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  • Madelyn Blair

Performance Evaluations Should Be Performance Observations

Have you ever seen a child standing near the water and shouting, “Watch me, Mom!” as they dove into the water? I could imagine that child doing the same thing over and over again. He or she wants to be seen as they do the dive. As I thought about that, I realized that we haven’t changed much from that child.

We all like to be seen doing what we do – especially when we do it well.


On Friday, I was talking with a group of executives about what it means to ‘belong’. The conversation rambled a bit, moved to performance evaluation and whether it should be once a year or done on a constant basis. We know that giving feedback quickly is the most effective because the person can relate your comments to something they just did. According to one of the members it is exhausting to give constant feedback to staff.


However, when the feedback is about something the person did that was well done, it takes no energy at all. All it takes is observation and noting what you observed.

[Photo by James Balensief]


When I do performance evaluations, I always remember to say something positive before I get to things the person should work on. Usually, the positive thing is something that helps the business deliver product or service to the customer. Done this way, it balances the points. As I wrote the positive point, I still felt I left out so many things that the person did well, mainly because those points often seemed minor or didn’t relate directly to the product. Yet, what was being left out were what made the team work so well.


I thought about my students. I watch my students carefully as it’s important to sense when they are struggling or just complaining or trying a new skill or executing a well-honed one. My intention is always to see how the student grows while they are working with me. Of course, I have to grade their work, but I consider that I am not doing my job as a teacher unless I see them grow.


In the same way, I see my job as a manager to assure that my staff are growing. Now, you may be saying, wait, the job of a manager is to make sure that people are doing the right things to achieve the mission. Growth takes extra resources – training, mentoring, coaching. But when you observe and acknowledge something they are doing well, the person knows that what they did was right, they know they are capable of something, they know that you have seen them, and they know better what to do more of. That’s the start of growth, and it costs nothing but observing what your staff are doing (something you should be doing anyway) and taking 30 seconds to mention it.


If telling a person they have done something right or well or exemplary or insightful or whatever, takes no energy, it actually gives both the person and yourself a lift. This is the reverse of exhausting. Observing your staff and noting what they do that is done well becomes a no-brainer. Everybody’s energy goes up, the staff member grows, and the whole team becomes more resilient.


It also says to the person, you are not invisible. I see you. You both are energized. The person grows and productivity goes up. Observing someone who works remotely is a bit harder only because we have fewer opportunities to observe. So, the key is to be prepared to observe when you can – during a phone call, during a Zoom meeting, listening to other staff as they discuss their interactions with remote staff. The opportunities are there.


We should attend more to observing. Let’s stop talking about performance evaluation and start talking about performance observation.


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