Struggling to Give a Good Employee Performance Review—Maintaining Credibility

November 24, 2006

The tension during an employee performance review can be so high that even under the best of circumstances (good relationship with the employee, good results), it is difficult to maintain credibility. Under less favorable circumstances, particularly when the news is not good, your credibility and the working relationship can be seriously damaged.

There is a lot of advice from consultants and on the web about how to structure these meetings. It’s not quite enough though. The key to maintaining credibility during these meetings is to have clarity and focus on the details. During the discussion, vague discussion undermines the trust. A few changes can have a big impact. Here are some specific examples:

If you can’t own it, don’t say it.

Example: “I tried for a higher rating for you, but the others did not agree.”

In an organization, individual appraisals are often decided by group consensus. Compromises about individual employees are often made to accommodate the overall requirements of the organization. You may personally disagree with the performance rating given to one of your employees, but once you allow it to be accepted, it is your responsibility. An attempt to deflect the responsibility will not be believed.

Eliminate vague platitudes.

Example: “It was a tough year for the organization

“Others had ‘career years’”

“You can turn this around in the future.”

“You gained in experience.”

Generalities are typically viewed as a filler and cover. Credibility demands some supporting evidence and specificity.

Avoid Inappropriate Requests.

Example: Many organizations prefer to keep their overall ratings results confidential. This corporate preference is often translated into a request that employees not share their personal information with each other. However, the request is viewed by the employee as suggestive of having something to hide. The employees will and should do with it as they choose.

Inappropriate requests are viewed as self-serving and lower the overall credibility.

Don’t issue unsupportable challenges.

There is a time to challenge the employee to develop abilities and improve performance. There is a tendency to issue broad challenges to the employee at the review meeting. If these challenges are general, without a goal, plan, or supporting resources, they are seen as a sure sign of empty words.

Challenges are best issued after consideration at a project review or when setting the employee’s goals.

Avoid Boiler Plate Documentation

The evaluation form given to the employee should reflect some work and thought of the manager. For example each responsibility can be summarized in the context of accomplishment, contribution, and significance.

The pasting method of completing the forms, particularly when the text is taken from the employee’s earlier submission, cuts the employee deep. It shows clearly that no real effort or thought was put into the review.


In summary, performance reviews are a measure of the manager’s credibility. In some cases, it is undermined. However, with some work to strengthen the clarity and focus of the discussion, the on-going working relationship can be developed in a positive direction.


Related posts on performance appraisals:
Managers Performance Appraisals–Assessing Contributions to Subordinate’s Professional Growth suggests an approach evaluating managers in this area or Dealing with a Bad Employee Performance Appraisal


Riding an Ox, Looking for an Ox–Story

November 21, 2006

Another open ended story. It is an invitation to see your own situation from a fresh perspective. In this sense, it is not an intellectual exercise, rather just an opportunity to see if any ideas resonate. It can be interpreted in an individual way. Further, as time and conditions change, an individual may see a different aspect from one reading to the next. And if nothing resonates, just pass on by.

Riding an Ox, Looking for an Ox

“Where are you going on your ox?”

“Oh yes, I am going to look for my ox.”

“If it’s your ox you’re looking for, aren’t you riding on it?”

“Ah! So I am”

Additional Stories

This is a link to a Collection of Zen Stories     (


Depending upon the individual, a starting point for thinking about this story can come from any of a number of different perspectives:

–Searching for an object that is lost. In this situation, one would use the standard techniques for finding things.

–Looking outside for what is in front of you. In such a situation, the search can never be completed as conceived or come to an end.

–Nothing is hidden in nature. All is in front of you even if you do not see it.

–The rider and animal are always together as a unit. More generally, there is no separation between subject and object. This is the way of nature. Misunderstanding the way of nature has consequences in the rider’s activities

–Everything is complete as it is. The “ah yes” recognition of this completion is the moment of awakening to this essential fact.

There is a sequence of 10 pictures in the Zen arts titled “The Ox-Herding Pictures” The pictures depict the journey of the rider recognizing the essential nature as symbolized by the Ox. There are any number of books and references on the Web.

Office Backstabbing: 101

November 16, 2006

There is nothing more unsightly than watching co-workers crudely hack at each other competing for a better job. It is office politics at its lowest. The pros do this so smoothly that people view their promotions as inevitable when these individuals jump over their boss with only routine performance credentials.

It’s useful to think about the some of the underlying techniques. As a hypothetical example, consider these points if you were trying make such a move.

Maintain integrity about verifiable facts.
Apparent credibility is essential to succeed. It is important never to be caught distorting an objective fact.
A powerful tool is simply to ignore inconvenient facts that may not be known or verifiable by others. It is also acceptable to spin the facts, as every politician does.

Separate self-promotion activities from attacks.
Self-promotion is always accepted and is just getting the word out about accomplishments and abilities. Backstabbing in this case means attacking unfairly or in an underhand deceitful manner. Both activities have their place, but mixing them in the same conversation really calls attention to the attack.

Enforce corporate values to others.
These values may not apply to you, but enforcing them does provide a good image and, in fact, does hold some of the others in check. Few people want to acknowledge that those with extraordinary success have followed their own rules.

Cultivate independent relationships with the influential, especially in soft business settings.
Soft business settings are activities which do not have the core day to day objectives as their primary focus. Consequently, there are routine opportunities for informal information dissemination. Fact finding and exploratory committees are among the best since they tend to provide regular access. These peripheral activities, often passed up by the rank and file, are sought after by the pros.

Use information about targets appropriately, based on its content.
Information about targets has its own value

(i) Negative information can be disseminated in an objective manner.
If the facts speak for themselves, there is no need to risk integrity points by adding much subjective opinion.

(ii) Positive information value can be minimized.
The positive content can often be minimized by presenting it in a context that logically results in an unfavorable comparison. This technique has the advantage that it simultaneously acknowledges the others accomplishment while denigrating its significance. (Example: “Yes, they delivered ahead of schedule, but twice as many resources were used…..)

(iii) Disinformation is an art.
Disinformation should contain just enough fact so that the entire statement can be immediately accepted as true. There is an emotional negative taint that sticks even if the negative ambiguities are later corrected. Paraphrasing others, without attribution, is a very common and effective method

Disinformation attacks are best made when the targets are separated geographically so that they do not have the opportunity to respond immediately. The additional time both allows the disinformation to morph into doubts or rumors, as well as leaves some vagueness about the originating circumstances.

A modicum of patience is needed here. The opportunities for using information present themselves if the foundation elements are in place. There is no need to force them.

Leave no traces.
It is embarrassing that otherwise cunning adults believe that e-mails and voice mails are not treated as public information.

Of the seven techniques discussed above, none are examples of particularly egregious behavior. It is the use of them together that makes the underhanded methods successful. It’s just part of the corporate landscape and important to track.

The one exception is disinformation. Ultimately tolerating, and even rewarding purveyors of disinformation, will corrupt and cripple any organization. It’s inevitable. Plan for it.

A related post:   Recognizing Incompetence Early–Pretending to be a Manager

Teaching Problem Solving to Students—Using Tools and Resources

November 9, 2006

If the problem at hand is to drive a nail into a board, you need a hammer. The right tool and it’s a simple matter. Without it, you can’t get the job done. Worse, if you don’t know that you need a hammer, there is just a nail, a board, and increasing frustration.


Problem solving also requires the use of the appropriate tools to make progress. For straightforward problems, the use of tools is often not noticed. It’s when students begin to tackle more complex problems, that it is necessary to explicitly use tools and resources. For some students, it’s a habit that has to be learned.

Tools are personal skills that can be applied to the problem at hand. Examples are mathematics, the scientific method, previous experience, and analytical insight.

Resources are people, materials, and information that can be found and made available for use. Resources often take the form of expertise that can be sought out for a specific need.

The difficult teaching part is to help the students recognize that specific skills or information are needed in order to resolve more complex problems. There is an irresistible temptation to plunge right into the problem or project. It is like trying to drive the nail without a hammer. The students quickly get mired and never really get back to putting full effort into it. The problem solving approach is replaced by a hope that the problem will solve itself.

This is the time for the teacher to take a step back with the student and identify what tool or resource must be applied to the problem. A valuable exploratory question:

“What else do I need to solve this problem?”

This question interrupts the drive to jump into the trying to work out a solution. It introduces the idea that something essential may not be available at the beginning of the problem.

“What else?” is an exploration that ultimately makes the solving the problem possible. However, there is a tendency to provide a general answer to this type of question. The student should be encouraged to get the detail needed so that an action can actually be taken.

Referring to the initial example with the board and nail: An answer of “something to hit the nail with” is moving in the right direction to work on the problem, but it is not quite enough. “Hammer” increases the detail to a level in which the task can get done.

The question also reinforces the idea that additional tools may be required for complex problems and that it is part of the job to identify and use it. Then, appropriately equipped, the student can go back to the problem as it was stated.

Finally, reinforce the use of tools/resources and emphasize that is the general method to keep in mind for future problems.

 A related article is Teaching Problem Solving to Students–The Cycle of Confusion/Resourcefulness/Confidence.

Balancing Management and Technical Priorities- Recognizing Problems before Projects Fail

November 7, 2006

Every project that has to deliver a working product has a tension between management priorities and technical integrity. This tension can promote creativity and efficiency, but if the balance is lost, a defective product results, sometimes with severe consequences.

Late Design Change is Cited in Collapse of Tunnel Ceiling
(NY Times 11/2/06)

This past summer, there was a fatal accident in a new tunnel built as part of Boston’s Big Dig project. A section of the ceiling collapsed, killing a woman. Although the collapse was attributed to a late design change, the origins of the problem were in the imbalance between project management priorities and technical execution.

As background, the original plan was to construct the ceiling of the tunnel using metal panels coated with porcelain. The panels were to be suspended from the tunnel roof using hangers. However, due to the high cost of the porcelain, designers substituted heavier pre-cast concrete panels. These heavier concrete were suspended with a hanging system that had a smaller margin of safety that was generally accepted in other tunnels. As a further compromise, where the tunnel roof had already been finished, holes were drilled in the roof and the hangers glued into the roof. Gravity won out and these hangers failed causing the fatal accident.

The report of the National Transportation Safety Board identified late design changes as the cause.

The Big Dig project was well known for being over budget, behind schedule, and technically challenging. However, the origin of the problem was that the imbalance between the political and practical considerations. This loss of perspective had happened years earlier and ultimately led to the defective work.

Management/Technical imbalances are routinely encountered in typical projects. Recognizing these situations can help prevent projects from losing focus on the product.

Recognizing Management/Technical imbalance:

1. The project is oversold beyond reasonable expectations.
All projects should be oversold to some extent. It is the challenge to reach a difficult goal that leads to efficiency and innovation. Some proposals are made with lofty projections and minimal feasibility analysis. However, without the input of the people responsible to identify, evaluate, and accept these challenges, the balance will be lost from the beginning.

2. Poor decision-making at the first difficult situation.
Almost all projects encounter a difficult situation, often within the first third of the project. (For the tunnel example above, the assumptions about cost were found to be inaccurate.) The path charted out of this situation is a leading indicator of the future direction. Signs of an imbalance are withholding information, changes which compromise the quality, stifling discussion, and management by decree on technical direction.

3. Responsibility for the product quality taken from the experts.
In every organization, there are individuals who understand the quality of the product and the consequences of design changes. They may often not be the strongest business people, but there is a general recognition throughout the organization that they know what they are doing. If they are ignored, it is a sure sign of an imbalance.

4. Personal ambition outweighs the product.
Certainly ambition is one of the most important motivating forces. At the imbalance point, decisions become geared to what looks best for the management at the expense of the product. This situation is summarized as a declaring the project a success and moving on before the deficiencies surface, leaving others to pick up the pieces.

A key step for a successful project is keep the managerial/technical balance in the project. If the symptoms for imbalance are not recognized, there is no opportunity to take corrective action. That train is headed off the tracks.

The Blue Sky Bird–Story

November 2, 2006

Another open ended story. It is an invitation to see your own situation from a fresh perspective. In this sense, it is not an intellectual exercise, rather just an opportunity to see if any ideas resonate. It can be interpreted in an individual way. Further, as time and conditions change, an individual may see a different aspect from one reading to the next. And if nothing resonates, just pass on by.

Jataka tales are Buddhist teaching stories that illustrate different truths. They are often used as teaching stories for children. Many are found in folklore and found different sources and traditions. This is a more obscure one. Some references are listed below.

The Blue Sky Bird

Some quail were feeding at the edge of a clearing. A man crawled up behind them and captured four birds with his net. He put them in a cage. The quail were trapped, scared, and hungry. The man came and fed the birds. Three of them eagerly ate all that given. The fourth bird just looked at the blue sky through the cage. Each day was like this– three birds eating and the other just looking at the sky.

One day, the man saw that the birds were almost ready for market. But then he stared at the Blue Sky Bird, who was by this time quite skinny. He reached in to pull out and inspect the skinny bird. However, the Blue Sky Bird, having waited for this moment, sprung into activity and flew immediately to a branch out of the man’s reach.

The three caged birds looked up. “How can we do this too”? The Blue Sky Bird replied: “You ate the man’s food and you will be captive until you die. I refused his food and now I am free.” And off she went into the expanse of the blue.


What is valued most?
Is the direction worth the effort, even when there is a small chance of attaining it?
How are short term perspectives and distractions kept in perspective?

References: There are many books and web sites with these stories. Different adaptations of this one on the web and in the book The Jataka or Stories of the Buddha’ former Births, (3 volumes) E.B. Cowell (2001).

Additional Stories

This is a link to a Collection of Zen Stories     (