: Avoid the pitfalls of evaluating employees

August 20. 2017 11:12PM

Many managers and organizations view the performance evaluation process not so much as a process, but as an event — an annual one at that. However, to enhance motivation, more frequent evaluative feedback is necessary.

The skill of motivational communication is also essential. Add to this the fact that, increasingly, millennials are seeking more, and less controlling, input about their work and future growth.

Managers have an obligation to help meet employees’ psychological needs to be competent or effective in their work — that is, if they want to employ workers who are self-motivated and to retain their top performers. The track record for the appraisal process has not been good. Here are some of the managerial pitfalls often associated with evaluative feedback sessions:

1. Using controlling words. Aggressive speech, e.g., “You should…” inevitably produces a bad outcome, as the subordinate becomes resentful and defensive. Passive employees may not say anything, but will likely distance themselves from the offending boss. Avoid, what I call, the “comma but” syndrome, where an initial positive statement is undermined by an immediate negative one. For example: “You’ve done a great job in sales, but you really need to improve your servicing.” Better to leave out the “comma but” and let each assertion stand on its own. The communication style, and tone, that is used will affect the outcome.

2. Engaging in employee comparisons. Words have a way of getting back to people, and this has the potential to be a team crusher. If the employee in review brings up the comparative performance of other team members, bring the conversation back to the two of you, saying something like, “Well, we are here to talk about you. I speak to Jane about Jane’s performance, not yours.”

3. Providing criticism in front of others. The matter of job performance evaluation is a sensitive one and should be treated accordingly. This seems obvious, but I could tell you stories, like the one about the manager who took the spontaneous opportunity to conduct a year-end discussion with one of my MBA students during a long elevator ride in a skyscraper, in front of a silent audience of 30 to 50 others. (I know it’s hard to believe, but it happened one Christmas Eve at a major firm.)

4. Offering excessive negative feedback. This is often done to lower expectations about raises. It is an age-old tactic that has often been used to beat an employee down so that he is grateful for any raise — even none at all. Some would call this “managing expectations,” which in and of itself is not a bad concept, but this is not the way to do it. Critical feedback should be provided in a balanced manner, asserting positives while also identifying some relative weaknesses. Be careful not to overwhelm with negatives (euphemistically referred to as “opportunities for growth”), as this can frustrate the motivational need for competence. The overall goal is to have this worker affirmed, yet challenged to continue to grow.

5. Lacking preparation. It behooves a manager to gather salient information related to performance and to identify some resources that might help the subordinate (e.g., training sessions). Schedule an appointment to meet — for the sole purpose of this appraisal discussion.

6. Relying solely on one’s recall. The accuracy of evaluations can be improved by making contemporaneous notations of both positive and negative aspects of work performance. This can be facilitated by the employee, as well, such as by submitting a memo of recent accomplishments prior to your discussion.

7. Acting hyper-defensively. Sometimes an employee may act aggressively, not accepting imperfections as his own, and attempt to assign blame to the boss. A better response would be to restore the focus onto the subordinate’s work performance rather than engage in an argument.

8. Becoming anxious. Managers and employees alike often dread these encounters, and this can undermine what should be a constructive process. It is important to take responsibility for your end of this dialogue, not being tentative or vague. If the subordinate becomes agitated or emotional, it is best if you remain calm. This often settles others down.

9. Focusing on perceived character faults rather than objective behaviors. Character assassination is never the way to go. Stick to the facts about performance and offer specific examples that led to poor results. Again, don’t forget to offer positive examples as well.

10. Making it an annual event. Employee feedback is too important to be left to one comprehensive conversation a year. Periodic discussions on work performance allow managers to identify, and remove, impediments. They also give employees an opportunity to correct deficiencies in a timely manner. And reinforcing positive work energizes and encourages more of same.

While performance feedback sessions are some of the most important discussions an employee may have in the course of a year, his or her boss typically has many, and too often may not be as sensitive to such things as tone and the words chosen.

Managers face many daily choices, among them: whether to offer helpful feedback or to blame or to ignore, to empower or to control, to promote cooperation or competition. What is done with these choices has motivational consequences, whether intentional or not, ranging from the quantity and quality of the work that gets done, to the well-being of those who do it.

Dr. Paul P. Baard is an organizational psychologist, specializing in motivation, with Fordham University, a former senior line executive in the television industry, and the lead author of a book on leadership and motivation. He and Veronica Baard, a former managing director responsible for HR at a major international investment banking firm, head up Baard Consulting LLC, a firm in the greater Boston area, focusing on motivation, conflict reduction, and team building. Questions are welcomed at