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The Stories Behind Performance Appraisals

It’s that time of year again.  Companies all over are conducting performance appraisals of their employees for the year so recently finished.

For many people, this is an experience to be dreaded.  Employees dislike it because they feel that they are being judged.  Their managers don’t care for it either because of the hard feelings that can occur.

Many of these concerns can be alleviated through storytelling.  It is a tool that plugs directly into the emotions and promotes shared understanding.

I have vivid memories of my first experience with the performance appraisal process as a manager.  One of my associates came to the meeting with a large stack of documentation.  I don’t think I’m exaggerating if I say that the stack was a good six-inches in height.

I began the meeting by acknowledging the pile.  “You apparently have something you’d like to discuss, so I’ll let you begin.”

My associate shook his head.  “No.”

“Ah.”  I gestured at the stack.  “And all of these?”

“That depends on what you have to say.”

You see where this was going?  My associate wasn’t going to hear a word that I said because he wasn’t prepared to listen.  He was in defense mode.  If I brought up a concern, he was prepared with documentation to refute it.  The curious thing about all of this is that I truly thought he’d done a great job.

No one likes to be judged, and performance appraisals tend to have that element built into them.  Even when the intent is the most well-meaning, there is still that sense that we may be put into a position of defending ourselves…resulting in losing a pay increase, status, etc.

So, how can storytelling help?  It helps by establishing an emotional connection that allows us to understand more of the thought behind what is being said.

For the manager, part of the process involves a review of the past.  This review is often from one perspective (although it often involves feedback received from other sources).  People tend to think of perception as subjective…that is, proceeding with an action based on limited facts.  That is when performance appraisal turns into conflict.

Now, imagine that the points of view are supported with a story.  While stories can include facts, they also bring the listener into the emotions surrounding the storyteller.  “This happened and then this happened, and all I could think of was…”  The listener enters the narrative and imagines his or her own reaction to it.

In short, stories are an excellent way to share the reasons behind an observed behavior.  We don’t always make the right decision, and most of us are not required to be perfect.  Learning the reason behind an action allows us to say, “Yes, I understand why she did that.”

The same is true for the manager.  Associates want to know why an action is being taken.  If it is part of a required process, it helps to know that.  It doesn’t mean that it will be welcomed, but it is much better than searching for a performance flaw to lower a rating.  I don’t feel judged if I am told, “Salaries are restricted to this percentage of increase this year.” 

Stories are especially helpful in imagining a future state.  Most of us are accustomed to doing more with less in these lean financial times.  So, if I am told that I should take training to learn a new skill, my first inclination is not to see it as a benefit.  I see it as something else I’m responsible for doing.

However, if I can be given a mental picture of my future with that skill under my belt, I can tie into that in an emotional, positive way.  The story allows me to see the potential and internalize it.  I will likely add to the vision myself creating a much stronger internal motivation.

Although many of us worry about emotional outbursts in the performance appraisal process, emotions aren’t something to be avoided.  They can work to the advantage of everyone involved when they allow us to see things as others see them and understand why certain choices were made.

What is the story behind your decision-making process?  Why are you perceiving things the way that you do?  Find the stories that allow others to share in those insights, and you can have a more productive exchange.

Thank you for reading.