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Ask the Syntax Coach: Performance Review

by Lucy Freedman

Q. I have to give a difficult annual performance review to an employee with whom I get along ok, but whom I don't feel I really understand. I don't have serious complaints, I just think she is too political. She wants to please and seems to adapt her messages to accommodate the audience. How do I encourage someone to be more decisive - it's kind of subtle issue. To be honest in the review, I need to talk with her about it. I am afraid that I will make the situation worse and she will be even more defensive.

A. First of all, performance appraisals are among the situations that bring up the most intense psychological issues, usually compounded by the clumsiness of such systems and a series of bad memories on both sides about them. You can handle the appraisal situation as well as possible by using Syntax to work it through, and you should also do what you can to change the feedback system to avoid all the baggage that goes with this outdated method.

Learning depends on frequent and direct feedback given in a positive way. Decisions about raises shouldn't be combined with attitudinal or interpersonal coaching. Put energy into changing the expectations about annual performance reviews, partly by giving helpful feedback and recognizing accomplishments that have a direct connection to the success of the business.

Within this review, or any other feedback sessions you have, here are five tips for applying syntax and keeping the conversation constructive.
Plan: The best results come after you have answered honestly to yourself (for some people it is better to have a sounding board to help get through this step) what your intended result of the conversation is, and what that will get you. Mentally rehearse being at the end of the successful review and hear and see the evidence that you have reached that goal. Notice whether conflicting goals surface for you. Either make notes for yourself to sort out the goals, or talk confidentially with a third party.

Clarify your priorities so that you will be able to state your desired result when you open the review conversation. For example," I want to talk through my assessments about your performance and your accomplishments, make some requests to follow through on, and hear your thoughts about how we can best move toward new achievements from here on. What are your goals for this conversation?"

Link: Acknowledge any issues about communication between the two of you in a non-blameful way. Being candid, i.e. "I appreciate our work together, and want to improve on it. This can be uncomfortable to discuss and I am not always sure how to make myself clear or find out what you think. Please help me guide this conversation so it is most productive for you as well as for me."

Balance: When you feel you have a complaint or something to criticize, try framing it as a request. You may have built up a negative charge that justifies coming down on the person in the review. What if you simply ask her clearly for what you want? If the issue seems to be a trait like decisiveness, your answers to the questions about your desired result should have given you a concrete idea of what to ask for. You can describe the experience you have that you want changed, and ask if the person recognizes what you are talking about. She can probably take it from there, if she has a clear understanding. To keep the power over her behavior clearly in her own hands, and avoid micromanaging, you can ask her to tell you some indicators you should watch for as a sign that she is doing what you ask. Less is more at this point.

Inform: If she doesn't understand what you are asking for, you can provide answers or ask for her interpretation of the situations you are discussing with her. The more that you elicit from her "map" of the situation, the better you can be in supporting her good intentions and skills and not discouraging or limiting her.

Learn: the whole situation should be framed as learning. This means that you are approaching it to learn, not just to deliver a message. Her feedback to you about how the conversation is or isn't helpful, and your openness to hearing it, is a strong message and a model of what you want. You have been decisive and clear in asking for specific changes, now you are able to receive feedback and take it in. She may still have feelings or issues, or may need to assess her own skills and develop some new ones before you get the result you want.

By using Syntax to plan and conduct the meeting, you can focus on what you want rather than your anticipation of a difficult conversation. And by initiating more frequent feedback you can keep future situations from being a negative buildup. Your own role as coach, helping yourself and others learn, will be strengthened in this way.
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