Counseling and Performance Appraisals

Counseling Meeting

Counseling has a powerful, long-term impact on people and the effectiveness of the organization. It is talking with a person in a way that helps him or her solve a problem. It involves thinking, implementing, knowing human nature, timing, sincerity, compassion, and kindness. It is much more that simply telling someone what to do about a problem.

Leaders must demonstrate the following qualities in order to counsel effectively.

The goal of counseling is to help employees develop in order to achieve organizational goals. Sometimes, the counseling is directed by policy, and at other times, leaders choose to counsel to develop employees. Regardless of the nature of the counseling, leaders should demonstrate the qualities of an effective counselor (respect, self-awareness, credibility, and empathy) and employ the skills of good communication.

While the reason for counseling is to develop subordinates, leaders often categorize counseling based on the topic of the session. Major categories include performance counseling, problem counseling, and individual growth counseling (development). While these categories help leaders to organize and focus counseling sessions, they must not be viewed as separate and distinct types of counseling. For example, a counseling session that mainly focuses on resolving a problem may also have a huge impact on improving job performance. Another example is a counseling session that focuses on performance may also include a discussion of opportunities for growth. Regardless of the topic of the counseling session, you should follow the same basic format to prepare for and conduct counseling.

Counseling Steps

  1. Identify the problem: Ensure you get to the heart of the problem. Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota, invented a technique called the Five Whys. When confronted with a problem you ask “why” five times. By the time the fifth why is answered, you should be at the root cause of the problem. For example:
      Tom's work is not up to standards
    • Why? — After discussing it with Tom it turns out he has too much of a workload
    • Why? — Tom is considered one of the experts, thus he often gets extra work dumped on him
    • Why? — Susan, the other expert, was promoted and no one else is capable of replacing her
    • Why? — We failed to train and develop the other team members
    • Why? — We did not see the necessity of cross-training
  2. Analyze the forces influencing the behavior: Find the forces you have control over and the forces the worker has control over. Determine if the force has to be modified, eliminated, or enforced.
  3. Plan, coordinate, and organize the session: Determine the best time and place to conduct the session so that you will not be interrupted or forced to end too early.
  4. Conduct the session using sincerity, compassion, and kindness: This does not mean you cannot be firm or in control (for example, see Confrontation Counseling). Your reputation is on the line; the problem must be solved so that your department can continue with its mission. Likewise, you must also hear the person out.
  5. During the session, determine what the worker believes causes the counterproductive behavior and what will be required to change it. Also, determine if your initial analysis is correct.
  6. Try to maintain a sense of timing of when to use directive or nondirective counseling (see below).
  7. Using all the facts, help the person make a decision and/or a plan of action to correct the problem. If more counseling is needed, make a firm time and date for the next session.
  8. After the session and throughout a sufficient time period, evaluate the worker's progress to ensure the problem has indeed been solved.

There are two types of counseling — directive and nondirective. In directive counseling, the counselor identifies the problem and tells the counselee what to do about it. Nondirective counseling means the counselee identifies the problem and determines the solution with the help of the counselor. The counselor has to determine which of the two, or some appropriate combination, to give for each situation.

For example, “Put that cigarette out now as this is a nonsmoking area,” is a form of directive counseling. While a form of nondirective counseling would be, “So the reason you are not effective is that you stayed up late last night. What are you going to do to ensure that this does not affect your performance again?”

Hints for counseling sessions:

For more information on counseling, see:

Performance Appraisals

If you don't keep score, you're only practicing. — Vince Lombardi

Performance Appraisals (often called reviews, evaluations, or assessments) are the measurement of a specific range of skills, knowledge, and attitudes in relation to certain objective standards. The ratings are based upon observations or empirical data in relationship to a set of predefined standards. Although we sometimes make decisions based upon our own personal feelings or gut-level instincts, appraisals must be based upon how well a person has performed to a set standard.

He who stops being better stops being good. — Oliver Cromwell

The objective of performance appraisals is to help employees improve their performance and grow as individuals so that the organization can meet its present and future goals in a timely and cost-effective manner. Is this how most organizations use them? No. They are often used for protection against lawsuits, to justify different levels of pay increases, or to provide once-a-year feedback. In other words, a lot of managers and supervisors view them as an additional burden required by Human Resources; when in fact, they should be viewed as a performance tool. Just as a leader uses speaking skills to encourage her troops and analytical skills to forecast budgets; performance appraisals should be used to encourage great performance and create goals to improve weak competencies.

For many, the performance appraisal is tied to their pay as a reward system. Tony Hope, a visiting professor at the French Business school INSEAD, spoke of rewards at the Institute of Personnel and Development's Compensation conference. He believes that we need to stop this practice, as trust and commitment cannot be fostered while cost-control imperatives dominate organizational thinking:

“Just as we have seen that knowledge workers don't respond to a regime of command and control in management style, so they won't perform according to pay systems that are individually based,” says Professor Hope, “Organizations must hang on to their best people and these people are exactly those that are least impressed by internal competition within tight budgets. . . New and powerful forces that are shaping organizations mean that people management professionals are going to have to find ways of collectively rewarding effort. It will be less pay for performance and more pay for participation.”

Performance appraisals are normally given at annual or semi-annual time periods. They need to provide specific feedback to the individual as to what competencies need improvement:

Performance Appraisals do not take the place of daily feedback mechanisms. If an individual is shocked or surprised by the evaluation that he or she has received, then you as a leader have not performed your job. An evaluation is the overall scorecard that sums up a person's performance over the rating period, while daily and weekly one-on-ones, meetings, and other feedback devices are the tools that leaders use to motivate their employees on to higher performance.

The performance evaluation is one of the most powerful motivational tools available to a leader. It has three main objectives:

Many people consider giving performance appraisals as being quite uncomfortable. However, it is not the judging of people that is uncomfortable, rather it is the judging of bad performance that is uncomfortable. Eliminating poor performance with timely feedback and performance appraisals becomes a lot more pleasant to give because now you and the employee can now focus on personal development. Now of course you are not going to eliminate poor performance; however, with a little bit of planning it can be greatly reduced.

Performance has often been described as purposeful work — that is, a job exists to achieve specific and defined results. And what bad performers often do is perform work activities (busy work), rather than activities that contribute to effective performance.

The first step in performance planning is to determine the results that you want the performer to achieve. After all, workers generally want to know what they need to do, how well you need them to do it, and how well they are actually doing it (feedback).

A worker should not walk blindly into a performance appraisal. Past counseling sessions, feedback, and one-on-ones should give her a pretty clear understanding of what to expect from the appraisal. If you blind-side her, you have not done your job as a leader. Helping your team grow is not a once or twice yearly task, but a full-time duty.

The appraisal should be a joint effort. No one knows the job better than the person performing it. By turning the appraisal into a real discussion, rather than a lecture, the leader may learn some insightful information that could help boost his or her performance in the future. Before the meeting, have the worker complete her own self-appraisal. Although you might think they will take advantage of this by giving themselves unearned high marks, studies have shown that most workers rate themselves more critically than the leader would have.

Should Performance Appraisals be Scrapped?

Performance Appraisal

There has been some talk of completely doing away with performance appraisals as they sometimes do more harm than good. Yet performance appraisals are tools and like any other tool, they can be used correctly or incorrectly. Part of the problem might be with its name — “Performance Appraisal, which has sort of a judgmental sound to it. Perhaps “Performance Planning and Review might be a better term for it.

Part-time employees at Trader Joe's are reviewed every three months, which is an unusually frequent rate of evaluation (Speizer, 2004). In addition, the part-time employees of Trader Joe's are paid higher wages, as are their full-time workers, than what you will find in the normal grocery store (an average of $16 per hour vs $12).

Yet, one of the arguments for scrapping performance appraisals is that ALL workers' pay should be aligned with the labor market — they do not deserve annual pay raises as it inflates the wage and salary structure.

Trader Joes

What is interesting about all of this is that they have been bought three times, and NOT because they are losing money — they make more money per square foot of business than the average grocery store. The new leadership teams have never said that they need to pay them what the rest of the industry pays. Why? Because they see the value in their workers! Rather than just talking-the-talk on how employees are their most valuable asset, they actually walk-the-talk.

Traditionally, roles have remained the same while goals change (Buchen, 2004). Yet, due to the rapid changes that occur on a day-to-day basis, the roles are actually changing, even though they might remained fixed on paper. Performance appraisals often fail to factor in the changing relationships between goals and roles that are often in a high state of metamorphosis. That is, our attention remains fixed on steadfast goals, while ignoring ever-changing roles.

This type of thinking shows up in a lot of industries as they view their workers' jobs as set-roles, even though the world is rapidly changing and becoming more agile.

For example, the 2004 grocery strike in California forced many shoppers to look at alternatives, thus they started shopping at Traders Joe's (who were not part of the strike). And many of these shoppers never went back to their regular stores, who see their employees playing traditional roles, because they enjoy the experience they have at Trader Joe's. Yet Trader Joe's was not always like this — it started out more like a Seven-Eleven, but because of the competition it went in search of its present niche and recognized along the way that its employees' roles also needed to change. So even though they still deal in the same commodity as the larger grocery stores — food — they not only changed the way they bought food (goal), but also in the way they deliver that food to the customer (role).

Thus, the real argument is not really about scrapping Performance Appraisals, but rather ensuring that once goals are set, that all roles are properly accounted for so that the target can indeed be met.

Next Steps

Next chapter: Leadership Styles

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Speizer, I. (2004). Recruiting and Staffing. Workforce Magazine. September 2004, pp. 51-54.