We form opinions relentlessly. Often when we express opinions, or assessments, about others’ performance, they feel confused. They wonder, “How seriously should I take this? Is it an idle opinion, or is there some basis to it? What should I do about it?” A good practice is to ask ourselves: “What kind of action do I want this person to take based on my assessment? To help us make assessments in a more effective way, and make sure we aren’t confusing people, I offer a practice called “grounding.”
Imagine Samantha is being evaluated as part of her peer review. Her supervisor says that “she has not been reliable in her work, and she needs to improve her performance.” Like any characterization, this assessment could limit or create opportunities for her. If there is some basis to it, and she reflects seriously upon it, she may learn, change and advance in her career. However, her supervisor needs to ground the assessment in order to help Samantha take action and make a change.
Samantha and her supervisor can make her performance review more effective if they consider the following questions together:
• What is the supervisor’s concern for making this assessment?
• To what area or domain of action is the supervisor restricting the assessment?
• To what time frame is the assessment restricted?
• What standards does the supervisor have for making the assessment?
• What examples can be provided by the supervisor to support this assessment?
• What actions are now possible for Samantha to take?
The supervisor is not explicit about his concern regarding Samantha’s unreliability. As her supervisor, he might be concerned about her future with the company if she does not become more reliable; or he might be concerned about other employees having to make up for Samantha’s performance; or he might be concerned about the productivity of the team. Based on this wide range of possible concerns, Samantha doesn’t know what action to take. She might wonder if she should start putting together her resume or ask for some coaching on how to better manage her time.
Domain of action:
The supervisor tells Samantha that she is not reliable in her work. It is not clear here if he means that she is unreliable in every facet of her work or in one particular domain such as: arriving to work on time, submitting reports on time, or dealing with clients as promised. Again, by not being specific the supervisor leaves Samantha confused about what she could do about his assessment.
From the supervisor’s assessment, there is no way for Samantha to know if this is a recent problem or something that has been going on for some time. This makes it difficult for her to tie the assessment to particular occasions or judge how serious it is. This kind of timeless characterization also has the tendency to become a kind of label; in the mind of the supervisor, Samantha may come to be simply “an unreliable person.”
The supervisor does not give any indication about what being reliable means to him nor what Samantha needs to do to become more reliable. She needs to know the supervisor’s standards for what he considers reliable with respect to arriving to work on time, submitting reports on time, fulfilling customers’ requests on time, etc.
The supervisor did not speak about any incidents in the past when Samantha was unreliable. It would be helpful for him to say that she submitted her monthly expense reports past the due date over the last four months; or that she missed team meetings; or that she was at least ten minutes late for four out of six meetings with him.
Although the supervisor tells Samantha that she needs to improve, he does not provide any grounding for his assessment. This leaves her without any specifics about what actions she could take to change her performance.
Assessments and particularly performance appraisals, are vital to improving our individual and collective performance. Grounding your assessments of others can mean the difference between their success and failure.
If you are serious about getting better at grounding your assessments, and I hope you are, you need to practice. Next time you catch yourself giving your opinion about another person’s performance, give some specific examples of what you mean. Follow the steps above, and you will notice that people are no longer confused and better able to take action.