Based on an Article by Joe Folkmann and Jack Zenger
We love the work of Zenger Folkmann (ZF), authors of the excellent book The Extraordinary Leader and pioneers of strengths-based management – the idea that the best leaders know what they are already pretty good at and spend time and energy on making these strengths world class…
The best leaders also of course encourage their teams to do likewise – but can performance appraisals get in the way of this? Below are some suggestions from ZF that hit the mark as far as we are concerned and might be useful to you come appraisal-time…
Most of the world’s organisations use some kind of a performance appraisal to evaluate their employees. It seems so commonplace that it is rarely debated as an essential part of running any organisation.
As they talked to groups around the world, they asked the question, “Who has had a very positive, life-enhancing experience in a performance appraisal?”
Based on their experience (and indeed our own) the majority of people view the performance appraisal process as a negative experience – after all because no one likes to be told that they are not a superstar! Surprisingly though, even those with the best performance ratings generally find the process to be a waste of time. Most people assign the process to the category of a “necessary evil.”
Three-Fold Approach to Performance Improvement
This leads us to the question, “What could be done to make the performance appraisal process a positive and perhaps even an inspiring experience?” The answer is very clear. Employees who had a positive performance appraisal experience were given valuable insights about what they could do to improve their effectiveness. As a manager, it is important to consider the following three approaches in terms of how to structure your next performance appraisal session.
1. Focus on Impact and Set the Bar for Improving Strengths
The first step managers can take to make a performance appraisal more inspiring is to ask, “What does this person need to do well to be more successful?”
If you ask five people how you could improve your effectiveness, 99% of the suggestions will be on improving areas of weakness. This is because performance improvement to most people means “fixing weaknesses.” Thus the phrasing, “What could I do to improve my effectiveness,” automatically gets managers to focus on weaknesses. Asking “What can they do to be more successful?” is a much better question because it improves the probability of discussing issues that will make a big difference.
To test this notion, ZF recently conducted a survey in a Fortune 500 foods company. Executives were evaluated on 24 key behaviours that were critical to the success of the company, and then were asked, “Which behaviour, if done well, would make the biggest difference in this person’s ability to be more successful in their current job?” When colleagues responded to this question, they didn’t automatically think about weaknesses. In fact the top two behaviours they selected to make the most impact on success also correlated with their top strengths.
So – when leading a performance appraisal, ask yourself, “What skill or behaviour if done exceptionally well would make this person more successful in their current job?” Don’t be afraid to discuss improving upon something that this person is already doing well. Remind them that good is not great. Their research clearly points out that to have the greatest impact, strengths need to be at a minimum of the 75th but preferably at the 90th percentile.
There is something magical that happens when people work on improving strengths. They actually want to improve. It feels more like fun than hard work. Recently ZF surveyed 68 leaders from a financial services company and asked them if their development plan was more successful when focusing on fixing weaknesses or building strengths. They found the following results to a series of questions about their development.
|Questions||*Building Strengths||*Fixing Weaknesses|
|As a result of my development, I feel that I have improved in my overall leadership effectiveness||72%||38%|
|I have taken the time and made a real effort to work on my development plan.||60%||38%|
|I have created an excellent development plan that will guide my efforts to improve.||63%||13%|
|My leadership improvement efforts had a positive impact on the business results of my team/organisation||72%||38%|
* Percent marking “Agree” or “Strongly Agree”
For many managers the problem of focusing on strengths comes when they are giving a performance rating that is lower than what the employee expected. The manager’s intuition is that in order to justify giving a lower rating they need to point out what a person has done wrong or bring out weaknesses. A much better approach is to point out that their above average performance is not extraordinary performance and that is needed for great organisational performance. We found the number two reason why leaders fail was “Accepting mediocre performance in place of excellent results.” Set the bar higher and encourage them to reach farther!
2. Make Goals to Improve & Follow Up
Great leaders do a few things very well, but everyone has some weaknesses.
There is no problem with asking people to work on improving weakness as long as they can clearly see how improvement efforts will make them more successful in their current job. Without a clear link, people feel they are just going through the motions. In order to get people to improve weaknesses, they need to be highly committed. Helping them see a clear vision of how change will improve their effectiveness is helpful, but creating a personal desire for improvement is a crucial element for change to occur.
Though an employee may have the desire to change, goals that are not written down are simply wishes that will not be accomplished. Having the individual create a personal plan for improvement is essential. In general, people do a poor job of creating good improvement plans. In a recent study of over 60 executives only one rated their improvement plan as excellent. To help them get the most of their development plan, ask to review the plan with them three to four times a year, at minimum. Setting goals based on an annual performance review and then reviewing progress one year later will never produce the desired change. Thus, short-term goals will have greater impact than one that is far away.
3. Directly & Promptly Address “Fatal Flaws”
During the previously mentioned exercise, participants made a list of all the great leaders they had ever known. Each of those leaders had weaknesses, but these weaknesses were not what we call “Fatal Flaws.” – a profound weaknesses that could permanently damage a person’s career.
When an employee has a fatal flaw, managers need to give direct and honest feedback about the flaw. Employees need to work hard to improve. Their motivation comes from the weight of the negative consequences of not improving. Working on strengths will be of no benefit to employees with “fatal flaws” because this is all that others notice. We are convinced that people can improve these fatal flaws but it takes a lot of effort and commitment on the part of the individual, including a great deal of follow-up and feedback by the manager and others.
4. Five Keys to Help People Improve
There are typically two purposes behind a performance appraisal. The first is to give each employee periodic feedback on performance. This rating influences pay, bonus and promotion potential. The second purpose is to help each individual improve or, if they are outstanding performers, to maintain that high level of performance.
To achieve the change ZF have identified 5 ‘keys’ to unlock an individuals potential
1. Willingness to Take on a Challenge
When employees feel overwhelmed by their job and personal problems, working on additional areas of improvement will feel impossible. Pouring more water on a sponge that is already waterlogged does no good. The water merely rolls off because it cannot absorb any more. It is unlikely that employees will make any progress on personal goals until they are willing to take on an additional development challenge.
2. Accepting Feedback
Just because we give people feedback does not necessarily mean that they have accepted the feedback. Every healthy person has developed well-honed methods of rationalisation, justification, and blaming to avoid accepting feedback. Even when a person says that they accept feedback, it does not necessarily mean that they actually internalise the feedback. Until people really welcome the feedback they will have a difficult time making a concerted effort to improve.
3. Be Honest
In the best organisations, people are honest and straightforward with each other. We have a tendency to tell others what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. A manager had an excellent and very honest approach of giving feedback. He would sit people down and say, “I want to give you a high performance rating but I can’t..If I were to give you a performance rating today, this is what I’d have to put down. I’d prefer not doing that.” This would get people’s attention. He would then say, “Here is what you need to do to get that high performance rating. If you do this then I can give you that rating.” Honesty will often jolt people into action who have previously been content with mediocre results.
4. Be Considerate
A new leader from India was given some confusing feedback. He was told that he was too direct. In coaching, this leader acknowledged his dilemma. He said, “I had always heard the Americans were direct and straight forward so that is what I did. Now I get this feedback. I realised that Americans only want to be told what they want to hear.”
His direct approach was perceived as being very inconsiderate. People everywhere want to receive honest feedback, but in a considerate way. When people feel that a manager does not have their best interests at heart, their commitment to improve diminishes.
Often when people try to improve they come up with an impossible improvement plan that focuses completely on their own personal efforts. We all know that systems and processes help everyone to be more organized and effective. If a person is trying to improve on punctuality, they can work on improving their memory, making a daily list of appointments, or they can put all their appointments in a PDA and set an alarm 15 minutes in advance. The PDA will keep a person on schedule. Encourage each individual to find innovative ways to accomplish their development goals.
A performance appraisal can be an inspiring event when it facilitates individual improvement by focusing on the issues that will make a big difference. People want to make a difference and they want to be successful. When a process helps them to be successful, they appreciate that process. It is critical that every manager understand that improvement does not necessarily mean fixing weaknesses. Areas of improvement can focus on building strengths or fixing weaknesses. The critical issue is to address something that will have a great impact on the employee’s effectiveness. When individuals have significant weaknesses (e.g., “fatal flaw”), they need to hear that their weakness is fatal and it needs to be fixed. An appraisal process that both evaluates performance and facilitates improved performance lets people know where they stand and offers them a path for improvement.