What do I do when an employee disagrees with something I have written on the performance appraisal?

Listen to determine the source of the disagreement. Is it a matter of fact? (You wrote that the employee received a customer satisfaction score of seventy-nine, but the employee says that his score was eighty-three.) Or is it a matter of judgment? (You wrote that the employee's customer service skills were unsatisfactory, but she feels that her skills are terrific.) If it's an issue of fact, get the facts and make any corrections necessary. If it's a matter of judgment, ask the employee for additional evidence. Then determine whether that evidence is sufficient to cause you to revise your judgment. It rarely is.

Tell Me More

Most of the time, the appraiser has a reasonably good understanding of the areas where disagreements are likely to pop up in the course of the appraisal discussion. Before beginning the appraisal discussion, ask yourself, "What am I going to say when George disagrees that his performance on the Lumumba project just barely met expectations?"

Start with your higher ratings and move toward the lower ones.

Be prepared to give additional examples besides the ones you've included on the formal written appraisal. Refer back to the informal conversations you have had with the individual over the course of the year.

Use active listening as soon as a disagreement pops up. For example, phrases such as "Tell me more . . ." or "What else can you share with me about that?" or "Really?" can encourage people to talk more about their perceptions. Simply nodding without saying anything at all encourages people to expand on what they have said. It's not at all unlikely that the employee, allowed a sufficient chance to think aloud about what you have written, will end up saying, "Yeah, I guess I see what you mean."

Remember what your objective in the discussion isand what it isn't. Your objective in a performance appraisal discussion is not to gain agreement. It is to gain understanding. If the employee agrees with you, that's great. But particularly if your appraisal is a tough-minded assessment of the fact the Charlie's contribution was only mediocre, it's unlikely that you'll ever get him to agree. What you want is for him to understand why you evaluated his performance the way you did, even if his personal opinion is different.

Red Flag

If you haven't had ongoing, informal performance discussions with the individual over the course of the appraisal period, then it's very likely that disagreements will surface during the review. That's another good reason for scheduling periodic, "how's it going?" discussions with each person on your team.

How do I handle those awkward moments that always seem to arise in performance appraisal discussions? For example, the employee who is silent, or makes excuses, or turns the conversation around so that we are caught up in irrelevancies?

Silences, excuses, and irrelevancies are the three most common discussion difficulties that arise in the course of discussing a performance evaluation. You can overcome each of these by keeping firmly in control with a few simple techniques.

Silences. Silences make us feel awkward. If the individual doesn't answer a question promptly, the reason may be that the person is uncomfortable or doesn't know what to say. It may also be a manipulative power play.

Silence can be used to intimidate. Make sure you're not the one who's being intimidated. Ask a question and wait. When your anxiety level rises to the point where you have to say something to break the silence, simply ask, "Do I need to repeat the question?" That will surely provoke a response. If it doesn't, call the performance appraisal meeting to a halt and explain what the word insubordination means.

Excuses. Excuses are the most common discussion difficulty. The reason we find them so difficult is that we typically deal with them so badly. We foolishly argue with the merits of the excuse, and by doing so legitimatize it.

While it may not be a conscious choice, any time a person offers an excuse for poor performance, the person proffering the excuse is trying to absolve himself of personal responsibility. Our response needs to focus not on the excuse but on the issue of personal responsibility.

Start by agreeing with the fact of the excuse: "I agree, Mark. Having deadlines that frequently change in the middle of a project does make your work difficult." Then put the responsibility back where it belongs: "And as we've discussed before, changing deadlines is a fact of life in our business. How are you planning to handle that challenge so that you can make sure that your projects are always ready when they're needed?"

The appraiser can increase the probability that the employee will change and resolve a problem if the manager discusses the need for change in terms of the choices the employee makes. We each have the capability for choice. An effective appraisal discussion makes that fact clear to the individual who might prefer to play the role of victim.

Hot Tip

It is always appropriate for the manager to consider in advance some possible approaches or solutions the employee might use to solve a problem. But the responsibility for finding a solution is the employee's; not the manager's. If the manager makes a suggestion that the employee accepts and it subsequently turns out that the suggestion was not effective in solving the problem, the employee can turn back to the manager and say, "See! I did what you told me and it didn't work!" So while the manager may assist the employee by making suggestions or offering guidance, the burden of actually solving the problem and improving performance is always borne by the individual.

Irrelevancies. A final discussion dilemma appraisers confront is the irrelevancy trap. All of a sudden, in the middle of a discussion, you realize that the subject you're talking about has nothing to do with the core issue of the appraisers unacceptable performance.

Labeling an irrelevancy as such is unproductive. It only generates arguments. Don't waste your breath.

When you discover that you're in the middle of an active discussion of an irrelevant topic, the technique to use is "dismiss and redirect." Wait until your counterpart pauses for breath and then say, "As far as the way they used to handle this situation in your old company is concerned, I'd like to talk about that separately. First, I need for you to agree that you will let me know any time a project deadline is slipping."

The keywords are separately and first. The magic dismiss-and-redirect technique can be used anytime a conversational counterpart raises an issue that you want to make go away. You don't say that it's irrelevant, unimportant, or unconnected with the matter at hand. Instead, you graciously acknowledge its importance and then, with a sweep of misdirection, consign it to the nether world of irrelevancies and return to the primary issue on your agenda: "I appreciate your bringing to my attention the fact that the attendance record of other people in the department should be examined, Betty. I'd like to deal with that separately. First, I need your agreement that you will come to work every day on time." Or you may say: "I understand that many employees are looking for additional sources of income after the company announced the wage freeze last week, Carlos. But I'd like to talk about that issue separately. First, I need you to get your hand out of the cash register."

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