Dear Dave: I try to give my employees feedback on their performance in sit-down meetings at least twice a year. My problem is, I am scared to death of telling them the truth about things they do wrong and must do better. I get so nervous during these meetings, and I realize my employees can tell how bad I am at telling them how they are really doing. Do you have any advice that will help me with this problem? — R

Dear R: Your uneasiness with giving appropriate and proper performance reviews is all too common among managers. Of course, the other extreme is that you could be such an abrasive, scary and harsh critic that employees avoid you at all costs. I think that problem is tougher to work with.

Often, managers are taught how to deliver the “performance review sandwich.” This is when a manager says something positive about the work of the employee being reviewed, they then deliver a statement about what the employee might be doing wrong, and they then quickly mention something positive again. This method rarely achieves the goal of helping employees improve – in fact, the employee ends up wondering how they are [really] doing.


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Like you. I think employees deserve to receive accurate and helpful reviews, and most want to know how they are performing – especially when they know they are doing a great job. I am not sure what happened, but performance reviews have become, or have always been, some arduous chore for many managers. Granted, they take time, consideration, and planning, but, hey, that’s their job!

The employee performance review is, theoretically, designed to be a conversation of sorts, where the manager has the opportunity to present what they have observed about actual employee performance and the employee gets the chance to discuss how they “think” they are performing. That’s the theory any way. Many managers are good at creating this dialogue, and their employees are thankful that they are.

However, many managers do not want to anger their employees by being totally truthful about how well they are performing. And, sadly, other managers use the performance review as an opportunity to totally thrash employees they do not like. Even though the work of employees must be accurately measured and discussed, some managers can’t wait to get the employees into a meeting room, so they can browbeat them. I have been the recipient of this insane methodology and, not only does it hurt, it does nothing to improve job performance.

Help for you

For accurate performance reviews to have any degree of acceptance and success, it is crucial that both employees and managers are crystal clear about the employees’ performance goals, and how the goals will be assessed. Simply, there must be clarity and a mutual understanding about what the employees should be doing and how their work will be measured.

This is a fundamental part of the manager’s job, and if this foundation has not been established and discussed, an accurate performance review can never take place. All you would have are “I think” statements being traded back and forth. So, be safe and practical; establish employee performance targets and evaluation methods and discuss actual performance by using what you have actually observed.

Further, if goals, deliverables, and measurements are negotiated – yes, I said negotiated - in an effective employee performance evaluation, the employee and the manager will be more committed to achieving them. This collaborative commitment will assist each employee to grow in his or her career. In addition, by helping employees with their career ambitions, not only will employees develop their long-term talents, but there is a greater chance they will choose to stay with the organization.

Some may argue with me, but I believe everyone wants to develop and grow at work. I find it hard to believe that personal growth opportunities will not motivate people. Accordingly, managers must capitalize on this basic need and do everything they can to nurture the development of employee skills and abilities. Resources and tools should be provided to employees, such as training and education opportunities inside and outside of the company. And employees should not need to beg for tools and training.

Finally, and to be frank, employees should not have to wait for some formal feedback session to come along to explain how they are doing and what they should do better; they should know how they are doing every day of the work week. Without smothering and mothering the employees, managers should be aware of performance problems and then respectfully and kindly provide assistance on the spot. The employee should not keep doing things wrong and be left to flounder and wonder if they are making costly mistakes.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.