When Shakespeare said that all the world’s a stage, he probably didn’t have employee performance evaluations in mind. But for anyone who has ever endured a less-than-candid performance appraisal, his words definitely ring true.
Giving and receiving feedback is a complex process made infinitely more complicated by our human emotions and reactions. In particular, our fears, uncertainties and doubts about the feedback process can make us very uncomfortable. So when we give or receive feedback, we often appear as though we are on stage, performing a role.
Performance evaluations often feature two primary roles: lead actors (the person providing the feedback) and supporting actors (the individual receiving the feedback). Do you recognize any of the following performers in your company?
“…and the Oscar goes to…”
Leading Actors (providing feedback):
- The Magician disguises her feedback so that the employee can only guess about the real message. “You did great & here’s one thing to work on, but you did great…” In order to minimize conflict and keep the employee guessing, she only slips in negative comments when the employee isn’t looking. The magician typically appears when a manager is afraid of hurting the employee’s feelings or worried about not being liked. The receiver walks away wondering what the show was all about.
- The Corporate Enforcer’s main goal is to protect his “good guy” status. His impersonal “I’m just doing my job and delivering the message; it’s not like I wanted to or that I even believe it is necessary” approach gets him off the hook for having any negative thoughts of his own or opinions about the employee.
- The Hero plays the part of protector while delivering the feedback as if he is there only to help. “Don’t worry, I’ll do it.” He may pretend not to agree with the feedback while backpedaling out of the discussion, and will frequently step in and offer to resolve any issues for the employee.
- The Interrogator asks a series of tough questions, trying to get the employees to figure out what they might not have done well. “Do you think it went well…what do you think others thought? Do you think that was the best approach?” She remains in control by never providing the answer and by not offering any specifics on the behavior(s) in question.
- The Game Show Host prefers a guessing game in which the employee doesn’t really know what the manager is thinking but is expected to play the game anyway. “Guess what I think is your strength? What do you think I want you to focus on?” As with the magician, the employee leaves the meeting wondering what it was all about.
Supporting Actors (receiving feedback):
- The Victim is so hard on himself that any feedback is taken way out of context. “It’s always my fault. I knew I would fail at this.” He often perceives the feedback as a personal condemnation and overreacts.
- The Sheepherder believes there is safety in numbers. “Everyone does it that way.” She finds or at least identifies other employees who engage in the same behavior. This is a perfect way to avoid responsibility & accountability for personal performance & it can be intimidating to a feedback giver since it feels like the whole organization is suddenly against you.
- The Con Man (or woman) creates tangents and diversions by bringing up other projects, issues or behaviors. “Did you hear about what is going on in X department?” The goal is to get the manager off track and avoid the real issues at hand.
- Ex-Spouses blame the other person for anything less than perfection. “It’s your fault. No it’s your fault!” In this scene, the lead and supporting actors both become defensive and stop listening altogether.
Do any of these casts of characters remind you of anyone? All of these lead and supporting roles require sophisticated acting skills. Yet, most people are not consciously aware of when they are performing. So when any of these actors appear on stage, it’s time to yell “Cut!” and re-shoot the scene.
Start by recognizing that the role being played is nothing more than a way of avoiding fears. If you’re the one doing the acting, take a look at the behavior getting in the way of your valuable feedback and try to develop a better understanding of why you do it. If the employee is the one on stage, show some empathy for their fears and then gently redirect the conversation back to the issue at hand.
In Hollywood, a best actor award will definitely advance your career. When it comes to being a great leader or manager and assessing your employees, not so much. Keep the acting to a minimum on both sides and you and your employees will enjoy more honest and productive performance evaluations.