by Jason Lauritsen
14 Jan 2021
How do you review people fairly in a year that wasn't fair to anyone?
If there’s one word to describe 2020 (at least one that’s safe to use at work), it’s disruption.
Looking at the plans we made heading into last year feels almost comical given how the year actually took shape. Nothing went as planned. How could it?
Employees were forced into working conditions they never asked for and had no control over. Depending on the job, that meant real threats to personal safety and unthinkable demands like those faced in healthcare or being forced to work from home with your spouse while trying to manage your kids’ schooling.
A parade of obstacles was placed one after another in the way of getting work done as usual. And most employees felt powerless to do anything about it.
Pile on top of that the reality that managers were being asked to lead and support their people in ways they’d never experienced or been trained for. This was uncharted territory.
Despite it all, work still needed to get done.
It didn’t feel fair--to either managers or employers. 2020 wasn’t fair to anyone.
This raises a question that you may be facing right now. In a year where so much was disrupted, what is the right and fair way to evaluate employee performance?
To make sense of it, I’m going to turn to basketball for a moment. As a lifelong fan of the sport, this dilemma reminds me of what sometimes happens in a basketball game.
As with any sport, you prepare for a basketball game as a coach by drawing up a game plan that outlines how you are going to use your talents and resources to try to beat the other team. In most games, the team that wins is the one that has a good plan and executes it to the best of their abilities.
As a coach, when you evaluate your players on how they perform in a game, it’s first about the win or loss. Then, it’s about how well each individual player executed their role compared with what was expected in the plan.
This is similar to how we’d evaluate performance in the workplace in a “normal” year. First question, did you successfully execute the plan we set (i.e. your goals and objectives). Second question, how did you go about accomplishing the plan?
But not all games are like this.
If you watch enough basketball, you will see games where one of the teams faces a storm of disruption. The best player on the team gets hurt in the first few minutes and can’t play the rest of the game. Then, two other key players get into early foul trouble and also have to sit out much of the game. The coach then gets so upset at the referees or the foul calls that he gets ejected from the game.
Suddenly the team is faced with trying to play and win without their three best players. The head coach isn’t even there to make adjustments. The game plan is out the window.
If you were the coach of the team in a game like this, how is your evaluation of the players going to change as a result of the circumstances that unfolded? What factors are you going to use to evaluate the team’s performance?
Using the standard approach to evaluation in a game where the plan was totally disrupted doesn’t make much sense. In fact, getting the win in this case almost feels like luck. The evaluation of player performance in a game like this is less about executing “the plan” and more about adaptability and effort given tough circumstances.
Following this type of game, it’s common to hear a coach talk about how much the team learned through the experience. They treat the game more as a learning and growth experience than a measure of their effectiveness as a team.
This is how we should approach the evaluation of 2020 in terms of work performance.
How to Evaluate Performance in a Disrupted Year
It’s likely that your year was disrupted on a scale far greater than what happens in a basketball game. By April, the game plan was out the window and the disruptions just kept coming.
Evaluating performance in 2020 the same way we always have just won’t work. Below are some suggestions for how to fairly evaluate the performance of your people in a year that was anything but fair.
1. Give the benefit of the doubt.
It was a challenging year. But we need to remember that the challenges were not evenly distributed. Some jobs were far more disrupted than others. Some people had more challenging circumstances than others. These factors cannot be discarded when evaluating performance.
Given that none of us were prepared for what unfolded, give people the benefit of the doubt in your evaluation. Assume that people did the best they could given their circumstances. Sure, there might be a few people who took advantage of the situation, but most people did their very best to keep up--even when it felt impossible.
2. Give points for effort.
There’s some outdated conventional wisdom in management that you only get points for results, not for effort. That’s a mindset we should lose forever, but it is specifically harmful this year.
Think of the players in the basketball game where everything went wrong. One of the things you’d want to see from those who stayed in the game is that they never gave up, they kept hustling, trying to find a way to win.
How did your people show up in this crazy year? Did they stay positive? Did they keep trying? That alone is worth a lot and something to build upon heading into the future. Give them positive reinforcement for their efforts and turn the conversation to how you can make the next year better.
3. Focus on learning over evaluation.
2020 is over. There’s nothing we can do to change anything about it. Focusing an annual performance review on a critique of what went wrong in 2020 won’t do anything to fuel performance going forward. To make 2021 a better year, try to learn as much possible from the past year and use that as fuel for the year ahead.
Engage each team member in a process of debriefing, reflecting upon, and extracting lessons learned from 2020. Through conversations about these lessons learned, you can partner with the employee to make the experience of 2020 feel more positive and arrive at agreements for how those lessons can be applied in the new year.
A focus on learning has another benefit as well. When we can extract lessons and positive reinforcements from surviving challenging times, it makes us more resilient when future challenges arise.
4. Set up expectations for the future.
If 2020 taught us anything, it should be that managing performance is not an annual event. Managing expectations and providing feedback should happen on a minimum of a quarterly basis and often more frequently.
Use the review process to set the foundation for the next year. Focus on making expectations for the first month or quarter crystal clear. Also, make agreements about how you will review progress and calibrate expectations throughout the year.
Last year was an anomaly. It snuck up on the entire planet, so we should cut ourselves and our teams some slack if the year didn’t go as we’d planned.
Instead, let’s focus on finding the silver lining in all that we learned and the ways we have grown to use those to make the upcoming year productive and successful.
Watch the on-demand webinar
A manager's guide to confronting performance issues
Join Jason Lauritsen, Employee Engagement & Workplace Culture Expert, and Anita Bowness, Principal Product Manager for Cornerstone, to learn how a well-designed approach to performance management can help to identify and eliminate performance issues before they happen.
- Why traditional performance management makes correcting underperformance so challenging
- How a modern approach to performance management impacts employee engagement and productivity
- An actionable five-step process for diagnosing employee performance issues
- How to address underperformance in a way that feels good to the employee
- Learn how shifting the focus of performance discussions to problem-solving and support rather than failure makes confronting poor performance less awkward and painful for everyone
Jason Lauritsen a keynote speaker, author, and leadership trainer who will challenge you to think differently. Jason is the author of two books, Unlocking High Performance: How to use performance management to engage and empower employees to reach their full potential and Social Gravity: Harnessing the Natural Laws of Relationships.