In praise of bolder feedback

Written by Cumulo Nimbus

If you’re like me, you became an entrepreneur because you like being your own boss. The trouble is you have to be the boss of other people, too.

Don’t mind me: I always get moody at this time of year. While others are looking forward to Christmas and New Year’s, I’m dreading my annual round of performance reviews.

I know what the experts say. Formally sit down and review your employees’ performance at least twice a year. (For most entrepreneurs I know, just sitting down twice a year is tough enough.) Praise your employees’ strengths, and cite opportunities rather than weaknesses. Be positive and non-confrontational. Plan what you want to say. Create a consensus for change. It’s all so syrupy sweet that it makes me long for the days when Jimmy Pattison simply fired the salesperson with the worst record every month. (No, I am not making that up.)

About the only rule I agree with is to separate your performance reviews from salary reviews. The two aren’t always connected, and in these deflationary times they’re drawing further apart. After all, there’s nothing worse than telling an employee what a fabulous job she’s doing, and then saying, “By the way, you get a 2% raise again this year.”

However, it takes an entrepreneur years to remember to save lunch receipts in one place. How are we supposed to find the time and temperament to do job reviews by the book?

Everyone finds their own solution. Here’s how I found mine.

Wanda, one of our longest-serving employees, is a real keener. Even as an admin assistant, she was reading the Harvard Business Review. (I’m almost afraid to let her read PROFIT.) Within two years, she was writing to the authors, pointing out flaws in their methodology. Today, as our GM, she’s likely to be lecturing our salesforce one day and overhauling R&D the next.

When I sat down with Wanda last year for her performance review, I had jotted down several issues to discuss. There was the time she managed the installation of new computers, and forgot to tell anyone. Ten thousand personal documents were lost, and who knows how many online war games? Her new hires in marketing didn’t work out. And her personal wooing of one of the biggest retail accounts in the U.S. resulted in the biggest order ever — for our competitors.

I met Wanda for lunch at Backside Mario’s, on the east side of town. First I told her how much I appreciate all she does for Nimbus Co.; her hard work and initiative are an inspiration to all. “Cut the bull,” said Wanda. “You’re about to lecture me on that computer snag, aren’t you?” So much for the positive approach.

“I know I should have consulted more,” said Wanda. “But I learned my lesson. When we planned the picnic last summer, I even asked people if they could cook before deciding who would bring sandwiches and who would bring water guns.”

“That’s good,” I stammered, “but what about — ” “I know what you’re going to say,” said Wanda. “Those two people I hired to run marketing. How did I know they would run off together? She was twice his age.” “Your decision wasn’t necessarily wrong,” I said. “What worries me — ” “I know,” said Wanda. “You warned me not to send them to that team-building conference in Niagara Falls.”

“I guess what it really comes down to — ” I said. “Is listening,” interrupted Wanda. “I know. But I think I’m getting much better at that, don’t you?” I stifled my gut reaction and tried to remember Lesson 2. “Let’s just say I think there’s an opportunity for you to improve,” I said. “Sure, when you start wearing ties that match your shirt,” said Wanda.

I tried again. “Maybe we could agree on some positive changes that could come out of this meeting,” I said. “I brought along a few notes — ”

“So this was a setup all along,” Wanda complained. “Listen: if you don’t want me, I can find another job. I don’t need you to babysit me. I deserve better than this.” She went on for some time; suffice it to say I never got beyond “Listening” on my checklist.

Deciding this formal evaluation stuff is for the birds, I’ve now gone back to the old-fashioned way. I offer immediate, hands-on feedback to the people I work with. I’m not storing this stuff up for November anymore. If people aren’t going to change, they’ll have to resist it every day of the year.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com