In my OctoberISHNarticle I addressed the challenge of using performance appraisals to build employees' competence. I identified ten characteristics of ineffective performance appraisals and suggested some ways to overcome these deficiencies.

Last month I discussed seven qualities of effective performance objectives.

Now I want to discuss how to conduct constructive corrective-action discussions, which is essential for delivering the kind of evaluation that can improve an individual's competence.

Since no one likes to be informed of personal failure, most managers shy away from this aspect of a performance appraisal - not only because they dislike negative interactions but also because they lack competence, real and perceived, at delivering corrective feedback.

Consider carefully the following guidelines for delivering corrective feedback.

1) Describe the problem without subjective or judgmental statements.

Effective corrective feedback usually starts by explaining the problem or need for improvement. Judgments or opinions are not useful at this point. Suggesting, for example, a problem resulted from insufficient motivation or inadequate planning sets the wrong tone. You put the employee on the defensive, triggering a litany of excuses.

Adopt the mindset that anyone could have demonstrated the inferior performance under similar circumstances. Then your challenge is to decide what environmental factors or conditions need to be changed in order to improve performance. Focus on facts: observable behaviors and the extrinsic context in which these behaviors occurred.

2) Listen proactively to learn the employee's perspective.

Attentive listening encourages the employee to present his or her view of the problem and various contributing factors. You must sincerely want to understand the problem from the employee's perspective. This can only happen if the employee talks openly and discloses personal viewpoints.

You can "open things up" by demonstrating proactive listening skills:

  • Show authentic interest through body language;
  • Periodically restate the employee's point to reflect concern and check for understanding; and,
  • Ask open-ended questions pertinent to the discussion.

3) Demonstrate your understanding of the employee's perspective.

Attentive listening develops an appreciation and understanding of the employee's perception of the problem, which can lead to practical solutions. When you show explicitly that you understand the employee's outlook, you boost interpersonal trust and mutual respect. This increases the likelihood the employee will accept the need for improvement and work on a plan for corrective action.

4) Obtain mutual agreement on the problem.

By following the first three guidelines, you bring your feedback discussion to a critical level - the point where both parties agree on the problem. Competence cannot improve unless the individual needing improvement recognizes and acknowledges the need. You must reach an explicit consensus regarding a need for performance enhancement. Then and only then can the next step be accomplished.

5) Discuss potential solutions and select a plan of action.

This is obviously the problem-solving stage. Here you should openly discuss contributing factors to the problem and observable barriers to solving it. Some factors and/or barriers may be difficult or impossible to eliminate. It might be necessary, in fact, to add supportive resources to overcome obstacles or facilitate the kind of performance you desire.

Don't hesitate to develop a long list of potential solutions. Many may be currently impractical or unrealistic. But entertaining ideal situations and optimal competence can lead to creative solutions. Select the best action plan for now, but recognize that a more optimal solution may be possible in the future.

6) Allow the employee to summarize the plan.

Often a corrective feedback discussion ends with the person giving the feedback reviewing his or her expectations. This might seem like the common-sense way to guarantee results, but it's far better to ask the employee on the receiving end to summarize the plan that you both developed and agreed on for enhancing performance.

7) Request a commitment for improvement.

After the employee offers a clear statement of the corrective action plan, you have the perfect opportunity to solicit commitment. You can say something like, "It's obvious you know how to achieve a higher level of performance ?do I have your commitment to make this happen?" Most employees will answer "yes" to the commitment question, but the nature of the prior discussion will determine how obligated the employee feels to follow through.

Whether the employee goes beyond the call of duty to meet the new expectations depends on the degree to which the guidelines presented here are followed. As I discussed in a recent ISHN article (April 2001), self-persuasion is key to personal commitment, and it is increased by perceptions of personal choice, ownership and interpersonal trust occasioned by the corrective feedback discussion.

8) Agree on a time for a follow-up progress report.

When people have "sold themselves" on the need for improvement they feel personally responsible to achieve their goals. They are self-directed. This is the ideal outcome of a corrective feedback discussion - but don't count on it happening. Performance improvements often come from external factors, such as an accountability system.

You should hold employees accountable for performance improvement through follow-up discussions that review progress. Optimally, this is viewed as an opportunity for an employee to show off accomplishment, and for you to offer genuine appreciation and recognition. This is also the occasion for employees to request additional support, and perhaps to revise their goals.

Next month we'll continue to sharpen your performance appraisal skills to influence safety competencies by showing how psychological research reveals standard appraisals to be biased and ineffective.