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Quarterly “four column” reviews to improve staff performance and reduce manager stress

“I’m getting an ulcer dealing with these people!”

That’s the lament of many a manager and it comes from a traditional office practice. It is the result of the standard once-a-year evaluation that winds up as a litany of each staffer’s faults and proves worthless for improving performance.

Beyond its ineffectiveness, the annual appraisal is not fair because the staffer has not had the opportunity to make corrections along the way.

To improve performance, and avoid the ulcers, don’t wait until the end of the year to discuss performance.

Do it every quarter. Explain to staff what is expected of them and set targets for performance. With that approach, the year-end evaluation just wraps up what is already been discussed three times over.

A list of every requirement

Success rests on the job description. It has to cover every function the boss expects to be done because to do well, staff members have to know what their responsibilities are.

Using the description, start with the appraisal process, which takes the format of a four-columned page.

In the first column, list all the responsibilities from the job description.

In the second, write out the performance standards for the responsibilities. Develop those at the first meeting with the staffer. Go over each job item and ask, “What is it we need to accomplish here?”

In the third column, administrator and staffer set yearend targets for each item. Those are agreements about what’s going to be done.

The fourth column doesn’t get filled out until end of the quarter. It’s the result and it shows the staffer’s actual performance thus far.

Thus, at quarter’s end, the columns for the requirement of typing documents might look like this:

• responsibility: typing documents

• performance standard: 100% accuracy rate

• results: an average of six errors per document

Following that approach, staff have continuous constructive feedback. They know what’s expected of them, they know how well they are meeting these expectations, and they know what improvements they have to make during the next three months.

It’s fair because there are no surprises at the end of the year. It’s effective, because it keeps everybody on a successful path with never enough time to lose sight of the expectations.

Some controversial tactics to use

The form and the ongoing discussions make it possible to deal professionally even with the most sensitive staffer, because they take the emotion out of the picture.

Everything is written out and cut and dried. The expectations are measurable. There’s a boundary of time for accomplishment.

Just keep to the form—what has been done and what will be done in the next time period.

State the facts: “This job requires you to produce error-free documents, but you are not doing it. Let’s talk about how we can get you to do that.”

Force the employee to participate in the improvement process. “What suggestions do you have for correcting this?”

Be candid: “You need to do that to stay in this job.”

But also look at the good things the staffer is doing. “When you are here, you do a bang-up job. You are terrific in Y and Z. I don’t want to lose you.”

The cure for ulcers

For the administrator who still has ulcers, here are four more pointers.

1. Don’t get personal. Don’t ask if the employee is having problems outside the office. That’s out of bounds. What’s in bounds is what’s related to the job.

2. Don’t cite other performance issues as evidence of the poor showing. Piling on criticism is unfair. Address each performance point individually.

3. Don’t break stride. If the employee gets upset, angry or even cries, say, “Why don’t we take a break so you can spend a few minutes composing yourself? When you are ready, come back and we can continue.” Crying is often a learned behavior, and some people use it effectively. Taking a break and continuing says the administrator won’t push the staffer too far but also that the discussion is not something the staffer can escape. It is going to proceed.

4. In the days after the appraisal, watch for improvement and recognize it. Many managers focus on negative feedback and fall into playing a game of “gotcha!” But continued negative feedback only spawns continued poor performance, because it makes people worry about getting even more negative responses.

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