Could employee accountability be the missing piece in performance management?

Rebecca SchalmI once found myself commiserating with a friend over a failed performance conversation. She was frustrated that while she was trying to provide one of her direct reports with some much-needed feedback, her team member was just not listening.

I, too, have had the experience of dealing with a tone-deaf direct report. It didn’t seem to matter how or when I attempted to provide feedback, I ended up in an argument with someone who simply refused to acknowledge they were less than perfect.

The conversation with my friend made me wonder why we always blame the manager for failed performance management. Doesn’t some of the accountability rest with the employee?

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Perhaps we should replace some of the ‘how to manage performance’ training with ‘how to be performance managed’ training. If we approached performance management like a relay race – where success requires one team member to pass the baton and another team member to be in a position to receive it – we would go a long way to solving the ubiquitous ‘performance management problem’.

Here is a quick guide to how you can do your part and contribute to effective performance management.

  1. Recognize that part of your manager’s job is to coach and develop you. Everyone wants to work for someone who is good at managing performance – other people’s performance. For some reason, it is hard for us to accept we all have moments when we require a little performance-shaping intervention. Development doesn’t just mean being recognized when you’ve succeeded or getting advice on advancing your career. It also means getting bad news when something you tried didn’t work or finding out you are aggravating everyone around you.
  2. Initiate the conversation. Most of us know when we are due for a difficult conversation. Rather than spend a week trying to avoid his boss after a mess-up on a new client account, Jess walked into his office first thing Monday morning and apologized. Together, they found a solution, and Jess got some valuable insight about how to handle similar situations in the future. Having control over when and where the conversation happens will help you get past the emotion and deal with the issue. It will also signal to your manager that only ‘light’ performance coaching is required – you already get there is a problem.
  3. Recognize it is hard for them, too. The only thing more uncomfortable than getting critical feedback is giving it. If you let your manager know you recognize this, you will both be able to breathe and probably have a much better conversation.
  4. Listen. As tempting as it is, the worst thing you can do when someone is trying to give you feedback is to become defensive. You don’t learn anything, and you just frustrate the other person. The best thing you can do is really listen to what is being said and ask questions to help you understand where your boss is coming from.
  5. Read between the lines. What are the chances your manager isn’t being completely candid with you? Probably pretty high. They are trying to find the best way to tell you something without hurting your feelings. My friend Janice had a boss who would spend 25 minutes praising her and then slip in a ‘one thing you could do …’ while running out the door. If someone is trying to give you feedback, it is probably safe to assume they are under, rather than over, stating the problem. If someone has worked up the nerve to talk to you, take it seriously.
  6. Take time and think about it. You don’t need to respond or do anything with feedback right away. It’s a good idea to think about it and see if you agree with it. Is this something you’ve heard before? Talk to someone else to get their perspective. Maybe your manager didn’t get it exactly right. If you want to disagree or present a different side to the story, do it in a follow-up meeting.
  7. Let your manager help. If you decide to act on the feedback, your manager would really like to help you. The better you are at what you do, the higher the probability your manager will succeed at what they want to do. Business is a team sport and they have a lot invested in your success.

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.

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