Beyond Constructive Criticism–Methods to Evaluating Performance

Sections of this topic
    What kind of leader are you? Do you have a philosophy of how you evaluate others? You should.

    When trainers are finding ways of improving performance and leadership, there’s one topic we should cover but often don’t. How do we evaluate performance? It seems an obvious fit for us, but it’s a tough and touchy topic to train about. Although people are involved, the human resource methods seem set in stone. Usually where people are involved we see flexibility, but not so much here. At least not overtly. But I think those stones can be moved, and if not moved–wiggled a bit. Here are some ideas and discussion to think about looking beyond constructive criticism.

    How do you communicate the whole idea of a performance evaluation in a more positive way? The world shouts, “Constructive criticism!” But it’s more than that. Much more. In fact, how could such a complicated issue be so simply resolved?

    Criticism, however constructive, is still a judgment perceived as a negative. I’m sure it doesn’t surprise people to learn that as a theatre reviewer and critic, I offer constructive criticism sometimes when those people who should listen the most are no longer listening. It’s the same here. The issue has to be addressed other ways.

    In a world that has tactical and strategic goals and therefore specific ways to address company performance as a whole, it is not at all people friendly.

    You’ve all heard, “Make your boss look good.” That’s about as people friendly as it gets, but doesn’t that put pressure on the employee only to do things that “promote” the Boss? It certainly encourages sycophants and informants, creating the perfect atmosphere for worker alienation. This is where managers who are not leaders go wrong. There is also the manager who uses her own staff as a sounding board, talking about others, soliciting strategies, while making each staff member feel they have influence.

    It starts at the beginning when managers and supervisors demonstrate the role they play in workplace. What kind of leader are you? Do you have a philosophy of how you evaluate others? They should. The manager or supervisor’s answer should be more than “I tell them what is expected and take off points if they don’t meet the standards.”

    Negative enforcement when survival is on the line makes people crazy.

    Consistency is key. The manager or supervisor should:

    • Be personable and honest.
    • Not play mind games.
    • Not manipulate staff or workers.
    • Not make a worker stay in a situation that is only going to result in negative reinforcement.

    Psychologists say negative reinforcement is only marginally effective. Negative reinforcement when survival is on the line makes people crazy. Having a worker going “postal” is the chief worry of those who provide constant negative reinforcement by continually telling a worker they are inadequate to the task, or they are just not a good fit for the job. If the employee up and quits, it doesn’t solve the problem; there’s a negative feeling, and perhaps, the idea in the office that a job is not safe no matter how you couch it.

    If a manager or supervisor does this, some outsiders as well may see a pattern that this is what he or she does when faced with a performance problem involving an employee or he or she simply doesn’t like. That manager or supervisor becomes a villain of sorts.

    Wikipedia describes a villain as “a person of less than knightly status and so came to mean a person who was not chivalrous. As a result of many unchivalrous acts, such as treachery or rape, being considered villainous in the modern sense of the word, it became used as a term of abuse and eventually took on its modern meaning.”

    Does that mean a manager or supervisor should be chivalrous? Absolutely. You should put your employees on a pedestal and serve them as you would have them serve you. That another person acts on his or her own does not make you blameless–especially if you are the evaluator. As the leader or manager, it reflects on you and in some ways makes you responsible–especially if you orchestrated the employees fall by playing strictly by the rules, with no gray areas.

    That another person acts on his or her own does not make you blameless--especially if you are the evaluator.

    “I gave him or her chances to get it right.” But you didn’t right the wrong. If it is matter of the wrong person for the job, then work to fix it. Not within your power? It’s still your problem and you have the power to do more than the employee. It’s your duty.

    I’m reminded of CAMELOT (the musical), where King Arthur states emphatically: “Instead of might is right, it should be might for right.”

    Being chivalrous is better than that. A chivalrous leader would immediately come to the rescue of the employee in distress, and that might mean actively assisting this person finding another situation that does fit. You can’t be a bad manager or supervisor for addressing your employees’ needs. In the short run, it may business as usual minus this one troublesome individual who made you work harder. Sitting back and waiting for your back stage machinations to come to fruition will only harm your reputation in the long run. Trust me. It happens. People see it.

    It is ironic that the most important aspect of working with people in an organization is a rather dull book no one really wants to read. It isn’t people friendly at all. I suspect in some ways these resources are archaic–in the same way we used to learn everything by rote. There are manuals and books on the subject in human resources, and nothing has really changed except dealing with more rules–and there are some great articles right here on the Management Library site. While a 500-word blog how-to that covers the performance evaluations would be woefully inadequate as a complete source, but you can still seek keys to success and starting points.

    For me in my self-proclaimed role as a cave man trainer looking for roots in simplicity, I look at performance in a different way from typical trainers who come from human resources and work with those manuals. It’s still a people concern even though it can have business repercussions. Perhaps, it is too simple or naive to say “Take care of your people and they’ll take care of you.” It’s a good rule to live by. I’ve had personable, communicative supervisors, and I’ve had others not so friendly or able to communicate very well, but the one thing I appreciated that they had in common was they had my back.

    First, you don't work behind their back, say one thing to their face and another to others, and second, you never, ever share or inquire from other staff what they are doing.

    How do you evaluate performance and watch a person’s back? First, you don’t work behind a person’s back, say one thing to his or her face and another to others, and second, you never, ever share or inquire from other staff what that person is doing that is none of their business.

    I’ve been looking at performance lately–all kinds. By day I am a trainer, by night a theatre reviewer–a performance critic of a different sort. As a critic, I evaluate the (theatre) company’s performance (in this case as art). I do this looking at the performance as a whole and then focusing on individuals or individual aspects of the performance perhaps not related to individuals, i.e., issues that can’t be helped or situations the company had no control of. When I write my review, my focus is aimed at providing a perspective not unlike what we want for “our” company: did they do a good job, and if so, how good? Finally, what does that mean–what value is it? I hope you can see some likely comparisons.

    I write my theatre and performance reviews with the aim to be both complimentary and complementary of the work done, mentioning exceptional performances or aspects of the production as well as providing constructive criticism of that which could be improved. I think we can evaluate any work performance in this way. We have a total effort (the company strategic and tactical goals) and individual efforts with some elements we can’t control (unions, outside forces, the economy). What we need is wiggle room and chivalry. It doesn’t sound romantic at all. Maybe because it’s serious business and the juxtaposition doesn’t really work.

    For more resources about training, see the Training library.

    These are the opinions of the cave man of training and development at Acting Smarts, the T & D blog host for the Free Management Library, and a columnist and reviewer for STAGE Magazine–all the same guy. By the way, he also considers himself a passionate communicator. I hope I’ve communicated something worthwhile today. Be sure to check out my book, The Cave Man’s Guide to Training And Development now available. Happy training.