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Talent Development: Improving the Performance Appraisal Process

by Brian Marcos in Talent Development March 3, 2021

If your departments are complaining about performance appraisals, then they are not alone. NPR reports that stats from CEB, a research firm blog, indicate that 83 percent of human resource (HR) managers believe that their performance evaluation systems need an overhaul.1 I would argue that most employees dislike the evaluation process, and you may be surprised to learn that the supervisors do too.

The very nature of evaluating another individual’s performance can be stressful and uncomfortable for all. It can seem like the worst day of the year—but it doesn’t have to be.

A Different, But Still High-Risk, Part of the Job

In most traditional businesses, supervisors oversee employees working an 8-hour or 10-hour shift with readily available performance metrics involving revenue and bottom-line expectations. This is not often the case for front-line supervisors in the fire service. Typically, we ask our supervisors to oversee 24-hour shifts with a mission primarily focused on serving our constituents by protecting life and property. Absent any critical safety issues or errors, judging an individual’s performance in the fire station environment can be, and usually is, extremely difficult.

Although we have several examples and different methods we can draw from, many departments fail because they consider their assessment only as a one-time event, not to mention that their members often lack the training to adequately conduct an assessment. Supervisors who are unprepared and experiencing their own anxiety often cause confusion for their direct reports, unfortunately producing unintended results. This reminds me of Gordon Graham’s high-risk/low-frequency model of fire service incidents or events. We do a phenomenal job of training our men and women on the one thing that may cause them the most risk. Why is the same not true about employee performance? It fits the same model. We do it infrequently and the risk is high. After all, a poorly thought-out and executed performance appraisal can result in the employee leaving the appraisal without a true understanding of past performance and, more importantly, without clear guidance for future performance expectations.  

Where Do We Start?

Greg Popovich, head coach of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, posted the following quote on one of his locker room walls: “Look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow, it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before” — Jacob Riis. 

In other words, the results we are seeking will come because of the execution along the way with each interaction and not just one 20-minute performance appraisal discussion.

Path to Success

There are several things you can do to strengthen your process, leading you to a successful annual performance appraisal experience:

  • Offer consistent informal feedback throughout the year: You see something, say something (for every negative comment, consider four positives). Also, tell the employee what they need to start, stop and continue doing to improve performance.
  • Distinguish between employee goals and employee development: Customize employee development and discuss and/or document employee goals.
  • Ask more questions: Do you understand the department’s expectations? Are you clear on your objectives?
  • Discuss the evaluation with your supervisor before having the conversation: It always helps to have another perspective.
  • Allow the employee to self-evaluate: This will help align employee perception with reality.
  • Eliminate the fluff! Stay objective and give specific examples, good and/or bad.

Once it’s time to sit down for the “dreaded” annual performance evaluation, hopefully you have accomplished the main objective of having employees who understand how they have performed and where they added value. 

Three Conversations

Many of us have heard about high, middle, and low performers, but few of us have ever been trained on how to have conversations with each type. According to Quint Studer, a businessman and philanthropist, the ability to identify which conversation to have with these three types is necessary and is the lifeline to ensure that your department is motivating employee engagement.2

Conversation #1: High Performers

One of the biggest frustrations I see with high performers, especially with chief officers, is the overuse of the politically correct “Thank you for what you do” comment. If the team member has achieved high performance markings, it usually means they exceeded expectations consistently and more than likely made personal sacrifices. These conversations need to be specific, providing details on why they exceeded your expectations as well as and the department’s expectations. I would also encourage you to find ways to engage their interest and feedback as to where they feel they made the largest contributions and how they can continue to grow.

Conversation #2: Solid Performers

In our organization, we changed the term “middle performer” to “solid performer.” Most of our firefighters fall into this category, which is not a bad thing. But, this conversation has the potential for being the most damaging. If not well executed, the opportunity to demotivate, rather than motivate, a solid contributor can very easily take place. In many cases, you have firefighters who are “solid,” doing a good job, but they believe they should be rated higher. So how do you keep them motivated and engaged? Well, hopefully the supervisor has been providing feedback throughout the year and coaching them along the way. It is also important to know where the employee wants to be in terms of performance. Do they want to be a high performer? Do they know what that looks like and requires? Or are they happy being a solid performer? 

Conversation #3: Low Performers

Low-performer conversations tend to be the most difficult for supervisors in the fire service. In some instances, low-performing members have mastered the art of diversion and excuses, and this often leads to a supervisor leaving the conversation feeling defeated and inadequate. How can that happen? I would argue these types of employees have been successfully negotiating and manipulating their performance since kindergarten. One way you can avoid this is through redirecting and initiating action. Keep the conversation short and be clear about the consequences of not meeting goals and continued complacency.

Crossing the finish line

With a cumulative approach to the performance appraisal process and a focus on having the right conversation, we stand a good chance of motivating our teams. But it’s going to require constant, genuine engagement. Keep pounding the rock! Repenning and Kieffer’s excellent analysis of the applicability of Agile practices to domains outside software development, they conclude by offering the idea that “best principles” are superior to best practices since they are necessarily adapted to the situation at hand; and so it is with coaching.

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