How do I figure out what the employee is feeling?

Psychologists tell us that there are only four feelings: glad, sad, mad, and scared. All other feelings are variations on these four.

Glad is the feeling you're likely to encounter when you've given Tommy a great review. He did a great job; the performance appraisal reflects it. He's glad and it shows.

Sad is more common when the news is not good. The person is hurt and may react by becoming withdrawn. The voice level is lowered; the person is less animated and more constrained. Tears may flow.

Mad is the direct opposite of glad. The individual is angry, feels wronged. The voice level goes up, her face reddens. She seems ready for a fight. Interruptions are more likely.

Finally, some people react to a poor performance appraisal as scared. They are afraid of what will happen to them as a result of having done a poor job and having that poor performance become a matter of record. Their speech is hesitating; they ask worried questions about what will happen next.

Tell Me More

In each of these cases, reflecting feelings is a useful way to help the person deal with his or her emotional reaction to the performance appraisal and move on toward focusing on changes that need to be made to ensure future improvement. A statement like, "I get the impression that you're disappointed with the results of your performance appraisal, Charles," or, "You seem very worried about the assessment I have written, Paul," lets people know that you empathize with their feelings. It also lets them know that it's okay to permit emotional reactions in the discussion.

Red Flag

Don't ever use the phrase "I know how you feel..." in trying to reflect the individual's feelings. You actually don't know how the person feels. Rather, you are trying to understand. Saying "I know how you feel" is likely to provoke a spirited, "No, you don't!" Another phrase to avoid absolutely is, "You shouldn't feel that way." Although our own emotional reaction might differ from the one that the employee is experiencing, telling the person what his emotional reaction to a distressing event should be is inappropriate.

How can I get someone to agree with an honest and accurate performance appraisal rating?

You can't. Don't try.

Consider what the goal of a performance appraisal discussion is and what it's not. The goal is not to gain agreement. If you gain agreement, that's fine, but it's unlikely if the appraiser has evaluated the individual's performance against tough-minded, demanding standards. In fact, the lower the appraisal rating, the less likely the individual is to agree with the assessment. That's okay.

The goal of the performance appraisal discussion is to gain understanding, not agreement. Whether or not the individual agrees with the assessment, or the factors that were used in making it, or the standards that the appraiser expects the individual to meet, the manager's job is to get the individual to understand the reason that his performance was rated the way it was.

Gaining agreement is nice; gaining understanding is mandatory.

The employee I'm about to review is an unsatisfactory performer and the appraisal tells it like it is. How should I start the meeting?

Get right to the point. As soon as the person arrives for the appraisal discussion, say, "Come in, George, sit down. I have some bad news for you. (Pause.) I have your performance appraisal here and quite frankly, George, it isn't very good." Then give the individual a copy of the appraisal to read. As soon as he has read it, begin the discussion.

Tell Me More

Communications gurus always advise managers to set the proper tone for the meeting. That's what you have just done in opening this meeting. You have advised the employee that the performance appraisal is not good and have prepared the individual for what he is about to read.

Being direct and candid right from the start is appropriate. There can't be any mistaking the seriousness of the discussion and there's little chance of misinterpretation.

Being blunt may seem cold-hearted or cruel. It's not. It's much crueler to allow a marginal performer to think that she's doing okay when in fact her performance leaves much to be desired. If the manager isn't blunt about her performance deficiencies, a host of problems may arise:

- The employee's marginal performance will drag down the overall contribution of her work group.

- The employee will be less likely to be promoted or to be assigned to interesting projects. If an honest manager pointed out her limitations to her, she has the option of correcting her performance or moving to another job that she can handle successfully.

- Others in the work group are likely to resent a laggard's being given a free ride. They may reduce their output and commitment, since the organization is sending a clear message that it tolerates mediocre performance.

- When the employee finally gets the ax, she's much more likely to cry "Discrimination!" since she's amassed a full drawer of satisfactory reviews.

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