Never assume an employee knows his own performance issues

Human beings have a remarkable ability for retrospective sense-making. Here's how to be prepared for that in an employee performance review.

There's a scene in Young Frankenstein, when Dr. Frankenstein meets Igor (Eye-gor) for the first time. He motions toward the disfiguring hump on Igor's back and says, "I can fix that."

"Fix what?"

"That hump."

"What hump?"

It's my favorite cinematic example of chronic denial. In fact, when I encounter examples in real life of self-delusion, the words "What hump?" always echo in my mind.

If I were to give one piece of advice to a new manager in regard to performing employee reviews, it would be to never underestimate the self-serving bias of human beings. In other words, the worst thing you can do is to assume an employee knows what his or her weak spots are.

J. Richard Hackman, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University and author of Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances, was interviewed for a story in The Harvard Business Review written for underperforming employees. He said, "Usually a person doesn't realize that he or she is the underperformer. We all have an amazing capability for retrospective sense-making, which allows us to rationalize difficulties as 'not my fault'."

Let's set aside all the other possibilities for an employee underperforming, such as poor management, unclear expectations, etc. Let's assume that an employee is, indeed, underperforming or has some kind of performance issue and you have to do a review. The more frequent the feedback and the more concrete it is, the more likely it will be taken constructively.

If, for example, you have an employee who has some pretty serious problems communicating with end-users, it will do no good to just say this. In that employee's mind, he will most likely rationalize that the end-users just misunderstand him. You will need to have specific examples of situations that end-users have brought to your attention. If they can provide some actual dialogue or emails that illustrate the problem, that would be even better.

If an employee has problems with time management, make note of specific instances when a deadline was missed.

In other words, if you have to address problems with an employee, expect to have to counter some basic self-defense mechanisms with objective data.