It’s Evaluation and Feedback time! : Part 1 of the Great Performance Series.

A three-part series on evaluating what drives great performance and how to talk to your team members about it in a way that is both inspiring and productive.

Chapter One: Why people don’t perform

It’s that time of year when many organizations go through their annual performance evaluation process- team members are rated and decisions are made around promotions and raises. Many leaders dread this time of year because it

  • Might feel vague or ‘soft’ – many people struggle to provide helpful feedback when the metrics aren’t clear and solid. This is especially true in delivering input for people leading teams (i.e., managers) because you’re evaluating their ability to lead, which can be hard to pin down.
  • Sometimes means delivering bad news for someone. Not many of us relish the idea of telling a colleague they aren’t performing to standard or won’t be getting the promotion they are seeking. Sometimes the hardest evaluations are for those strong, reliable people that are doing well but not doing great. You want to support them, let them know they’re appreciated but you don’t have an ‘Exceeds Expectations’ rating to give them
  • Requires you to be clear about what needs to change. This isn’t always a precise science. You can tell things aren’t optimal but it’s not easy to point to a specific behavior or approach which will flip the switch from struggling to succeeding.

For all those reasons, I’ll be delivering over the next three weeks a series on performance and feedback.

In this piece, part 1, I’ll share the three primary reasons why people don’t perform, and how you can evaluate it. In chapter 2, next week, we will talk about feedback and the best practices in ensuring people gain clarity over what’s expected and how to meet those expectations. Finally, in Chapter 3, we will revisit the Five Elements of Engagement, why engagement is important and how to manage for high engagement.

Chapter One: The three reasons people don’t perform to expectations

I often work with Leaders on performance management- that is a euphemistic term for ‘someone’s not cutting it, not meeting the standard for their job, missing expectations’. Many times it’s a person with brains and seemingly high capability. But they’re not currently performing well and it’s unclear why that is.

Every role has a different job description and success metrics. So, when someone is failing, lots of different factors can be at work.

However, when you boil it down, there are only three reasons people don’t perform:

  1. They don’t know what’s expected of them.
  2. They don’t have the requisite skills or tools to do the job well.
  3. They are choosing to not perform for some reason.

I’ll get into the details of each of these but notice first: the top two reasons people fail fall at the feet of the Leader. You have control over the first two (and most common) reasons people don’t meet expectations.

  1. People fail because they don’t know what’s expected of them. I worked with a COO once who was a Marine unit leader in a former life. His favorite saying is ‘A Marine without a mission is a scary thing.’ People desperately need to know what is expected of them, to know what success looks like, to know what mountain to climb and why. It’s your job as Leader to provide vivid, colorful clarity what the expectations of the role are and why those expectations are important.

Your first job as Leader is to ensure people understand what’s important and why, what success looks like and how it will be measured. If you’re able to accomplish that, you’ve accomplished a lot toward the success of your team and team members.

Helpful tip: when giving direction to a team member, ask at the end: ‘So, would you feed back what you just heard so I can make sure I was clear.’’

  1. People fail because they don’t have the skills or tools needed to be successful. This seems obvious enough- people need the right skills, knowledge, expertise, tools to have success in a job. However, several factors can block our being aware that something is missing. Number one: people don’t want to admit they don’t have the knowledge or experience needed. Our systems aren’t set up for people to announce their lack of expertise or request help. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true: people are more likely to be encouraged to claim expertise they don’t have. So, you as a Leader, need to make it safe for people to voice their challenges, to be able to ask for help, to make it an empowering experience to take on new learning.

Helpful tip: when talking about assignments or work duties, ask a couple of questions to ensure people can speak up around their lack of knowledge or expertise: 1) What specific experience or knowledge will be important for this project? 2) What expertise do we already have which will be applicable and 3) What gaps might we have which we will want to fill or what learning would it be helpful to take on?

  1. Finally, people fail because they choose, for some reason, not to do the work. Be careful not to assign this one too quickly to laziness or lack of ambition . It’s just as likely this assignment violates some value the team member holds. Or it might be because they have a misunderstanding of the task (see #1 above!). They might feel a lack of confidence or awareness on how to get started or about their ability to complete the task successfully. Or the work might simply be outside the person’s strengths; the work is depleting so it drops to the bottom of the To Do list every day. So, when someone has the capacity for the work but, for some reason, isn’t completing it, the first step for the Leader is toward curiosity. Ask some open, powerful questions and listen hard to what you’re hearing. Some questions which can get you started would be
  • Where does this work fall on the priority list for you?
  • What’s your level of confidence, on a scale of 1-5, of your ability to complete this successfully?
  • What would need to be true for you to feel confident in taking this on?
  • What’s one first step you can take to get going?

It’s my experience that the great majority of people want to do a good job and feel successful in their work. Not everyone, but most people.

Part of your job is to lift people up into a position where they feel capable. You do that by calling out their strengths, by allowing for some missteps early on, by listening to how they view the project, and by looking for ways to get them moving- sometimes it’s just about creating a bit of momentum and recognizing the smallest evidence of progress.

Helpful tip: getting people moving, even in the wrong direction, can be important. For human beings, there’s nothing like momentum – action begets action and inaction spurs inaction. So, when someone is hesitating to get started, coach them through the first few steps and mutually set micro-milestones. It’s sounds simple but it’s powerful:

What is the first thing you’d do to get started?

What would you do next?

Great- when would you want to come back to me with the results of those two initial steps?

Look for the next installment in the Driving Great Performance Series: how to talk to your team about performance in a way that is inspiring and productive.

Thanks for reading this article- I’d be eager to read your thoughts on this. And, you’re always welcome to reach out to me directly if I can support you:

My purpose is to help people identify and activate their potential.