Are my performance evaluations too positive?

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Question:

I'm a relatively new manager, and it's time for me to conduct my second -- ever! -- round of annual performance evaluations. I try to use praise and positive feedback to motivate the employees who report to me. But now that I'm looking over the performance of my team during the past year, I'm noticing that certain problems have persisted. Should I call these out in performance evaluations or should I continue to accentuate the positive? 

Answer:

Congratulations, new manager! You have officially fallen prey to the most common error managers make when evaluating performance. This problem -- rating employees too favorably -- is so common that it even has a name: leniency error. 

You've already discovered one of the major flaws of leniency error. If employees don't know what they are doing wrong, they are not going to change. You aren't giving employees the opportunity to develop their skills and improve their behavior. For those employees who know they could be doing better, you aren't providing any incentive to improve. After all, if mediocre or even poor performance warrants a positive review, why work harder? Similarly, for your best performers, knowing that everyone is rated highly when some don't deserve it creates a real disincentive to continue exceeding expectations. Really, it's no surprise that everyone's problems have persisted. 

Leniency error carries major legal risks as well. At some point, you may decide that an employee's problems are persistent or serious enough to warrant discipline or even termination. When that happens, the employee will point to all those glowing reviews as proof that you must have had a different -- possibly illegal -- motive for taking action. After all, if the employee's performance or conduct was bad enough to warrant punishment, why were the performance reviews so positive? 

Take this opportunity to clean up your act. Draft performance evaluations for your reports that accurately reflect their accomplishments and their challenges. Set them aside for a few days, then take another look, asking yourself whether they are accurate. You might also want to ask another manager (perhaps even your own manager) to review them, to make sure you are being fair and honest. Sugar-coating the truth can be a hard habit to break; another set of eyes will help you be as objective as possible. Of course, this doesn't mean you shouldn't give positive feedback. Even an employee with significant problems likely does some things well. Just make sure that high marks are earned. 

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