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The management literature is full of advice for those who want to deliver effective performance reviews. The usual mantra? Use review sessions to set clear expectations and goals, but never forget to praise good work and listen closely to employee concerns.
With all these good intentions, why do so many surveys find that employees are so miserable? A recent TowersWatson survey of 1,100 people from 1,004 companies, for instance, found fully a third felt “intensely negative” about their jobs and exhausted, confused, and unsupported in their offices.
The disconnect is real, says consultant Beverly Kaye, coauthor with Sharon Jordan-Evans of the book Love It, Don’t Leave It: 26 Ways to Get What You Want at Work (Berrett-Koehler, 2003). But it’s not because managers deliver such bad reviews. Rather, those on the receiving end of the review aren’t using the sessions to talk about what they want and need.
Reviews go awry, Kaye says, because too many people lack the skills to focus their concerns, devise proposals for change, and make the business case for their requests.
“Workplace satisfaction is a two-way street,” she says. “It’s about the behavior of those who manage, but it’s also about the initiative and effort expended by those who are managed.”
The following advice will help you get more of what you want out of your next review. And pass it along to your direct reports; if they act on this advice, the workplace will be a happier, more productive place for everyone on your team. Ask yourself: what do you really want?
If you want to get something out of a review, Kaye says, don’t expect your manager to guess what it is; she will usually guess wrong. Instead, enter the review session with very clear ideas about what you want and how to ask for it–whether it’s a job shift, a training program, a sabbatical, or a request for a change in your boss’s behavior. “The biggest mistake is not taking the time to plan,” says Kaye. “Think of it as interviewing yourself: What do I want to accomplish? What’s my agenda? What am I willing to say, and who will I have to convince?”
Managers, for their part, need to coach employees to understand that declaring “I’m feeling dissatisfied” won’t get much reaction, Kaye says, whereas offering a set of proposals to help solve a problem will get an immediate response. “Remember, managers hear all day, ‘Fix this, fix that,'” Kaye says. “Your goal is to come in with a problem and some ideas about how to fix it.”
A common misunderstanding managers have as review time approaches, she says, is that employees will ask only for money and promotion, when in fact what the employee is really looking for is validation and respect. Too often employees think money is the only thing to ask for, too. In employee workshops, Kaye says she is told that it is easier to ask for money than appreciation. The problem, Kaye suggests, is that appreciation, dignity, and respect are nebulous in contrast with money, which is quantifiable. The best approach is to make a list of what appreciation would look like on the job, she says.
“Let’s say you get reviews that say you are doing great, but most of the year, you feel ignored and overlooked,” says Kaye. “Then be prepared to tell the boss you would like to have a note when you do something she likes.” If that isn’t her style, tell her you would like to have a cup of coffee with her every month and be told specifically what you have done well lately. In other words, let her know you want feedback in real time, not six months later.
“Stress the specifics,” says Kaye. “Don’t settle for ‘You are good at your job.’ Tell her that you want to hear specifically that it worked well when you did X or Y.” On the flip side, if a boss’s behavior is demeaning or disrespectful, specifics will be even more important. “You can’t just come in and say, ‘You are too negative,'” says Kaye. “You need specifics, like ‘When you criticize me in the hall in front of my team, it affects my ability to work effectively with them.'”
Make the proposal
Employee surveys repeatedly find that employees feel “stuck” at work and believe that managers have not invested in their development. Kaye argues that employees need to research developmental assignments or training programs, and then be prepared to articulate how the assignment or program will prepare them for a desired job. This means doing research before the review to identify training opportunities and their costs, says Kaye. If an employee plans to request a job shift, he should find a replacement and work out a transition plan before presenting it to his boss.
But while walking into the performance review with a well-researched, well-rehearsed plan for change is great, Kaye says, employees also need to remember to come equipped with several alternative plans for achieving their goals.
“The biggest mistake is coming with demands,” says Kaye. “Instead, go in and say, ‘Here’s my problem, and here are three ideas I have for fixing it.’ This way, you are giving the boss space.
“You show you’ve done your homework, but meanwhile you invite them to add more to the list. If you just walk in saying, ‘I want to move up,’ you put the boss in a corner.” It is a lot harder to respond to a demand than to a selection of considered choices.
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This article appeared in the January 2004 issue of the Harvard Management Communication Letter, under the title “Whose Job is Employee Satisfaction?”