What influences Performance review discussions - Facts or Stories we tell ourselves?

What influences Performance review discussions - Facts or Stories we tell ourselves?

‘The Growth and development of people is the highest calling of Leadership”- Harvey Firestone

Performance reviews or Performance management requires meticulous planning and execution. The unfortunate reality today, is that most organizations and people managers do not give this exercise the attention it deserves, potentially treating it as a “tick in the box” activity, without realizing the impact it can truly have.

The very real risk associated with this is that it tends to propagate a vicious cycle where the approach by people managers pushes employees to give it scant attention, as the employee begins to think that the result is pre-decided by their managers or the HR department, regardless of the efforts they have put in, or the results they have generated.

To ensure that every individual is working towards organization-level objectives, it is extremely important that:

1- The employee performance system has to be nimble and time-bound. especially in current dynamic markets/environment

2- Employee goals (and progress towards these goals), require regular and diligent review, to ensure alignment with macro-level objectives.

3- Regular and timely feedback and feed forward given with healthy intentions/motives are extremely critical across all levels.

The importance of feedback cannot be overlooked at any level in any organization - without feedback, we are flying blind. Others are able to see things we may overlook or not even notice. Another key challenge that needs attention, is that while people may receive feedback from multiple sources, they may not necessarily act on it. Employee surveys, 360-degree feedback, etc are very powerful systems and techniques that can be leveraged if the individual makes a sincere effort to act upon recommendations/suggestions.

People have probably built immunity to a feedback overload like an overload of the antibiotics-the human body stops responding after a while. For most people giving and receiving feedback has been a negative experience instead of positive – “constructive criticism” sometimes gives way to outright criticism, resulting in individuals employing a defensive approach to a feedback session.

For the review process to be effective we need to consider some very key aspects –

1- Others see us differently than we see ourselves.

2- All perceptions are real at least to those who own them.

3- We need to ask ourselves - why do others think of me that way?

4- Why do I think about others in a particular way?

5- What are my intentions/motives in giving or receiving feedback during a review or even otherwise?

Understanding how the creation of impressions and attributions work will help us make the feedback process work for us, and enable the implementation of positive changes, that benefit both the organization and the individual.

The Crucial Conversations® program very aptly addresses these thoughts/questions with the techniques – ‘Start with heart’ and ‘Master My Stories’.

Like humans, a great deal of thoughts in our minds are perceptions based on what we see and hear and we are adept at creating stories about what we see and hear. The stories are only an interpretation of the facts – that is, what we see and hear, and what is measurable. These stories then drive emotions which in turn drive the way we speak, respond and behave. Also to note these stories in our minds happen blindingly fast- so fast that we seldom realize the impact and influence they have.

These perceptions/stories overtake the objectivity and positivity that should ideally be the foundation of Performance Review discussions
My favorite way to explain how exactly this works is from my own experience.

Pre-Covid most of used to drive to work on a normal busy working day. I used to also drive to work regularly and as in most cities the instant I would join the main roads - I saw lots of vehicles and heard lots of noise-horns, engine sounds, people at times shouting across at each other.

In an instant, all kinds of stories start to emerge in my mind -“oh my God I will be late again, my boss will get angry, this city is a mess, wish I did not have to work for a living” and so on. Soon I would be flooded with feelings of anger, irritation, frustration, helplessness – something I could not control at all.

The different emotions people experience based on different stories in their respective minds now determine how we behave on the roads - blow the horn louder, overtake from wrong sides, jump signals, abuse people, play music loudly, take pending calls with family friends, listen to audiobooks, etc. I too behaved similarly on different days.

Every morning I reached the office feeling exhausted, unhappy, and not in the best of moods. It started affecting the quality of my work in the office and the same would happen when I returned home late evenings - snap at family members, not want to even sit at the dining table for a meal with my family.

This had to stop or else I would ultimately become a person both office and family disliked!

If I had to alter my response/behavior I had to change my emotion and that would change only if I changed my story.

These techniques may sound simple but it requires conscious effort to make it a natural response. I looked at my role and contribution to the chaos on the roads during rush hours and that changed my story. The minute I told my mind how my family and me too are contributing to additional vehicles on the roads and the fact that everyone else like me was also stepping out to earn their bread and butter or fulfill various responsibilities – my emotions shifted to acceptance, patience, and empathy.

Subsequently, I calmed down while driving and found that over the next few days I reached work in a much better state of mind. My energy levels increased and I realized I became a much happier person. My family too started noticing positive changes in me.

Asking ourselves the questions –

1- What do I really want? -makes a tremendous change in the way we behave and speak.

2- What would I do right now?

3- What am I pretending not to notice?

4- Retelling our stories

5- Being conscious of the clever stories our minds tell us

Crucial Conversations® program is designed to help us address all these aspects and make us more adept at dialogue and not resort to flying fists or fleet feet. These techniques are an outcome of the authors following thousands of projects and thousands of people- keenly observing how and why some projects succeeded and why some people were able to get results from difficult conversations when Stakes were high/Opinions different and Emotions ran strong.

Many-a-times these performance review discussions get influenced by the stories the Reviewer and Reviewee are telling in their minds. Those stories influence the nature of the discussion as much as words used and intentions behind these discussions.

Effective Leaders are those who stay objective but still involved emotionally with the right intentions and use the ratings as only an indicator, not as a pre-decided number.

Trust is very important for these discussions to be meaningful.
Feedback is as relevant as a feedforward.

As Marshall Goldsmith said- “We can change the future. We can’t change the past”.

Feedforward helps people envision and focus on a positive future, not a failed past. Athletes are often trained using feedforward. Racecar drivers are taught to, “Look at the road ahead, not at the wall.” By giving people ideas on how they can be even more successful (as opposed to visualizing a failed past), we can increase their chances of achieving this success in the future.


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