They stand there, shocked, mouth open. For long, slow seconds they can't even talk. I call it the American Idol moment and you see it a lot at performance appraisal time.
You've got to work just to get an American Idol audition. You have to show up as early as the law allows. That can mean 6 AM or even earlier. You get in line with hundreds of other folks who think they've got the talent and style to prevail in the judging.
By the time a would-be contestant gets to the actual audition he or she has demonstrated initiative and staying power. Alas, no one has asked for a demonstration of talent to this point.
That's how we wind up with those audition videos of people who are perfectly awful. They sing off-key, off-beat, and forget the words. They have the dance moves of an oak tree. But they press on regardless.
They think they're good. When the judge tells them they stink, they look shocked.
The problem is that no one has ever told these folks that they may be perfectly fine human beings, but they don't have any talent as a performer. People have lied to them. People have avoided the truth because they don't want to cause pain. And so at the moment the Idol judge passes that judgment the contestant looks like a calf that's been hit between the eyes with a two by four.
It's a look that's repeated at performance appraisal time in organizations all over the world. The appraiser passes judgment. And the judgment comes as a monumental shock to the person being evaluated.
It shouldn't be that way. If you're a supervisor, you can help stop the cycle of shocked surprise.
Here are some rules that will help prevent that American Idol moment.
Talking to the people who work for you about their behavior and performance should be an everyday thing. Don't wait for the annual performance evaluation to tell someone a truth he or she needs to hear.
Little white lies and avoiding unpleasant truth may be social graces, but they won't help you improve your group's performance. Candor will.
Candor does not mean rudeness or meanness. Your subordinate should leave a conversation with you about performance concentrating on what they will do differently, not on how you treated them.
There are techniques you can learn to increase your odds of a good outcome when you talk to someone about their performance. You can learn to speak the truth compassionately, but you must speak the truth.
You must tell your subordinate what they're doing wrong and what they must do to improve. If the problem is one of resources or skills, you must help them or change your expectations.
If they can do what you want, and they aren't doing it, you need to outline the consequences for continued poor performance. Then you need to deliver the consequences you promise.
For most supervisors most of the time lots of small, informal course corrections work better than fewer, drastic course corrections. For most of your subordinates most of the time small course corrections are easier, effective, and prevent an American Idol moment later.
It won't work for everyone. You will have subordinates who won't change. They should have to suffer the consequences of their behavior. That's fair to them. It's fair to everyone else, too. They may not like what you do, but it won't come as a surprise.
Do these things and at performance appraisal time there won't be any more American Idol moments.