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Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University, a comprehensive doctoral-granting university known for its innovative curriculum.
For years, business education has centered on leaders having the necessary data to inform decisions. In my early 20s, I worked in the local power industry as an engineer leading teams through various process improvement initiatives. My mantra was: “Only God speaks the truth. The rest must bring data.”
Regarding human performance, objective goals for individual productivity have long been adopted across organizations. Employees and supervisors work to develop a set of agreed-upon goals that are SMART—specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. Those goals may be quantitative, e.g., “Grow new freshman enrollment to 500 students in Fall 2023,” or qualitative, e.g., “Launch a new strategic plan by 2023.” Come evaluation time, supervisors then estimate how close or far an employee’s performance has been to these SMART goals before calculating salary increases or bonuses.
For employees in 2022, performance evaluations can be lifesavers or landmines. In hybrid and work-from-home scenarios, gauging consistent effort and growth can be tricky. Overburdened managers and team leads may not always understand what goes on daily with their employees. Perceptions can get skewed and important details overlooked. As leaders, we must actively listen and read between the lines to fully grasp the experiences and goals of our employees.
I hail from a STEM background; my love of methodologies and deep appreciation for knowledge derived from data is well known. However, I am very aware that we need more than just data and procedures to critique employee performance. After all, we want this experience to improve individual and enterprise performance.
As a university president, I have seen firsthand how using data alone can leave a story half-told. For instance, to clarify how our students are “graded,” our faculty publish grade rubrics for their classes; these establish measurable goals for students’ performance reviews. Students can peruse the list, get a solid idea of expectations and move forward in developing a plan to meet or even exceed their academic goals. Where things get complicated with this approach is that some students may be ill-equipped to meet the established goals—sometimes through no fault of their own. We are seeing this in particular with lower math scores across the nation post-pandemic. Our students needed understanding, empathy and a path to success; employees need the same things when they are being evaluated. Here are some tips for conducting effective performance evaluations.
- Practice patience and active listening.
When conducting evaluations, weighing and assessing the many variables that impact innovation, productivity and collaborative efforts is vital. I do not advocate giving those doing subpar work a free pass. However, employees who fall short of their goals should have a chance to elaborate on why.
As a leader who has worked in the academic world for years, I can assure you that assessing employee performance measures is rarely a cut-and-dry task. Employees bring their whole selves to work—and rightfully so. A pre-prepared checklist of questions holds little value when the goal is to assess the gains and growth of a diverse group of employees.
Therefore, purely data-driven measures are inadequate and often need to be revised. Life is messy even in regular times, but with the heightened stress of the global pandemic, things can get unbelievably complicated. There will undoubtedly be many exceptions and unique circumstances.
- Consider extenuating circumstances.
Use measurable terms and make sure you don’t only cater to the ideal employees who were able to exceed their goals (often due to not being personally impacted by Covid-19). I cannot stress this enough: Consider the unexpected and often hefty familial responsibilities and hardships experienced by many of your employees over the past few years.
Timely support for struggling employees dealing with serious illness among family members is meaningless unless later performance evaluations factor the hardship into the assessment. The health and strength of an organization rely heavily on empathy for its employees.
- Communicate future employee goals with clarity.
Adjusting to change and working together to bridge gaps in times of significant and ongoing stress can make the difference between success or failure in business. Keep communication a top priority and make team goals and expectations for the coming year crystal clear. When a team or an employee falls short of meeting these goals, look at the situation through the lens of gaining a better understanding.
Assess the circumstances, consider everyone’s role and ask questions to paint a complete picture. At the same time, be sure to provide accurate feedback on how performance could be better and offer a clear path for improvement. If progress is not seen in an agreed-upon time, the employee may not be suited for the job.
- Keep expectations firm but flexible.
Thinking, innovating, collaborating and juggling responsibilities require self-care and optimal sleep—something we all lost too much of as Covid-19 shook the planet. While we all experience stress and anxiety differently, emotional exhaustion yields the same results: difficulty in functioning optimally at home and at work. Even top performers are not immune to struggling to stay productive and innovative during times of chronic stress.
The post-pandemic “new normal” means new challenges for organizations and employees alike. The treatment of employees in these times speaks volumes about organizational culture. Therefore, getting performance evaluations right is crucial.
Learning from the past and working together as a determined team bring the best odds of not repeating mistakes in the future. These tips will help bolster resilience, work through disruptions and continue to grow stronger organizations in the face of adversity.