by Steve Adubato, PhD

One of the keys to being a successful manager is communicating in a direct, candid and constructive fashion with your people regarding their performance. Historically, so-called “performance reviews” have not achieved this objective. Too often, these reviews provide little if any tangible feedback that allows employees to improve their performance in specific areas. This lack of candid communication around employee performance can only produce a culture of mediocrity at best. At worst, it produces cynicism and apathy toward the employee evaluation process.

Recently, I spoke with Jim, a partner in a regional law firm about this issue. Jim had conducted a seminar for new firm managers about the need to be more candid and direct in employee evaluations. The firm’s concern was that too many managers were liberally doling out evaluations of 3’s and 4’s on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being poor performance, and 5 being exceptional. According to Jim, many managers felt it was the safest thing to do to give their people 3’s and 4’s because it wouldn’t require any detailed explanation.

Further, even though some employees deserved an evaluation of 2, managers were avoiding this at all costs. Finally, through Jim’s coaching and mentoring, he convinced a second-year manager named Mary to give an evaluation of 2 to one of her people, named Jane. Mary also provided a detailed, written explanation attempting to justify this evaluation, which simply stated “needs improvement.” Not only did Mary put the “2” in writing, but it only reinforced what she had been verbally communicating with Jane on many occasions over the past year. However, once the evaluation of “needs improvement” was actually put in writing, all hell broke loose. Jane challenged it saying she “had no idea where this was coming from.” Further, she went to another partner in the firm to complain stating, “If this stands, I refuse to work on any client under Mary’s direction.” So much for accepting constructive feedback in a positive way.

According to Jim; “It is absolutely essential that the organization takes a firm stand. In great organizations, in order to achieve excellence and stay there and grow, you have to be candid, honest, and sometimes share hard to hear feedback about the performance of your people, especially when specific improvement is needed. Without that, you have no right to expect success.”

Jim is absolutely right and his law firm faces a critical test. If Jane is able to have her way and get her performance appraisal upgraded and, further, opt out of any assignments reporting to Mary, then the message will be communicated loud and clear that the firm does not take employee performance seriously. However, if the firm’s leadership takes a hard line and communicates not just in words but in actions that they expect and require their managers to provide specific, constructive and candid feedback about where their people must improve, then the firm will be on the right track to success.

In the movie, “A Few Good Men”, Tom Cruise famously demands that Jack Nicholson tell the truth, to which Nicholson angrily responds, “You can’t handle the truth.” While we all know that scene, the question for business professionals is this—Are we willing to share the “truth” as we see it when it comes to employee performance? Or, are we going to communicate inflated and bogus information that has little value in helping team members improve and grow? That is the question. What’s your answer?