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Kenneth W. Keller: Use constructive criticism to get better

Inside Business

Posted: February 18, 2009 12:16 a.m.
Updated: February 18, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Each of us has flashes of insight that soon dim, maybe to resurface at some quiet moment when we are reflecting, even years later. I had one of these moments over the weekend.

Many years ago, my immediate supervisor got a new boss. They had mutual respect and got along well, both working toward the same goals. I found it quite interesting when my boss pulled me aside one late afternoon and commented about his new boss: “He is really full of himself, isn’t he?”

I replied that I had witnessed plenty of people get promotions and that pretty soon the spotlight would disappear, the glamour and newness of the new title and responsibilities would wear off, and we would all settle down and focus on the job at hand. My boss looked at me as if I was some sage from a faraway land, and he nodded, and accepted my comment at face value.

In a work environment, anyone with any amount of confidence and self-esteem believes they are doing everything or almost everything right and don’t feel the need for criticism or input. Even people who don’t know what they are doing often put on the airs of showing that they know what they are doing.

Maybe it is the nature of a competitive environment. Work is highly competitive — for more pay, a new title, more responsibilities or attention of the boss. The chase for these things just might cause each of us to appear invulnerable.

In corporate America, I received, fairly regularly, performance appraisals. Some were conducted well, some were not done well at all, but the goal was always the same — to provide an evaluation as to how I was doing against my specific areas of responsibilities and objectives (long term and short term) and to provide a path for improvement going forward.

Fear plays a large role in evaluations. When I performed a performance appraisal, I did my best to make certain the employee knew what they were responsible for and met with them regularly to coach them to achieve their goals.

I didn’t like being surprised by evaluations and I made an assumption that those that worked for me wouldn’t care for it, either.

I conducted ongoing dialog to improve the process, make it less stressful and the tough conversations, if I had to have them, easier to conduct.

On the other hand, my response to these conversations and human resource-generated documents when I was being appraised were usually one part shock, a dash of denial and a pinch or so of anger, even if the appraisal of my performance was solid.

After some time passed, I learned to accept what was written about me, shock, denial, and anger dissipating.

I say this because I always believed in my head and my heart that I was working hard, doing the right things, juggling multiple projects and tasks, not letting things fall through the cracks, supervising and managing my people well and helping the company.

However, I was seeing all this through my own eyes, my own expectations and my own vantage point.

I didn’t take into account that I was part of a team and that what I did, or didn’t do, and how I did it or didn’t do it, how I communicated or didn’t, impacted others to a far greater magnitude than I understood.

Once the shock died down over the fact that I was being evaluated on tasks and responsibilities that I didn’t know I had — over how I was rated on skills that I thought were so wonderful and got past the anger of realizing that my boss didn’t really know what I did all day (and usually didn’t care), I calmed down and took in stride what I needed to work on to become a better employee, supervisor, manager and team player.

Performance evaluations are a strange thing in most organizations. Employees need them, but don’t want to have them — managers know they must be done but put them off because having a difficult conversation with a subordinate about how they are doing and what they need to improve upon is not easy.

What makes it even worse is the combination of the longer the employee has been employed and the longer the time period between appraisals.

There are a lot of reasons for not having performance appraisals on a regular, scheduled basis with every employee. Every one of those reasons is an excuse

In these economic times having candid evaluations is an excellent way to reduce the stress of the uncertainty of continued employment and to improve productivity.

Knowing exactly where an individual stands and what they need to do to improve their performance helps people get grounded and focused. It provides confidence to the employee. It strengthens the role of the manager. It makes the company a better place.

Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums, which brings business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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