Friday, January 27, 2012

Can 9 Out of 10 Be Wrong?

A recent BusinessWeek article reported that 90% of the nation's managers think they're in the top 10% of performers in their workplace.

There's clearly a disconnect here, though it's nice to know we're such a confident group.

What causes this sort of optimism? I wonder if part of it is survey-induced. There's a natural tendency to try to look good, especially when there's no downside.

More dangerous to individual careers, though, is the fact of performance-review politeness. All too often, managers sugar-coat written performance evaluations, usually for one (or more) of these four reasons.

Fear

What if she gets mad? What if she yells? What if she cries? What if she goes to HR and complains about me? What if she stops working on this critical project?

Compassion

I don't want to put anything negative in his permanent employee record -- it might haunt him forever. I know he's just bought a house -- I don't want to impact his raise right now when he really needs it. He's a nice person, and smart, too; he's going through a learning curve at the moment, but he'll figure it out.

Overwhelm

If I write something negative, I'll have to put her on a performance improvement plan. I'll have to write up the whole thing for HR, and we'll have to have weekly meetings, with written notes, and a three-month interim review, and another one at six months. I don't have time for all that!

Expedience

He knows one of the board members -- I've seen them out for lunch, and I know they go golfing together. I don't know what might happen to my career if I write a bad review. And wouldn't it be cool if he said good things about me to the board!

So as an employee, how can you be sure you're getting honest feedback from your manager, so that the next time BusinessWeek asks, you'll know you're in the top 10%?

Simple. Ask!

But don't just run into her office and blurt it out. Here are six steps for setting the stage, making it safe for your manager and yourself, so you can get the feedback you want in ways that you can use.

Be sure you really want to know

Don't ask questions you don't want answered. If you're not sure you want to know what your manager thinks, first figure out why you're feeling uneasy. He may legitimately not have earned your trust -- or you may secretly know you're not performing to the standard you'd prefer. Either way, now may not be the time for you to ask.

Don't roll it into your regular review

By stepping outside the regular review process, you side-step all the reasons why your manager might give you less than complete feedback. Yes, you want to encourage her to "tell it like it is" in your review, but if she's not, that's not the time to push the point. Instead, approach her outside the review cycle when she's not in the review mindset.

Explain why you want to know

You don't want him to think you're feeling insecure. He might start wondering if there's a reason for it! You do want to give him as much information as he needs to give you solid, useful feedback. So why do you want that feedback? How do you see yourself growing, doing things differently, and being better at your job? What improved support might you offer him and the company as a whole? You may not have specific details since you don't know what he'll say, but you can -- and should -- have a general idea.

Explain what you want to know

Asking the general question, "Hey, boss, how'm I doing?" isn't useful, and is more likely to annoy her as a time-waster than impress her with your desire to grow. What do you want feedback about? Your own management abilities with your team? How you handle other areas' requests for assistance? Whether you're providing the right financial reports in the most useful format? Go in with a clear and specific question, and you'll get a clear and specific response. You can always ask at the end if there's anything else she'd like to comment on.

Ask for a meeting

Don't make a big deal out of it, but do request time when you know you'll have his full attention. Catching him in the hallway or popping into his office informally doesn't allow him time to prepare or to focus. Your question is almost certain to surprise him, especially if he's used to a little bit of sugar-coating. Be sure to explain why and what when you request the meeting, so he has a chance to prepare.

Getting good, useful feedback is as much an art form as giving good, useful feedback. Whether you're giving or getting, these tips will help.

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