Strategies for managing performance reviews during a pandemic

Whether you still have the dreaded annual performance review or you’ve moved to ongoing performance management conversations — or you have some blend of the two — performance management during a global pandemic takes on some new dimensions.

First: Do them, or skip them?

Whether you have performance reviews regularly or annually, should you do them during a global pandemic? With folks working at home, or possibly working in periods between lockdowns, is there value in continuing to have performance conversations?

  • Con: Performance reviews tend to be dreaded by some (managers and employees alike) and thus add to anxiety and stress while increasing the workload for managers.
  • Pro: When performance conversations are done well, they provide critical information to both the employee and the manager, helping everyone succeed.

Effective performance conversations require some groundwork or even the best of intentions can backfire. When strong performance appears to have gone unnoticed, it demotivates. When poor performance isn’t identified and managed, it can leave that employee struggling and others resentful. (Pro tip: Review our keys to having effective performance conversations.)

The verdict: Increase the frequency

At Padraig we’re big believers in constant honest feedback with two-way conversation. During a pandemic — when so many are struggling through (visibly, or not) — is the time to have more performance conversations rather than fewer. In a two-way conversation, we listen to the employee as much as we talk to the employee – finding out where they feel they’re succeeding and where they feel they’re struggling. This is an opportunity to find out where a team member needs help and what kind of help would be, well, most helpful.

Doubling down on performance conversations takes on a different appearance than the traditional annual review. This current time of ongoing uncertainty might be the ideal time to shift from one annual conversation to regular, ongoing opportunities to touch base and check in with team members. It could also be an opportunity to teach managers and leaders how to use a coach-approach to help employees learn and grow – moving away from the direct, demand, tell approach. (We’ve talked about using a coach approach during the pandemic and also using a coach approach to build a stronger team.)

It’s also an ideal time to help managers learn to build performance discussions into every weekly or bi-weekly private conversation they are having with staff. (Not having those conversations? Now is a great time to start because regular conversations help you avoid poor performance from members on your team.)

Should we focus on the same things?

Performance reviews should focus on expectations you’ve set, in advance – otherwise they’re an unfair surprise. So, if you’re about to do a performance review for 2020, it should continue to focus on whatever you stated were the goals, expectations and competencies for that employee. However, if some of those goals don’t seem relevant or achievable in a work-from-home environment, or when roles and goals have shifted during the crises, or when folks spent a good portion of the year furloughed, then it’s time to adapt them a bit.

For example, if your goals were stated as a finite number – produces x widgets per month – then perhaps the goal needs to be amended to recognize challenges. Perhaps you could change the number given months that weren’t worked, or say something like, “ramped up production of (something other than widgets) products after we shifted quickly to changing demand.” Or, perhaps, “produced an average of X widgets per month during times when the production facility was able to operate.”

Or, what if you’ve stated that Adaptable and Flexible is a competency someone should aim for? Perhaps you evaluated that in the past as being willing to work late when the project needed it. Looking at this competency in a new light could be: Did they manage to adapt to changing conditions? Were they flexible in shifting their workplace? It will be important to recognize that in 2020, being Adaptable and Flexible didn’t mean adapting and flexing to the usual customer demands, or to the usual production cycle. This last year, that has meant adapting and flexing in a chaotic and uncertain environment, while also worrying about your health and safety in new ways — and while having your routines upended while worrying more than ever about family and friends. The takeaway? Evaluate something like “Adaptable and Flexible” with a charitable view. Did they manage to maintain some form of the competency in unprecedented circumstances? Were they able to succeed in some of their work while having to adapt to working from home, managing kids and pets, helping parents, working alongside their spouses and worrying about the general state of the world?

Have a two-way conversation

Regardless of whether you’re having a performance conversation once a year or once a week — during a pandemic, or not — the conversation should be just that: a two-way dialogue, not a monologue where the boss talks at the employee. Now, more than ever, listen to understand.

Ask open-ended questions like:

  • What went well for you this year?
  • What are you most proud of in the work we’ve done this year?
  • What would you have changed this year, with your own work – if you could do it over?
  • What can I do to make your job easier?
  • What can the company do?

Then, listen. Listen to understand, not to respond. This means:

  1. Don’t worry about what your next question will be.
  2. Try not to take things personally.
  3. Focus on them and their needs. Even a “poor performer” often has challenges that are holding them back – more often than not, they’re not trying to be a poor performer.

Listen intently and empathetically to their answers. Ask more curiosity-based questions as you seek to understand.

Give specific feedback

Avoid saying broad and general things like, “You did great this year,” or, “You need to work on X,” without giving detailed examples. Instead, say things like:

It was especially appreciated when you did X because it allowed A, B, C to happen.
As you know, I’ve had some concerns about X because it affects A and B.
I feel like you’ve made some progress on X by (give a specific example…).
I would like to see you continue that trend and see you achieve Z.
How are you feeling about it?

Note: This feedback invites a dialogue with an open-ended question, but it’s anchored by specific details that provide context and a clear expectation.

Be human

Step away from trying to appear to have it all together. Don’t act like you’ve got everything under control if you don’t. Briefly acknowledge struggles you, too, have had. Now, this isn’t the time to make the conversation all about you and your challenges, but it is time to be human, to acknowledge that it’s been a hard year for all of us and to show that you’re not only giving employees some slack for a difficult year, you’re giving yourself some, too.

Trying to sound too strong, too put-together or too on top of things makes you seem unapproachable and intimidating — and likely you’ll appear to be lacking self-awareness since folks might perceive that you don’t have it all together either. Acknowledge that.

What about performance pay and bonuses?

If expectations have been built, or promises made, that performance pay or bonuses will be tied to performance evaluations then you’ll want to stick with that or risk destroying morale. If your organization can’t afford the same levels of bonus as years past, then be open and honest about that as soon as possible – but keep some level of bonus tied to performance.

In most cases, financial compensation matters far less to employee satisfaction than do other things like – feeling supported, feeling appreciated, seeing their role in the organization’s success and feeling like they’re contributing, being part of a team and having a boss who understands them. So, why do we encourage you to continue with some sort of bonus? Trust.

Looking back at the 2008 recession, we are able to see now that the companies that opted to cut the bonus entirely (rather than reducing it but still paying something to top performers) suffered more in the long term. Turnover increased and employee satisfaction dropped.

People aren’t usually upset about the cash as much as they feel deceived by the promise of a bonus that was made or the expectation that was allowed to continue. If the organization has led people to believe performance begets bonus and has not clarified early on that this would have to change due to recent circumstances, then failing to provide something feels like a broken promise. That dissolves trust and leaves those employees feeling like they weren’t appreciated, that their contributions were taken for granted and that they were cheated.

Setting expectations for the year ahead

Now is also a great time to start building, or changing, expectations for 2021. If you are optimistic about bonuses provided certain goals are met, share that with your team. If you’re not so sure, talk to your employees: “If we aren’t able to continue paying bonuses in 2021, what would help? What would support you and show you that we care deeply about you, even if we can’t afford extra payments?”

And, of course, if your company is giving financial assistance to employees who are facing tough times, be clear that it isn’t a performance bonus – it’s assistance for all. Few things diminish motivation and pride in a job well-done more than if folks think poor performers and high performers are rewarded equally.

Before the conversation, think about how you would like to adapt your goals or competencies for 2021. For example, you might want to define what your leadership competencies look like in an uncertain year. One focus might be to shift from “Achieves sales targets” to things like:

Adaptable:

  • Identifies unique ways of creating value and encourages others to achieve the same.
  • Remains resolute and calm when faced with challenges or seemingly inadequate resources.
  • Develops strategies to reflect our changing business priorities.

Creative:

  • Rethinks processes to find customer solutions in times of change and uncertainty.

Team Management:

  • Encourages collaboration through virtual and non-virtual methods.
  • Acknowledges individual employee’s situation to accommodate corporate needs and employee needs.

The keys are to identify objectives and competencies that will aid in achieving goals but that don’t focus solely on the end goal. It’s important to articulate the reframed expectations in advance, so your leaders and staff know what’s expected and what they should be trying to achieve.

Coach’s Questions

How will you approach performance reviews this year? What changes can you make? Has how you’ll measure success changed? How will you define good performance for 2021?

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