Personnel evaluations are one of the dreaded rituals of organizational life. They are usually frustrating, emotional, and de-motivating. In the guise of trying to offer helpful feedback and guidance for the future, the personnel evaluation typically provokes defensiveness and resistance. Instead of fostering closer bonds, the evaluation often results in hostility and loss of trust.

So you can imagine my feelings when it came time to evaluate Corinne Wright, the CEO of my new ShadowBox company. She had been hired a year earlier, and this was going to be her first evaluation. During the year we had had a number of informal feedback discussions, but there was no escaping it — the time had come for a formal review. I was definitely not enthusiastic about doing the review. Corinne was game, but wary of how the session would go. We both knew the typical drill of reviewing previous goals and objectives and setting new objectives. We both knew that objectives change over the course of a year. Exhortations fade but criticisms don’t fade — they often become more painful with time to mull them over, turning into grudges. Did I really have to go through this ritual with Corinne?

No I didn’t.

Out of desperation, I came up with a different approach. I asked Corinne to make a list of all the important decisions she had made during the year. I did the same. Then we consolidated the two lists. And we independently judged each decision. A double-check (✓✓) for the decisions that had turned out really well. A single check (✓) for good decisions.  An x (x) for decisions that had turned out badly.  And a double x (xx) for the decisions we really regretted.  A question mark (?) if we weren’t sure of the quality or of the decision process.

We were careful to give good marks to decisions which had been correct at the time but didn’t work out for reasons that couldn’t be foreseen.  And to give bad marks to ones which had, in retrospect, been poor decisions even though we had been lucky and got a good outcome.

Then Corinne and I talked, face-to-face. It was a wonderful discussion. I learned a lot, and I think she did as well. We laughed a lot. We changed our ratings — both ways. The one decision that I thought was really poor (xx) I shifted to a single x. A few that Corinne had down-rated herself I convinced her to change because she was being too critical; I thought she made the right decisions but they didn’t turn out well for reasons that weren’t her fault.

And the conversation flowed in both directions. For one contentious decision, Corinne took the opportunity to explain why she felt I hadn’t given her the support she wanted (and possibly deserved). It was important that I got that feedback.

When the meeting ended, and we had to attend to other scheduled activities, I think we both were sorry that we hadn’t budgeted more time. Instead of feeling that we couldn’t wait for this to end, we felt sorry that it had to end because it was so productive.

The overall result didn’t matter as much as the conversation, but for those keeping score, Corinne’s batting average was .667 after I made my initial ratings, and .821 when we were done. Clearly, she had done a very good job.

Why did this performance evaluation go so well? One reason is that Corinne was so open and candid, so I give her a lot of the credit. But another reason is the format. Neither Corinne nor I took the comments personally. I think that the format highlighted the decisions, not the decision maker, enabling us to be more objective and curious about each other’s viewpoints.  It was a non-personal personnel evaluation.

Perhaps we were lucky with this session. Or perhaps this might really be a more productive way to do evaluations, leading to better calibration of views at the end. It might help teams gain a better understanding of how they make decisions, using actual events — a sort of team introspection and lessons learned session rolled into one. I encourage readers to give it a try, and let me know how it works out.

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