Performance Reviews: Judgments or Collaborating?

[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]

Shelter in Place orders pressed a pause button on many businesses, not just their internal operating structures, but also for many, functioning came to a full stop. The coronavirus safety protocols are easing and many businesses are starting up again, some in limited ways and some returning fully to their former operations levels.

One of the clear lessons from coronavirus isolation is just how precious connection with others is to us. We used Zoom and FaceTime to see and hear one another, especially loved ones, but also for learning and growth, for self-care practices (like meditation, yoga, and other exercises), and for business team meetings.

Will people in business bring this learning about how important connection is to all of us fully into their companies? Will the importance of connection affect how we handle, for instance, performance reviews?

In the past, it was common for people to experience a performance review like a report card, only instead of a good grade, people’s promotions, opportunities, perks and pay raises depended on their scores. Judgments, positive and negative, abounded, and sometimes rules of behavior were imposed. Authoritarian tones were sometimes adopted. I have heard both those who received performance reviews and those who handed them down speak of the process with dread, like taking bitter medicine, and feeling highly stressed.

I took a training years ago with Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD, developer of Nonviolent Communication, on performance reviews. He suggested that much of the pain around performance reviews for the receivers and for the givers is the sense that performance (and sometimes a person’s character) is being evaluated. They’re told how well they measure up to departmental or company expectations and which behaviors they should change.

I want to share some perspectives Marshall brought to this process and how he suggested shifting from a judging and correcting process to a collaborative partnership which can improve communication and well-being for all concerned. Marshall was interested in shifting from any stance of power over into a more effective (and fun!) commitment to power with.

Some NVC principles that can guide performance reviews are:

  1. Every word and every action is an attempt to meet life-serving Needs. Even if I hate a behavior, I want to uncover what the person is longing/hoping for beneath the behavior. Because the Needs are universal, I too have experienced moments when the same Needs mattered in my life, so we move into a relationship with shared humanity.
  2. Hold everyone’s Needs with care (yours, mine, the team’s/company’s). We will reach much more effective and creative solutions when people work together to face a dilemma rather than entering an either/or, win/lose power struggle.
  3. People love to give (if given freely, by choice). When people give from a sense of generosity, choice and contribution, they are much more likely to support any solutions reached. However, if people feel forced or act from a sense of duty or obligation, their engagement tends to go dead, or oppositional down the road. If there is no ownership of the solutions, there is rarely full participation in them.

 

I. During a performance review, the supervisor can ask the employee:

  • What do you see as your strengths?  (best to start with their self-assessment)
  • What are your challenges or areas you want to grow/improve?
  • What kind/s of support do you think might help?

II. The supervisor can share:

  • What do I see as your strengths? (Use specific examples.)
  • What areas for growth or concerns do I see?  (It is crucial here to include specific observations, descriptions of actual words or actions which you or others have heard or seen. Using clear observations – as clear as a movie camera could record, devoid of judgments – shifts the information from character problems, which are very difficult to change, into behavioral problems for which there are often many possible alternatives.)
  • What Needs do I (or the team/company) have?  Go as deeply as you are willing so the effect is humanizing you or the company or team, rather than making ‘imperious’ demands. For instance, “I think the team is devoted to supporting the team in France by putting their report together at the agreed time so that together the two teams can create a ground-breaking product. We so hope that product will help our customers serve many others.”

III. Then strategize together, and find actions that could address areas where growth or change is wanted. Think in terms of clear, specific Requests or Offers. These will now be based on the rich Needs of everyone involved that are on the table, rather than on perceived bossing or blaming (power over).

For the supervisor, with all these questions, explore the underlying Needs/motivations. You can prepare yourself to stay engaged by thinking about the good reasons behind any purpose a person may have for keeping their job. Financial security? Challenge? Learning? A break from home duties & pressures? Freedom? Structure? Choice? Other Needs? Be real with your personal concerns/Needs and what you see as the team or company’s goals/Needs. Enlist the person as an ally in finding solutions. It is important to listen for the employee’s hesitation or half-heartedness around agreements. Note them aloud and ask if there is a concern that hasn’t been discussed yet. If left unexplored, these unspoken concerns can undermine an employee’s willingness to share responsibility. It could sound like, “I noticed what seemed to me to be a slight hesitation in your response. I wonder if there might be a concern we haven’t discussed yet. Would you be willing to talk about any additional concerns?”

For the employee the stress levels related to a performance review can potentially go over the top for reasons that are not obvious. Perhaps stress at home over a sick child, or addiction, or the death of a loved one, or fighting and yelling already amp up tensions. Or maybe the person is worried they will not be able to support their family if they don’t get a raise or promotion. Or it could be that people want a strong reputation at work as a way to get effective cooperation from their co-workers. The stakes can be high, and with that comes possibly very high stress.

For the supervisor giving performance reviews, the process can be uncomfortable as they imagine how receiving a poor performance review might feel to the employee (empathy), or because they’re not sure whether they can get the person being reviewed to ‘shape up’ (motivation, effectiveness), or because they dislike conflict (harmony), or because they want to look good as a supervisor both to employees and to their own bosses (acceptance, belonging), or for half a dozen other ‘good reasons.’ Discomfort around handing down judgments/ assessments can even sometimes make the supervisor’s tone of voice a little colder, a little sharper as they move forward while trying to ignore their own discomfort with the process. It can feel like something they have to push past. For the person giving the performance review, it may help their ability to be present, responsive and clear if they first attend to their own reasons (Needs) around discomfort. This suggestion is based on Restorative Circles, an NVC-based restorative justice process created by Dominic Barter, certified CNVC trainer in Brazil. He recommends not even proceeding with pre-circle interviews until doing a pre-pre-circle where the facilitator/s works with a trusted support person to dismantle any “to be” verbs they carry about any participant or themselves (he is X; she is Y; I am Z), so the facilitator can be fully present without their own judgments clouding the issues.

Sometimes, it’s tempting to use the performance review only as an opportunity to encourage employees. This is not necessarily helpful for people, especially as most of us know there are areas of our work life where we could do better. If there is no discussion of those areas, the employee can be left confused or worried or even wonder what’s the point of the whole process. Offering only positive feedback generally does not actually help a person develop self-esteem because it’s still coming from an outside person’s assessments rather than an inner assessment of having the power to make things happen.

On the other hand, as many people have experienced, even when receiving gratitude and appreciation, a single named problem can be a source of pain out of proportion to the overall feedback, especially if this is a person prone to self-criticism. A single ‘criticism’ can sound huge, like a death knell. This can lead to days or even weeks of worry or loss of morale. By focusing on Requests and Offers to address any identified areas where different behavior is wanted (by supervisor or employee), the person is empowered to be a partner in co-creating solutions and not simply seeing themselves as helpless before the company’s demands.

Another underlying situation that may be at play and be helpful to prepare for is what BayNVC’s former director, Kit Miller, meant when she said, “It’s difficult for empathy to flow uphill.” For various reasons, many people carry suspicion and resentment around beliefs that people in power don’t care about the employees. There might be an assumption that ‘power’ equals abuse of power. Let’s face it, someone’s job and livelihood can be on the line, which is more than a perceived power differential. This enemy image overlaid on the performance reviewer can evoke oppositional or passive reactions for an employee. It could then be harder for the employee to hold the supervisor’s humanity (their Needs and motivations). Therefore it will be important for the supervisor to explicitly name and take into account the employee’s Needs and to state clearly the supervisor’s (or the team’s/company’s) Needs.

When systems add to stresses and possible disconnections, I keep returning to something BayNVC’s lead trainer, Miki Kashtan, said summarizing her practice of NVC: “I want every person I speak with to know that they matter.” Our separations due to the Shelter in Place orders underscore the importance of connections with the humans in our lives. Even those connections at work where we can spend about 8 hours a day provide social interactions. How can we hold those conversations with dignity and respect?

If you found something useful in this article, I would love to hear your response, including any specific ideas that you anticipate will be useful in your performance reviews. This could support my interest in engagement, support, contribution and/or capturing rarely discussed teachings from Marshall Rosenberg. My email is meganwind@baynvc.org .


Meganwind Eoyang came to the study of Nonviolent Communication from a very different world. She grew up street fighting on the south side of Chicago. She studied and taught martial arts, and took full-force fighting training. She was excited to discover that Nonviolent Communication offers clear steps for practicing the compassion, self-love, and love for others which most spiritual traditions invite us to live. Meganwind has been a trainer with Bay Area Nonviolent Communication since 2001. She also managed BayNVC’s Safer Communities Project for 14 years, with 13 volunteers bringing NVC classes to people incarcerated in San Quentin state prison and Bay Area Sheriff’s Department county jails. She loves sharing NVC skills and principles with individuals, couples, classes and organizations. Click here to read more about her Empowered Communication study series.

You may enjoy watching:
• A 10-minute video interview of Meganwind speaking about empathy.
• A 4-minute video interview of Meganwind speaking about examples of empathy with inmates at San Quentin and in her coaching sessions with couples.

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