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Leading with Character: Five-Star Reviews – Part II

Five-Star Reviews – Part II follows my appeal for reader thoughts on tools leaders can use to overcome the detrimental tendency of supervisors to inflate employee evaluations. Five-Star Reviews – Part I obviously struck a nerve, since my computer nearly exploded with feedback! I could now write a book on this topic, but will settle for capturing what lessons I can in this blog.

The primary frustration expressed by those who responded to my query was that performance evaluation systems often don’t work because so many supervisors fail to rate their employees honestly. If a supervisor inflates marks and rates everyone the same regardless of performance level, employee morale and workforce productivity are likely to suffer because so doing removes an incentive for top performers to push themselves beyond the minimum requirements. Such an environment also makes it challenging for new supervisors to mark employees honestly, because subordinates expect to receive the same elevated marks as they did under their former supervisor. That creates a perpetual cycle of ineffectiveness. And, if every employee gets a “five-star review,” how then does leadership select the best candidates for developmental and advancement opportunities?

The tools offered below won’t be universally effective given the diversity of workplaces including government, private sector, sole proprietor, military, law enforcement, and much more. But hopefully there will be a few that will help you become a better leader.

  • Supervisors should follow the “honor code” that obligates them to evaluate people according to the observed performance and established standards. Don’t take the easy way out and give undeserving employees a top performance review. It’s not fair to anyone, and breaks down trust in the system. A reader told me, “Being a supervisor takes hard work. At the end of the day, I believe it all boils down to communication and accountability. Set expectations, create a safe environment for feedback (up and down), don’t shy away from difficult conversations, hold yourself and your people accountable, and know how to praise your people for good work.”
  • New supervisors who do not see the performance level commensurate with prior evaluations should strike a balance and realign the employee’s expectations. The reader who offered this tool gives the example of a Coast Guard member who was being evaluated by a new supervisor; the marks would determine whether or not he advanced to the next level as a Chief Petty Officer. The member demonstrated average performance, regularly giving excuses for not accomplishing tasks, and failed to put in the effort to effectively lead his subordinates. Hence, the member did not receive the recommendation needed to advance, but understood because his supervisor had counseled him regularly, setting performance goals and reviewing progress. The supervisor, who emphasized leading with empathy and compassion, told me, “I can’t overstate enough that being involved in my personnel’s progress and providing regular feedback outside of the marking period was a strategy I relied upon.”
  • Ignore what your peers are doing with marks. From another reader, “I want to clearly communicate to selection boards when members have not met basic expectations; sugar coating poor performance just defers the inevitable and could eventually lead to a disaster.”
  • For employees who lack the self-awareness to realize they’re poor performers, try offering them training, and set up a frequent communication schedule to review progress; don’t be shy about advising such employees of their shortcomings, and provide concrete examples.
  • For those in more senior leadership positions, “Craft the organization’s strategy document with carefully curated values that support honesty and integrity in all processes. I spent a great deal of time with my team redesigning the strategic plan and then gave deadlines for supervisors to redesign employee evaluations, through the new plan’s values, goals and objectives.”
  • Build trust by evaluating each employee to the established standard. Communicate by engaging with each employee individually, but also by groups and cohorts. This takes time and effort, but it enables a supervisor to better understand the motivations and desires of the employees while articulating performance expectations across the organization. “I would let them know up front that I would uphold the standards and expected them to do so as well. I also let them know they would be evaluated according to what was written in the evaluations. With very few exceptions, this created an environment of openness and trust and a confidence that, if they performed according to the standards, they would be evaluated accordingly.”
  • Break performance discussions into two clearly defined areas. One to provide positive feedback praising strengths, then a separate session that covers shortcomings. Don’t mix them up by starting out with, “You did great, BUT…The “but” cancels out any praise that preceded it and often does more harm than good.
  • Make performance evaluations a tool to help employees improve, and ensure it’s not the only factor to consider in the promotion/advancement process. Base that process upon a holistic set of factors such as demonstrated leadership, commitment to lifelong learning, motivation to seek challenging assignments of increasing responsibility, career progress, initiative to ask for more work once they’ve finished what was assigned, etc.
  • Avoid the “equity trap.” Employees are not all equal. Distinguish the top performers by rewarding them in a timely manner with recognition such as cash awards, written awards, etc., to help set them apart from their peers in the promotion process; make awards rare and valued, not handed out indiscriminately.
  • Set up a system to evaluate the evaluators—to determine which supervisors are inflating reviews. If all evaluees are exceptional, it means the supervisor is skewing the marks. Supervisors should understand and respect that their reputation matters, and their bosses should evaluate them based on the intellectual honesty/moral courage they display.
  • Require employees to provide well-crafted input on their accomplishments to help their supervisors provide accurate reviews. Help employees understand how to translate their knowledge, skills, and abilities into stronger performance.
  • Use a simplified rating system. Rather than numerical, such as 1 through 7, for instance, choose descriptive ratings such as “unacceptable, acceptable, outstanding” for a given set of categories—that will help force distribution to the center.
  • Employees and supervisors alike should reach out to ask for mentoring or to mentor another. Mentoring relationships help develop people at all levels and can lead to better understanding and more honest evaluations.

The bottom line is that both supervisors and subordinates need to demonstrate intellectual honesty and moral courage in the workplace. Leadership and followership both take hard work. We must all be first and foremost guardians of the process to ensure the best chance for fairness to prevail.

Look in the mirror. Which of these tools can you use to ensure employees receive honest performance evaluations?

Please join me next time for more on Leading with Character.

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