If We Care About Our Employees We Ought To Tell Them How They’re Doing

Over the years as a CEO and executive coach, I have heard it enough to know it is a real “thing.” Yet every time I hear it anew I am still shocked and disheartened. The “it?” Well, here is how I heard “it” again just last week. “I’ve worked for my organization for 6 ½ years and I have never had a personnel review.”

Seriously??! Based on the onslaught of horror stories I hear from clients and colleagues on a regular basis, I believe we have a real problem in the nonprofit sector (and perhaps in the world of business as well) when it comes to personnel evaluations and meaningful review processes. My purpose in this piece is not to outline the best practices for conducting such reviews. (I am happy to discuss these with you and your organizational leadership on an individualized basis since when it comes to personnel reviews, there are as many different approaches as there are particular needs.) Instead, I would like to issue a charge of sorts to all those who care about the future of their organizations and the impact they wish to have.

When institutions do not provide their employees with meaningful feedback, on an ongoing basis, they fail to maximize their most precious resources. To presuppose that an employee understands how she is doing, where she excels, and in what areas he needs to improve, is to both disregard and disrespect the talent necessary to drive the enterprise. The assumptions that “no news is good news” or that “if it ain’t broke, we don’t need to fix it,” are misleading at best and destructive, at worst.

In the optimal scenario, one would hope that senior management would take the lead in this regard. Too often, however, those who run our nonprofit agencies have themselves never received the kind of valuable feedback necessary for professional growth. The sad reality is that it is a near-impossible task to model behavior that you yourself have never witnessed. What happens more often than not is a senior manager says to himself, “No one ever evaluated me, and look how far I’ve come. I never received regular feedback and I managed just fine. So no need to do anything differently with my direct reports.”

Of course, if top management does not make personnel reviews a desideratum, it becomes quite difficult to overcome such obstacles. Quite difficult yes, but not impossible. Here, I would like to suggest two alternatives, neither of which excludes the other. To begin with, volunteer leaders – board members and donors – have a critical role to play in this regard. To be clear, I am absolutely not recommending that board members assume active responsibility for reviewing the organization’s professional staff (except, of course, for the CEO). The key to creating effective systems of performance evaluation, where they are not already de rigueur, is not to blur the lines between management and governance. But governance, working with the CEO, does have the responsibility to assure that their organization has appropriate systems for providing regular and meaningful feedback to every member of the staff.

In addition, individual team members are not helpless, even in the absence of a consistent approach to employee assessment. While not without some risk, I would encourage employees to take the lead in asking their supervisors for input and guidance, even when formal systems do not exist. Doing so need not require anything too dramatic or onerous. But the very process of asking for feedback is a form of “managing up” that can be extremely helpful going forward. In so doing, you can begin to secure the valuable data you need to grow your skills, address your weaknesses, and lay out a course of learning and action that will serve you well over your career.

The frequent absence of meaningful performance reviews and regular feedback is a blight on the not-for-profit sector. We who purport to be mission-driven and to care about making an impact must begin by treasuring our most valuable assets – our employees. If we care about our team we ought to tell them how they are doing. If we want them to grow, we must help them enhance their strengths. Oftentimes, that means being their mirror, helping them to reflect on their performances, and assisting them in monitoring their progress. To be sure, all of this is much easier when the boss “gets” it. But even if she does not, there are things we can do to help her.

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