Testing times at work

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 January, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 January, 1995, 12:00am

IF YOU took a poll, I think you'd find that most managers regard the annual performance review of their subordinates as (at best) a necessary evil or (at worst) a total pain.

Most managers don't enjoy the experience because a performance review is, at heart, a confrontation. As the employee argues his case, struggling to put a positive spin on his performance during the previous 12 months, the manager must point out, in chapter and verse, where he is right and where he is wrong.

A dialogue that, in theory, should improve the employee-manager relationship quite often ends up damaging it.

Perhaps that's one reason why job reviews at many companies have turned into such predictable, bloodless routines.

We all know the drill. Boss pulls employee's file. Boss scans MBO (Management by Objective) memo. Boss asks employee to comment. Employee (who wrote said memo the year before) cites achievements. They shake hands, agree new MBO, review salary, and repeat the process the following year.

This is hardly a major 'bonding' experience for either party, and yet it probably has a greater impact on the employee's happiness and the company's well-being than any other discussion that year. (If you don't believe me, just think how much time you've spend rethinking the most recent job review with your boss.) So what can managers do to transform the standard review from a dispiriting affair into an enlightening one? For starters, they can ask more provocative questions. They can push for answers that reveal what's really on their employees' minds.

Here are five questions your subordinates probably don't expect to hear from you but will definitely like the opportunity to comment on.

'Who are your most valuable peers or subordinates? And what can we do to make them better and make sure they stay?' This is the best sort of intelligence for a boss who has long-term goals and wants to build a team that will endure. I can't think of a better way to identify the 'lifers' at your company as opposed to those who are just passing through.

What scares you the most about our competition? Subordinates often have a less arrogant, more respectful attitude towards competitors than their bosses do. Unlike bosses, whose egos are usually involved in the comparison, subordinates don't necessarily regard the competition's strength as a sign of their own weakness. As a manager, you may be surprised to learn where the competition is beating you.

Why does this company need you? The point of interest here is how drastically the employee's opinion differs from your own.

What did you allow to fall through the cracks during the past 12 months? Assuming you grant the employee amnesty, this question works like truth serum. A great way to discover the chinks in your organisation's armour.

How are the company's objectives at odds with your personal goals? Is the company growing too fast, getting too big, introducing too many unfamiliar faces, losing its 'family' feeling, expecting more hours than the employee is willing to give . . .? Letting the employee express his view of any conflicts is valuable, but you'll create even more problems if you promise to resolve conflicts in the near future when you know you can't. That promise may allow you to gracefully ease out of this dialogue, but failing to deliver on it will set your relationship further back than when you started talking.

What are the projects and parts of your job where you expect my unqualified support in the coming year? This is the final question. Even the most close-mouthed employees have ideas about what you can be doing for them. If employees have been coy or unresponsive up to this point, this question will usually get them to open up - because it turns the discussion on to you.