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The Key to Performance Improvement: Candid Performance Assessment

Performance assessment is a critical part of optimal performance. When done well it brings intelligence, effective processes, mindfulness, and self-awareness to bear to sustain and continuously improve performance. Unfortunately, performance assessment is often not done well.

Recent discussions about performance reviews make me ask:

  • Why do people have such a tough time admitting that they screwed up?
  • Where does the tendency to hide mistakes come from?
  • What benefit does it provide? What does it cost?
  • Wouldn’t mindfully saying something like
    “The situation is terrible, we misread the conditions, we could have acted differently. We’ll learn from this and do better next time. Meanwhile we will do our best to manage the current situation.” be better?

Candor – Open and Honest
Candor is being open and honest. It implies that bad news not be filtered out.

This article is about the need to value candor to better enable performance assessment and the improvement it can bring. How do we overcome the habits of blaming, perfectionism, unrealistic expectations, and fear of rejection and punishment that get in the way of owning up to performance shortfalls?

Costs and Benefits
In project management, it is ultimately damaging to hide the reality of a troubled project that is behind schedule and likely to go over budget.

The truth will come out at some point and the failure to own up to the problem in the first place will make the reaction to the truth that much more intense. Further, ignoring the bad news will make it less likely that effective action will be taken to remediate the situation.

On a broader level – across multiple projects, in organizations, and in the political realm – leaders lose confidence in followers and followers lose confidence in leaders when they have the sense that the people they rely on are not able to see and unwilling to say what is happening and how it happened.

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Case Study: Performance Assessment Avoidance
Matt is the knowledgeable and competent manager of a team responsible for a program at one of his firm’s clients. The program has a multi-million-dollar annual budget with a mix of capital projects, smaller projects, and operational activities. As program manager Matt reports to the client’s leadership team. He is responsible for supervising and coordinating with members of the client organization, as well as contractors and vendors providing services to the client. The client and Matt’s firm consider themselves as business partners rather than client and contractor, though in the end there is a client/vendor relationship.

Matt is volatile and highly defensive when he perceives that he or his work is being criticized. He reacts with anger and is often rude to members of the leadership team.

The leadership team and Matt are focused on concrete current issues and have not addressed processes such as performance assessment, project and operational administration, and communication and relationship management.

The board is generally satisfied with Matt’s performance and his firm’s services, particularly regarding management of large capital projects and vendor/contractor relations. They have no interest in replacing Matt or the firm.

However, there are some unaddressed complaints. The complaints are voiced among the members of the board but have not been directly communicated to Matt, largely because every time an issue comes up there is an explosion of defensiveness. Matt addresses each issue, but they repeat. There is neither effective job tracking nor performance assessment. Leadership team members are not comfortable confronting Matt.

The Root Causes
On a personal level, the habits of blaming, perfectionism, unrealistic expectations, and fear of rejection are causes of the tendency to hide performance that does not meet expectations. These are rooted in psychological and cultural conditioning. On an organizational level, blaming, punishing, lack of sensitivity, and poor performance management processes combine to reinforce the personal issues.

Taken together these causes create a culture that hinders candid performance assessment, and as a result will be hard-pressed to perform optimally.

Because root causes are clearly tied to personal psychology, many work environments are less likely to address them directly. Where mindfulness practices and awareness of emotional intelligence are part of an organization’s culture, the likelihood of effective assessment is higher.

Though, there is always a great need for sensitivity; to be gentle but not so gentle that you get no results.

Dimensions of Assessment

  • There are three dimensions when it comes to candid performance assessment
  • Working to overcome personal resistance
  • Team and organizational maturity
  • Tools and techniques.

Working on oneself begins with the recognition and acceptance that there is resistance and that its cause is internal and personal. With that recognition and acceptance there can be investigation and remediation.

To achieve recognition requires gentle but firm confrontation. Ideally, one recognizes their own resistance and confronts it. If that doesn’t happen and the team’s performance is being affected, then the team or management must confront the issue.

Raising or confronting the issue may or may not result in the desired personal self-awareness. Without the individual’s recognition and acceptance there is unlikely to be remediation. In fact, confrontation can lead to greater outbursts and active and passive resistance.

The team and organizational culture play significant roles. Cultural maturity sets the stage for effective handling of the performance appraisal issue.

Where the culture is immature, as in the case study, confrontation is difficult and more likely to face pushback from team members.

A mature culture doesn’t necessarily have formal processes and procedures, it recognizes and acts upon the power of appraisal and has a clear commitment to continuous improvement and optimal performance. A mature culture recognizes the way emotional intelligence, mindful awareness, and relationships intersect with more concrete measurable aspects of performance such as schedule and budget compliance.

Procedures, Tools, and Techniques
Formal procedures are a means to maturity, not a sign of it. When the procedures are followed naturally as an integral part of everyday life, then there is maturity. There are many immature cultures with assessment procedures that guide managers and staff through relatively useless annual reviews and project retrospectives.

Tools and techniques support processes and procedures. For example, a tool like Perflo enables frequent micro assessments. Frequent assessments enable early warning of performance issues and remind everyone that assessment is a regular and natural part of life.

Awareness training and facilitation are needed to initiate and reinforce awareness and cultural change. In your scope of control, which my include only you, make the effort to value and promote candor. Cultivate an attitude of continuous improvement. Stop the blaming. Reframe failures and errors as learning experiences. Learn from them so you don’t repeat them.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.