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The Smart Techie was renamed Siliconindia India Edition starting Feb 2012 to continue the nearly two decade track record of excellence of our US edition.

October - 2011 - issue > People Manager

Socratic Review, Not Interrogation!

C Mahalingam (Mali)
Friday, October 7, 2011
C Mahalingam (Mali)
As a manager, have you ever wondered why the performance review sessions are not enjoyed by your direct reports? And even more importantly, have you checked with your team how as to how they perceived the review process? The response to both these questions is likely to be very mixed: “well, kind of; yes and no; and the like. In their well-researched article titled, “Behind the Mask- the politics of Employee Appraisal,” authors Clinton Longenecker, et al., have had this to say: “in terms of time, a formal appraisal of a subordinate takes perhaps three or four hours out of the working year; in terms of impact on the lives of executives and their employees, appraisals have significance that reaches far beyond the few hours it takes to conduct them.”

While it is a fairly settled view that complete objectivity in the appraisal process is not feasible, the best appraisal processes attempt minimal subjectivity as a goal. There are several approaches and techniques to reduce the subjectivity including maintaining a critical incident diary and ensuring the appraisal discussions are a two-way process and not just one-way where the manager dumps down the throat his story of how the employee performed. In this column, we are not focusing on the content or the technique to reduce objectivity. The focus is on the quality of the conversation between the manager and the direct reports being assessed or reviewed.

Good performance reviews should be one of a Socratic conversation and not an interrogation! Quite often, managers are so obsessed with wanting to communicate things that disappointed them or that did not go as well as they should have, their tone of conversation deteriorates dramatically. In this process, what should have been a good, fact-based Socratic review turns out to be one of a terrible interrogation! When a review turns into an interrogation, the roles that emerge are: “manager as a super cop and the employee as a thief!” These roles and what transpires between them as interrogation vitiate the atmosphere and leave the employee with a deep sense of disgust. This is often a shock enough for the employee to decide to quit the company rather than improving the performance and staying back as a contributing member of the manager’s team. In an interrogating style of conversation, manager is consumed by his or her anger and often enough, the manager himself or herself may not even be aware of this!

On the contrary, look at a review session where the manager turns it out as “Socratic conversation.” The tone and tenor of the discussion become one of understanding what factors led to the performance levels as they are and what could the employee have done to change the course for better performance. The focus would be more on problem-solving and not fault-finding. The roles here do not become one of cop and thief, but coach and coachee. This has profound implication for the learning and motivation of the employee.

How do you know if you are interrogating or doing a Socratic conversation? Here is a quick checklist to help you determine if your review belongs to the former or latter category:

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