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Sep 26, 2014
This article is part of a series called Classic TLNT.

Editor’s Note: Readers frequently ask about past TLNT articles. That’s why we republish a Classic TLNT post every Friday.

Question: “How do you deal with people and teams who are average performers but who rate themselves as exceptional?”

This came up on our last Member coaching hour call and I decided to write about it.

Since the call, I’ve dug out the performance rating definitions I created to add to whatever corporate ones existed. I found these helped to me clarify the difference between the performance levels. Use them if they are useful to you!

Level 1: Performance Problem (hopefully very few)

Does one or more of these…

  • Does not meet commitments, does not do what they say.
  • Does not show up, does not participate.
  • Work of poor quality, late, incorrect, frequently needs rework.
  • Consistently below expectations.
  • Negative impact on people and team performance.

Level 2: Low Performer (few)

  • Meets expectations, but only just.
  • Needs direction or explanation about the work required.
  • Does not generally contribute extra effort or energy.
  • Does not generally share knowledge.
  • Neutral impact on people and team performance.

Level 3: Solid Performer (most people will be Level 3)

  • Always meet expectations, can be counted on.
  • Sometimes exceeds expectations.
  • Sometimes contributes additional value.
  • Does an excellent job, as the job is defined.
  • Will go above and beyond expectations when asked.
  • Generally positive impact on people and team performance.

Level 4: Excellent Performer (few)

  • Consistently exceeds expectations.
  • Strategic thinker – contributes new ideas, improvements, suggestions.
  • Takes on additional work to add more value without being asked.
  • Can take on big problems or opportunities with minimal direction.
  • Regularly shares knowledge.
  • Consistently has positive people and team impact.
  • Does some of the Level 5 behaviors, but not all of them, and not all the time.

Level 5: Exceptional Performer (the stars, very few)

Does almost all of the following consistently…

  • Very strategic thinker — redefines the job to meet evolving business needs.
  • Consistently raises and exceeds expectations, does more than asked.
  • Finds efficiencies, reduces costs, improves processes without being asked.
  • Solves big problems, or finds new opportunities without needing direction.
  • Is known as an expert by other employees.
  • Shares knowledge as a process, mentors others regularly.
  • Helps others be more productive by improving the work environment.
  • Communicates effectively across and outside the organization.
  • Attracts additional support and resources.
  • Personally invested in helping the whole team perform better.

The No. 1 rule – No Surprises

Nothing about performance should come as a surprise at the time of the performance review or ranking.

As a manager, you should be communicating expectations and sharing yours and others view of the performance of an employee two or three times a year.

As an employee, if you are not getting this from your manager you should ask, “How am I doing?” How am I doing compared to your expectations? Compared to others? Do you see me as meeting achieving or overachieving on my goals? Here is what I think, are we on the same page?

Not all managers do this regularly with all their employees. I did my own performance review and drove the discussion about my performance with my boss in 17 of the years in my career.

Have the conversation

So what is the answer to the question, “How do you get people and groups who think they are all exceptional to accept lower ratings?

You need to have the conversation ahead of time.

Create a set of ratings like these, that work for you, that you can defend. Then share them with your organization long before you do the ratings.

Let everyone know well ahead of time that most people will be in the Level 3, the solid performer category, and explain up front what it takes to go beyond that.

Share the gap

Share the requirements for Level 4 and Level 5, for excellent and exceptional performance. Give examples of things that go above and beyond the job description in your environment.

Clearly define exceptional performance.

Set the expectation that high performance includes strategic thinking, communicating, mentoring, cost savings, and other things that raise the bar in your business. That way, when you get to the ranking process, it is not a surprise, and people who want to be considered exceptional know what they have to do to be seen as such.

Increase motivation

Because most of the difference beyond being a solid performer is about adding more value without being asked, it is up to them to prove and show the extra improvements and value they have added over and above their job description.

So, explaining this ahead of time actually drives higher performance.

I have also found this to be a motivator because people like to be in the loop and they like the rules to be open, not hidden.

Also communicating that exceptional performance requires you do to more than asked gives people the expectation and the permission that it’s OK to stretch themselves and excel. I find that many people don’t know this and artificially hold themselves back.

Always improving

Another issue managers face is that once someone is rated a 4 or 5, they sometimes consider that as a lifetime status.

If your organization is developing as it should, the bar for all the levels should be raised each year. So, it becomes important to share the news with everyone again. What got you a 4 last year, may not get you a 4 this year, if you do not show yourself to be developing.

Remember, your job description is not a life sentence.

This is a good example of why I always say that big success requires breaking free of the constraints of your current job description and taking it upon yourself to find ways to add more value to the business.

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, and Liking Your Life.

This article is part of a series called Classic TLNT.
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