Dear Crucial Skills,
I need help with an ongoing issue. My manager is very negative and nothing ever seems to be good enough for him. He doesn’t think anyone can “exceed expectations” in a performance review and gives me a very mediocre review whereas past managers gave stellar reviews. I try to discuss this issue with him, but he is intimidating and loves to argue. I fear for my job. What do I do with this type of “leadership”?
I had an advanced placement English teacher in High School who was, I’m convinced, a frustrated University professor stuck in the only teaching job he could get. The first day of class he explained that he held “the highest standards of scholarship” and would only give an A grade for A work. He proudly announced that in the last three years none of his students had ever earned an A.
This was fine by me. I pulled in all B’s without doing much homework and was betting on a wrestling scholarship, but this did not sit well with some of the serious scholars who were trying to maintain their straight A run. They got their parents involved, who had several meetings with the teacher and the principal and eventually the school district officers. School officials ruled the teacher was using a ten step grading system instead of a twelve step—having for all practical purposes eliminated A’s and A-‘s. He was told to use the bell curve and told how many A’s to issue in each class of twenty students.
Performance review systems and rating and ranking systems are tough enough to understand and to administer. When you complicate the process with a boss who doesn’t follow protocol then it can be nearly impossible to receive fair evaluations.
Now, it could be that, like the school teacher, your boss doesn’t believe in high ratings and has impossible standards. But, there are also other possibilities. It could be your boss isn’t sure what would constitute a job well done, but will “know it when he sees it.” Another possibility is that the boss has a clear picture of what he wants, but has not seen you deliver it.
What these possibilities have in common is that you are left without clear expectations as to what you can do to earn a high rating.
I believe, at a minimum, all leaders owe those they lead a clear understanding of what is expected of them and how they will be evaluated. Without clear expectations and the ability to accomplish them, bosses are just playing a game called “Guess what I want?” This is manipulation and is both dysfunctional and hurtful. It’s certainly not leadership.
I would suggest your first efforts to improve your relationship with your boss should be to clarify expectations. It is reasonable to request that he explain what he wants you to do and how you will be evaluated.
Start by creating mutual purpose. Do this by sharing your aspirations. For example, you might say, “Mr. Vague, I want to talk with you about my performance in the coming quarter. My goal is to do an excellent job, achieve the desired results, and help you and the team succeed. I also want to earn an ‘exceeds expectations’ rating in my next performance review.”
This beginning statement clarifies your desires and assures him that your purposes and his are mutual—at least around the success of the team. This will also create safety and reduce defensiveness.
Next, ask for what you need to succeed. “In order to do this, I would like you to help me understand what exactly I need to do in order to make an excellent contribution and earn an ‘exceeds expectations’ rating.”
If your boss has in mind what he wants you to do, this approach will invite him to share it with you. If your boss doesn’t know exactly what he wants you to do in order to earn an ‘exceeds expectations’ rating, then your questions could help him think it through.
Ask questions which clarify and encourage specific detail. Such questions could include, “Is there something you’d like me to do more of? Is there something you’d like me to do less of? Is there something I’m not doing that I should start doing? Is there something I’m currently doing that I should stop doing?”
Ask questions that help to quantify your job. Ask about deadlines. Ask about results. Ask about components. For example, if the boss wants you to prepare a report, you might ask “Would you like my report to cover A, B, and C? Will it be helpful to send the report to you weekly? Would it help to have a paragraph that summarizes the data or would you prefer to have several pages of raw data? Would you like a section on analysis? Would you like a section on recommendations? Would you like a section on options?”
By asking clarifying questions you help draw out some of the details and specifics you need in order to know how your boss defines a job well done.
If your boss is not sure what he wants but believes he’ll recognize it when he sees it, then request more frequent accountability. For example, “Could we meet once a week and review my progress? That way, you can help me make course corrections so I meet your expectations.”
More frequent accountability will enable you to make quick course corrections and to check the boss’s satisfaction levels before it’s too late to recover.
These are some strategies for creating a greater understanding and clarity for both you and your boss.
It might also be helpful to include feedback, evaluations, and ratings from key stakeholders who receive the output of your work. In this way you escape the my opinion vs. your opinion argument and can present the boss with ongoing data showing that others are pleased with your work. This will demonstrate the high quality of your work.
The final step should be an effort to get your boss’s commitment to the plan and might sound like this: “If I accomplish the things we’ve discussed by the end of the quarter, would I then receive an ‘exceeds expectations’ rating?” If his answer is wishy-washy, then you need more dialogue to define and clarify expectations. If the answer is “Yes,” then you are set. Do your very best work, make your very best effort, and check with your boss regularly to see if any mid-course corrections are needed.
In the worst case, such as dealing with a boss who refuses to be satisfied or begrudges his direct reports for their successes (perhaps he was weaned on dill pickles and can’t help himself), and after trying some of these strategies without success, it may be time to escalate the evaluation of your performance up the chain of command, or involve Human Resources. Know that this would be a last-ditch effort and would severely damage your relationship with your boss. Sometimes, however, this is the only way to fairly document your good work and receive a fair performance evaluation.
Short of using this nuclear option, if you make it safe for your boss to have a performance conversation with you and help him to clarify and express his thinking, you should be able to reach agreement about what constitutes good performance and good ratings.
I wish you the best in creating clear expectations with your boss. Don’t be reluctant, you are after all, merely helping him perform the minimum requirement of a good leader.