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The dreaded performance evaluation – everyone seems to hate them whether they are the manager or the employee. Most people agree that performance reviews can be uncomfortable, hurtful, or just a waste of time.

Now obviously, performance appraisals weren’t created to give the working population a communal headache. The idea behind these reviews is to assess an individual employee’s job performance and productivity in relation to certain pre-established criteria and organizational objectives. Some companies use them for performance improvement while others view them as an opportunity for promotion.

There are a number of reasons why performance reviews are hated, most notably the fear that a bad review will results in termination.

However, another key reason why performance appraisals can be unsuccessful is due to counterfactual thinking.

In case you aren’t familiar with the expression, counterfactual thinking is a psychological term that describes the tendency people have to imagine alternatives to reality. It centers on the notion of “if only?” and can cause the person to imagine “What if?” Counterfactuals are conditional prepositions, containing an antecedent and a consequence (e.g. If only I had worked longer hours, I would be getting the promotion.)

When an employee receives a less than stellar performance appraisal, they will naturally wonder what they could have done differently, which may cause the employee to express emotional outrage and frustration with the company.

While you can’t stop counterfactual thinking, you can work to ensure that your employees are not blinded sided during performance appraisals.

An important management function is to provide honest, ongoing feedback about performances to team members. Problems that are addressed early can be more easily resolved than those that are identified later. People need to know the standards for evaluation before the task is begun, and the appraisal should reflect those expectations.

If performance appraisals have gone poorly in the past you may not be adequately monitoring the performance of your team members so that you can give appropriate feedback in a timely manner. Or, you may be providing feedback that is vague or distorted by biases, emotions, or the perceptions of others. Make sure that your observations and feedback are supported by well-defined goals, roles and responsibilities. You should work to provide appraisals in a fair and constructive manner.

  • Be specific when giving feedback. Vague feedback such as “You need to improve” is useless. Specifically, what needs to be improved? What have you noticed that was being done poorly? What does the person need to do differently? How will you and the person know improvement has occurred?
  • Make feedback performance-related and combine it with suggestions for improvement.
  • Give positive feedback as soon as possible after good performance. Make it specific so the person knows exactly what behavior you are praising.
  • When criticism is necessary, make it private, constructive, and express confidence in the person’s ability to improve.
  • In addition to giving feedback, solicit feedback from your direct reports about how you can improve your own performance. Listen carefully to what was said, and thank people for taking the time to give you feedback.
  • Meet with your team members regularly throughout the year, not just at appraisal time. Review progress on their development plans and on their career planning. If there are stumbling blocks, ask: “What do you need to successfully meet this goal?” Do your best to provide what they need.

When you are straightforward with your employees year-round and not just at appraisal time, employees may start to think reviews can actually help rather than hurt them. Imagine that.