Want to motivate employees?


“It’s that time of year again … the fourth quarter … time to do annual performance reviews. Like many managers, I suppose, I dread this time of year. I’m busy enough already with day-to-day concerns, now I have to find time to fill out performance appraisals on 18 employees. Don’t get me wrong. I understand the need to document performance and let people know how I think they’re doing. It’s the time necessary to do all the forms and the lack of enthusiasm my employees seem to have for the process. All too often it seems like one big paper shuffle. How can I use the process to motivate my people rather than bore them?”


This is a familiar topic. Performance appraisals are frequently cited as an activity that neither managers nor employees have much use for. We all know the reasons why. The form is comprised of factors that don’t have much to do with the role the person occupies. Feedback is vague and nebulous. Examples that are used as illustrations don’t capture the range of behavior during the rating period. The ratings are too harsh. Or, they’re too lenient. The whole thing is a shell game to justify the salary adjustment. The performance review conversation is awkward and stilted, it’s forced. And so on.

I don’t have a silver bullet for remedying the process used at your company. But in this column, I’ll talk about a better way of pursuing performance management. We’ll start by “breaking all the rules.” In other words, instead of repeating the same tired, old performance management approach and expecting different results, why not try something different? Why not turn performance appraisal into a dynamic process rather than a laborious task?

As some readers might recognize, “First, Break All the Rules” is the title of a very powerful book written in 1999 by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman of The Gallup Organization. In it, they describe twelve factors that separate great from not-so-great leaders and great from not-so-great organizations.

The factors are simple, almost common sense. They were derived from a national research study undertaken by the authors. Supervisors and managers from all kinds of organizations were included in the study. The goal was to determine what managers do to fully unleash the talent of their employees. No leaping tall buildings in a single bound here. The items that differentiated superior from sub-par managers were concrete, practical, and straight-forward. 

They were, as follows:

Knowing what’s expected.

Employees profit from having clear performance targets at which to aim.

Materials and equipment.

Employees’ performance is advantaged when they have the necessary resources to do their jobs.

Doing what I do best.

Employees do better when they pursue work that is more aligned with their strengths than their weaknesses.

Recognition or praise.

Employees who receive positive reinforcement for their efforts are more likely to keep it up.

My supervisor cares about me.

When leaders authentically connect with the people they lead, employees feel like they matter, that they “belong.”

Someone encourages my


Employees who work for leaders who believe in them are more likely to perform at a high level.

My opinions seem to count.

When comments or suggestions are taken seriously, employees act like “owners” rather than “renters.”

My company’s mission or purpose.

Fuzzy or vague organizational purpose yields fuzzy or vague employee performance. Clear organizational vision turns employees from “wandering generalities” into “meaningful specifics.”

Doing quality work.

Success breeds success. When employees consistently perform at a high level, they come to expect nothing less.

I have a best friend at work.

Employees who have someone with whom they can confide or “let their hair down with” are likely to feel satisfied and connected.

Talk to me openly about my progress.

When managers provide timely, specific, and relevant feedback, employees’ performance is enhanced. Important fine-tuning adjustments can be made (i.e., start, stop, continue).

Opportunities to learn and grow.

The best managers know that provision of continuous learning opportunities is the key to innovation, growth, and renewal, for both employees and organizations.

Were you surprised by the items? When you think about it, each one speaks to a deeper, powerful organizational reality – namely, that if managers want to catalyze the performance of employees, then they need to make personally meaningful connections with them. They need to see them as a whole person rather than simply the incumbent employee who currently occupies this or that role or job.

A novel concept, huh? Connecting with your employees on a personal level, recognizing that they have hopes, dreams, aspirations, etc., recognizing that they want to be the best that they are capable of becoming and seek support and guidance from you, the manager, and, by extension, the organization at-large. Hey, we just might be on to something here!

Of course, there is nothing new or ground-breaking in these findings. “Master managers” have long known that these kind of “blocking and tackling” elements are the foundation for effective performance management. What Buckingham and Coffman did was simply identify time-tested performance principles and present them in a fancy, new package.

So, what is the applicable lesson you can take from this and apply to your performance appraisals this year? How about making a commitment to engage in some reciprocal performance contracting with your employees?  How about focusing on the work they do, how it matches up with their gifts/talents, and what you do to optimize the situation?

I am confident that if you follow the suggestions outlined in this column, no longer will your performance appraisal meetings be simply going through the motions. Rather, they will be dynamic, two-way exchanges in which you and your employees share insights and perspectives associated with the pursuit of peak performance!

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