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Article: Can Performance Evaluations Really be Painless? Related Resources

Can Performance Evaluations Really be Painless?
by Marnie Green

Universally, supervisors and employees dread that annual ritual of performance evaluations. In some organizations, they postpone the event for as long as possible. In others, it is just avoided -- sometimes for years. We often waste, misuse, or squander this opportunity for enhanced communication and feedback that could potentially lead to higher levels of performance and increased morale. It's no wonder the experience is often described as painful.

Public agencies across the country are beginning to realize that the performance evaluation experience doesn't have to be awful. In fact, with the right approach, it can even be painless for supervisors and employees alike. To reach this ideal, cutting edge organizations have adopted the three principles of a painless performance evaluation.

"Painless performance evaluation" should not be an oxymoron. These practical steps can transform your organization into one where employees actually look forward to the annual feedback ritual. A painless performance evaluation is defined by three concepts.

1. No surprises! 2. Employee-driven. 3. Future-focused.

No Surprises! - The "no surprises" rule means that no issue or concern should be raised in the performance evaluation meeting that has not been raised in a previous discussion. The performance evaluation meeting is not the place to solve all of the employee's performance challenges. It should be used as a summary of the previous rating period's discussions. It should be nothing more than a review.

To achieve this, supervisors and employees must talk regularly about how the employee is doing. If there is a problem or concern about the employee's performance, it should be discussed immediately when the event happens. If the employee has had a success, it should be recognized on the spot. Trust is enhanced when specific feedback is a regular part of the work environment. If these conversations are saved for the end of the year meeting, then uncomfortable surprises arise.

By the time the performance evaluation conversation rolls around, the supervisor and employee should have already explored any concerns about performance. When there is no surprise at the evaluation discussion, it can take on a more productive and positive tone. A more productive and positive tone lends itself to the second element of a painless performance evaluation: employee-driven.

Employee-driven - A performance evaluation is painless when it is a two-way dialogue. The typical evaluation conversation, where the supervisor does all the talking, doesn't allow for the employee's point of view. The supervisor needs to direct the conversation in a way that is valuable to the employee.

Before your next performance evaluation meeting, try giving a copy of the evaluation document to the employee prior to the meeting so that he can come prepared to discuss its contents. To begin the meeting, ask the employee for his thoughts about the evaluation and any comments to add or suggestions for change. The goal is to keep the employee talking for at least three to five minutes or even more if possible. After the employee has shared his/her perspective fully--and only then--should the supervisor begin sharing his/her opinions about the employee's performance.

The typical outcome from this approach is the employee will highlight all of the issues the supervisor was going to discuss and, because it came from the employee, he feels an increased sense of ownership for the issues. It opens the discussion to future possibilities and activities, the third element of a painless performance evaluation.

Future-focused - A performance evaluation is painless when the conversation is future-oriented and hopeful. You can't get to this by rehashing the past and focusing on what has already been done. Employees report that a performance evaluation is painful when they are told things of which they are already aware--when the supervisor's concerns are brought up over and over again. It is most painful to hear about the mistakes they've made and the issues they've faced when those issues are history--often months in the past. If the employee's performance was a problem, it needed to be addressed when the behavior arose, not at the performance evaluation. The past is history and focusing on it for the entire length of a performance evaluation conversation is pointless. It is fine to recap the highlights of an employee's performance, especially the good parts, but the conversation will be more productive when spent talking about the future. Use the evaluation meeting to plan future performance goals, to clarify expectations, and to create a sense of excitement about what is ahead. It is much less painful and enormously more fun.

Public sector organizations are defined by the performance of individual employees. How we manage that performance determines the success of our agencies. Isn't it about time we devote some energy to helping supervisors find more productive and less painful ways to tackle this essential part of their job?

Marnie E. Green is Principal Consultant of the Arizona-based Management Education Group, Inc. She is the author of Painless Performance Evaluations: A Practical Approach to Managing Day to Day Employee Performance (Pearson/Prentice Hall). Green is a speaker, author, and consultant who helps organizations develop leaders today for the workforce of tomorrow. Contact Green at

Marnie Green may be contacted at


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