I inadvertently gave performance reviews to a group of 8- and 9-year-old soccer players. While meeting with the girls was intentional, I didn’t realize until later that night that I fully went into department leader mode. It had me rolling on the floor with laughter!
It was also clear to me that many of them had not experienced this before — as in, no one sat down with them. Sure, maybe at a parent-teacher conference or if they were in trouble, but not in a one-on-one setting such as that. We had just made it over the halfway mark to the season, things were starting to click with the girls on the field, and we felt it necessary to speak with them to keep the momentum and their confidence going.
We allowed the girls a chance to hear what they were doing well and improving on; then, we asked them what they wanted to continue to work on. While Coach K and I had a list of what we felt the girls should focus on, it was more important to make sure we were also meeting their needs. Much like adults, some girls knew exactly what they wanted to improve on, a few got there after some open-ended questions, and some were more willing to say what the team needed to improve on.
Once my slight feeling of shame wore off from performance reviewing the team, it had me thinking about the professional world. Here at my organization, we are well into end-of-year annual performance reviews. While annual reviews are a great way to have open conversations with employees, they typically only cover pre-determined questions.
Performance Review Tips
• Listening is more important than speaking. As leaders, one of the most important things we can do for our teams is to listen. Close your mouth and listen. While we often need to ask open-ended questions to keep the conversation moving, are you truly pausing to hear what the employee says? Or do you continue to talk and project on them what you think their career path, needs, etc., should be?
Leaders don’t need to agree with what the employee says, but we still need to listen. I often look at it as finding a middle ground when the parties don’t seem to be in alignment. Goal-setting sessions and addressing potential training needs should be an area of focus to help bring alignment to the overall improvement strategy.
• Once a year isn’t enough. As I stated previously, annual reviews can be a powerful tool, but connecting with individuals once a year is not enough.
One thing always resonates with me from sports growing up: when coaches stopped focusing on the best players and only focused on those who needed the most support. All individuals need coaching and attention — even the best ones. However, when we ignore the ones who do what they need to do at an acceptable level, they stop growing, become disengaged and, at times, will even quit.
Find time to make space for employees throughout the year; the frequency depends on the individual and their desire. Some individuals I touch base with on a quarterly basis and that is enough for them; others, I meet with monthly.
One thing is for sure: they are informal meetings. I try to make them as casual as I can and keep it a simple conversation: What are you working on that is interesting? Are you facing any challenges, etc.? I always end by asking how I can help them.
• Your words matter. This year, I made a big mistake when talking with an individual about promotions. Instead of saying, “Let me verify with the promotion guidelines,” I spoke from what I thought was correct. I realized once I looked at the guidelines that I spoke incorrectly. I didn’t think it was a big deal and put the individual up for promotion.
What I didn’t do was circle back with that employee and let her know of my error and that I had put her up for promotion. Fast-forward a month or so when the employee and I connected again. She was upset, and rightfully so; she didn’t feel she was promotable. That was when I realized I never corrected my wrong words but, even worse, made her feel underappreciated and not worth being promoted. She was ready to walk away.
As a leader, it was a horrible feeling; instead of saying I’d review the guidelines and reevaluate, I made a horrible assumption. My words were heard by her as her not being promotable. Let me tell you, she is the opposite — she is an amazing engineer who deserves nothing more than to be recognized for it.
My words mattered, and I used them wrong. As a leader, the words you use matter — it doesn’t matter if they are positive, negative or anything in between.
• Setting the tone in the new year. The best way to start the year strong is to touch base with your teams during the first quarter. If you’re not the leader, reach out to your leader and ask for a conversation. Help create a strong, confident, productive workplace by leading from a place of honesty and desire to help.