Q&A with Sharon Armstrong

Author of The Essential Performance Review Handbook

Although performance reviews are actually less popular than a trip to the dentist for most supervisors (see that study below), it’s not supposed to be this way. That’s why HR expert Sharon Armstrong wrote, The Essential Performance Review Handbook, published last month by Career Press.

Sharon’s goal is to help take the pain out of the performance review process, and as any manager and business owner knows — that’s a wonderful idea. Below you’ll find a Q&A with Sharon, where you’ll find ideas on how to master this important task.

Alice Waagen: Tell us about your new book and what you hope readers will take away from it.

Sharon Armstrong: I do my best in the book to provide advice on how to make the performance review process productive, painless, and effective.

After all, I have been there as a manager and know from firsthand experience that performance appraisals can be one of the most anxiety-provoking aspects of work life—for both supervisors and employees.

Appraisals are meant to clarify and reward, and to be interactive and fair. They take real time, real dialogue, and a real focus on the future, rather than just the previous few months. They need to work successfully for all employees—not just the terrific ones.

Alice Waagen: Why do you think, more often than not, that performance reviews don’t work?

Sharon Armstrong: Supervisors often complain they are required to focus on tedious written forms, but don’t have enough training in how to use them. They also worry about getting hit with complaints or lawsuits when there’s even a hint of discussion in the review about “improvement opportunities.” There’s also the frustration of measuring intangibles.

What’s more, employees often aren’t any happier about the performance review process.

Alice Waagen: I’m guessing that employees dread the process, as well.

Sharon Armstrong: Most definitely. In fact, my research shows their reaction ranges from feelings of trepidation to sheer terror. As one employee told me, “The perception of the individual or relationship often dictates how critical or complimentary a supervisor can be.”

Alice Waagen: Why is one of the most vital workplace responsibilities so difficult and complicated?

Sharon Armstrong: Let’s consider some statistics and surveys to understand the problem. A 2006 survey by the Council of Communications Management confirmed what almost every employee knows—that positive feedback related to their efforts, and recognition for a job well done, are the top motivators of employee performance.

Through formal evaluations and regular informal routes, performance appraisals yield excellent opportunities to motivate. Yet the process is frequently counterproductive or viewed merely as perfunctory.

And, according to the United Kingdom’s Institute of Personnel and Development, one in eight managers would prefer to visit the dentist than carry out a performance appraisal.

It’s not supposed to be this way. Rather than a painful yearly event, performance evaluation can be viewed as a culmination of small meetings, formal and informal, held throughout the evaluation period.

Alice Waagen: Is there any good news?

Sharon Armstrong: Most definitely. Happily, the elements involved — goal setting, effective observation, practical documentation, and ongoing communication — can all be learned.

Alice Waagen: I especially like that the book is peppered with quotes and ideas from top leaders. In Chapter 9, entitled, “Performance Reviews in a Changing World,” Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates shares with us this thought. “What I do best is spread my enthusiasm,” he says.

Sharon Armstrong: That’s right. And Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer added, “The end point must be exciting enough to stir thousands to uncommon effort.”

Alice Waagen: I’m guessing peformance appraisals aren’t going to go away any time soon. What do you think will be the future of this process?

Sharon Armstrong: I think that in one form or another, performance reviews will continue to be a fact of our work life. This book is designed to cut through the anxiety and make the process more productive and less unpleasant.

Alice Waagen: Thank you so much for your time, Sharon. I wish you all the best getting this important information out to every manager and leader tasked with doing the important job of conducting performance appraisals. I know your guidance will be helpful to them.

Sharon Armstrong: Thank you, Alice!

About Sharon Armstrong

Sharon Armstrong has over 20 years of experience as a Human Resources consultant, trainer and career counselor. Since launching her own consulting business in 1998, Sharon Armstrong and Associates, she has consulted with many large corporations and small businesses. She has facilitated training, completed HR projects, and provided career transition services for a wide variety of clients in the profit and non-profit sectors.

She is the author of three books, including The Essential Performance Review Handbook.