When and How to Evaluate

October 13th 2015

When I ask managing partners about their biggest operational challenge, the answer is often how to evaluate the performance of younger team members. They tell me that the young ones don’t know how to take criticism, which leads to uncomfortable conversations.

As I see it, young team members are simply expressing an issue that has been present but largely unaddressed in CPA and law firms forever: how to use the evaluation process to improve behavior and performance. I’ve finally reached the conclusion that we can’t. We need to throw out the old way of assessing performance and try something new.

Case in point: the managing partner of a small CPA firm was bemoaning a recent hire, a bright young man who just couldn’t seem to get to work on time. When I asked the MP how he handled the issue, he said, “Well, I gave him a very harsh review at the end of the year.” “How’d he take it?”, I asked. “Not well. He seemed upset and confused, and nothing has changed.”

The MP’s latest hire was angry and confused that he didn’t learn more quickly what he was doing wrong. Studies show that young professionals expect rapid feedback. They’re right to hold that expectation. Nothing is less useful than a critique offered several months after the fact. It just doesn’t make any sense, and it never has.

Plenty of older professionals slam younger ones for their inability to take criticism. Maybe in some cases they’re right. But nobody at any age takes pleasure in finding out at an annual evaluation that somebody isn’t satisfied with their performance. Nobody really wants the sum of their behaviors, attempts, achievements, and failures to be reduced to a numerical summary. And surely no one wants to find out at the end of the year that they’ve misunderstood how they were doing.  

When I ask leaders why they don’t deal with performance issues right away, I initially get the answers you would expect. Too busy. I don’t want to be the bad guy. He needs to figure it out on his own. But when I dive a little deeper, I learn that leaders, like all humans, hate the discomfort that surrounds a difficult assessment of a team member’s performance.

Too bad, leaders. Nobody likes receiving a less-than-stellar assessment. People at any age may not handle it well, especially if they’re inexperienced and accustomed only to praise. If we want to grow as humans and as firms, though, we have to feel that discomfort and push on anyway, because a well delivered and appropriately timed critique helps more than it hurts. 

Leaders, please find the discipline to focus on a team member’s specific performance issue when it arises. This process can be relatively undramatic if you choose to make it so. It can be as simple as changing the timing of a conversation.

Review performance in cooperation with the team member, search for a solution together, then clarify expectations and discuss consequences. When you can do all that with kindness and empathy, you will be a master of useful criticism. Unlike the annual performance review, this new way of evaluating might also give people a fair shot at improving their performance. And that’s what you wanted to begin with.


communication, management, leadership, human resources


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