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Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Hey you..the “average” employee sulking in the corner! Stop agonising over your performance review! Absorb..think..plan. Now can we move forward?

I participated in an on-line discussion on performance management where the discussion rotated on the perennial concern that most managers do a poor job in handling the mechanics of the process and create tremendous angst amongst employees by using stack ranking that can lead to an assessment or rating that has the potential to negatively impact employee engagement. This is inherently a challenge as most employees (particularly those at low levels of actual performance) always rate their performance far higher than what it really is thus leading to a mismatch during the review with the manager.

The discussion meandered to an interesting observation -- that there was a possibility that performance management discussions (between manager and employee) could leave those employees who have met their objectives and delivered against them feeling disappointed as they end up being part of a majority of employees. The feeling was that such employees would consider themselves "average" due to their assessment placing them in the majority.

There is far more focus on the two extremes i.e. the high performers and the low performers that sometimes managers forget that it is those employees who are part of this majority that keep an organisation functioning and thriving.

My own experience has taught me that managers need to spend time on performance managing and coaching this majority as there is a possibility that they may be impacted by a sense of relative deprivation. This is a feeling where an employee believes that he or she may not have been given (i.e. deprived off) a perceived positive outcome for which they have a sense of entitlement. Relative deprivation as a theory is related to issues such as organisational justice, equity and fairness, hence a critical element to understand the response that many employees formulate to what is essentially a perception problem that needs to be handled by managers (rather than ignored) as it can lead to stress, desire to leave and counter-productive behaviour on the part of the employee. In an era, where the psychological contract with an employee is already at its lowest (due to on-going rapid change, competitive pressure and the perennial search for cost advantage/productivity) it is critical to focus on this pool of performers as it is a the largest proportion of any employee base. [Top performers usually suffer from a different issue -- “when a deprived person compares himself with a non-deprived, the resulting state will be called relative deprivation. When a non-deprived person compares himself with a deprived person, the resulting state will be called relative gratification."]

Rather than use the above discussion as a basis for making another plea for over-sight and structure on the part of people managers I am on this occasion seeking to focus on “average” employees who need to make sense of their performance review (the risk that it is complicated by the manner the manager handled it is still there but not the focus any more!). Most managers are so caught up with identifying and focusing on the two extremes (i.e. the low performers and the high performers) that they forget the large proportion who form the back-bone of their organisation! My instinct believes that much is to be gained by focusing on this group as well. 

For those employees who are unsure of their status due to inclusion in the majority and thereby being perceived as “an average employee” my suggestion is to first realise that being part of a majority does not make you “average”! Being part of the collective is a good starting point but also a territory that is by design destined to 'potentially' remain in the shadows.

The onus is on you is to work with your manager to decipher his or her take on your performance. My first performance rating with my manager nearly two decades ago was absolutely agonising as I walked in with an assessment that I could walk on water and my manager cut me down to size and placed me with the majority. My first reaction was disbelief but I sat with him and worked through my performance review by focusing on the way forward. I did this because I had no idea on what else to do or how to respond to that assessment. The good news is that I had a great discussion and it set the benchmark or tone for the way forward for the rest of my career as he outlined what better than average performance meant for him and why some of my peers did a better job at it that I had!

Your discussion has to be meaningful. Rather than spend time on having your manager tell you about what is wrong with you, aim to steer the conversation to what you could do better to get a better rating and stand-out from the majority. This is where having a good record and structure of the requirement of your job helps as well as having recorded developmental objectives that you hold yourself accountable to. In the end, life is not fair. Luck may have a play and perhaps your sense of trepidation is not unwarranted.Don’t forget that things are all relative and there is a small group that is perhaps entitled to a good sulk and introspection due to a rating discussion but avoid being part of that small group. I concede that human nature is always to look at those better off than yourself and then let relative deprivation related angst drive you up a wall!

The real question is whether you were aware of what your manager thought of you before you walked into your performance review? Have you taken direct guidance and advice from your manager along the way? Did you take the platitudes but shied away from absorbing or listening to the developmental guidance on how you can move forward or become a better employee? A good manager can help on both counts! If possible, I suggest that you also seek out a Mentor to get professional and personal input into your style of functioning. They are role models who can help you open both mind and heart!

You are accountable and responsible for your career. Not your manager! I suggest that you create a balance-sheet of your assets (strengths) on the left and liabilities (weaknesses) on the right. For those of you who consider weakness a politically incorrect term then feel free to substitute this with the term “area of development”.  
Ask yourself a series of honest and simplistic questions to prompt a detailed listing of strengths and weaknesses. Read and rewrite what you have put down for relevance and brevity. Many also extend this analysis to the traditional SWOT by adding O(pportunity) and T(hreat) but I recommend that it is sufficient to work on the S(trength) and the W(eakness) of the SWOT. Now comes the bad news. Review this with your manager. Great if you can do this early in the performance review cycle but a great start after your review is completed as well. You do this the right way and you will start to figure out a much better way to react to your rating rather than sulking in the corner! This will help in creating an action plan that is based on fact rather than ‘emotional fiction’. 

In the end, remember this simple reality -- "Most managers actually don’t want to undertake a performance review that leaves any employee demotivated." Relative deprivation can be used as a motivator rather than a crutch for your emotions!

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