How to Fight For Your People

Matt Havens - Keynote Speaker

It’s easily my favorite time of the year. No, I’m not talking about building an invincible snowman army (which is surprisingly difficult to do in Texas) or even failing to keep all those New Year’s resolutions I had no intention of sticking to in the first place. I’m talking about performance review time! Who doesn’t get tingly about having your entire year’s work whittled down to an hour-long meeting with your boss? Don’t you get jazzed up pouring your soul into a one-page document, completely overthinking the “right” word to describe your contributions? And even better, sometimes you get to sit through a 3-hour meeting where the entire leadership team battles it out in hand-to-hand combat to secure an extra ½ percentage bonus for their team! If you don’t enjoy these things, well it’s probably time to call it quits. Leadership isn’t your thing. Real leaders live for these moments like Millennials live for hashtags and acronyms #truestory #efficientcommunication #iwdtiiwy[1]

Or maybe you don’t live for these moments because they’re stressful. I would like to think that everyone in leadership is there because they want to see others succeed, but that’s not always the case. However, if performance reviews and the process within your organization stresses you, then maybe it is the case for you. You care about your people. You care about rewarding them for a great year. You want to encourage them to keep pushing and stay motivated to succeed again. After all, the performance review process should be a tool that accomplishes exactly that – rewarding our people and encouraging them to keep striving for more.

The challenge many organizations and leaders face is the fact that we have to fight for our people. There’s just no way around it. There’s a pool of employees, a pool of money to reward performance, and everyone wants as much of that money as possible for their team. It’s an unavoidable reality, and it will always remind me of a time when I felt like I lost the battle and let my team down. I was a fairly new leader and approached my end of the year conversations with a matter-of-fact approach: “My team has earned ‘x’. It’s cut and dry. They’ll understand and agree once I lay out the reasons why we landed where we did.” My problem was that I hadn’t gone into my performance review meeting with the right context and preparedness to fight for them correctly – and as a result, other managers earned higher rewards for their teams than I did for mine.

The only positive of all this is that through my failure I learned how to fight for my people in a way which might be applicable to other organizations and settings. So if you are gearing up for these conversations in your own company, here are some thoughts to get you started:

Don’t let past experience cloud your approach.

Unless this is your first year in leadership, you probably know the reality of how your company or department works. You might know only a certain percentage of people get the top ratings or that you’ve got budget constraints which will limit total bonuses. While it might be the reality, don’t bring that baggage with you to the fight. That was one of my mistakes. I had a team of 6 people and thought I couldn’t make a recommendation for 4 of them to be “top performers.” I let my expectations impact how I fought for them. The truth was, though, that those 4 had earned it. And if I would have fought harder and laid out my case better, I very well may have gotten my recommendations approved.

Come prepared.

Now is not the time to rely on your ability to stand in front of an audience and deliver messages off the cuff. It’s not the time to wing it. Come prepared, and bring data to support your arguments whenever possible. People can argue intangibles, but it’s much harder to say someone didn’t deserve a high rating when you’ve got hard data to prove it. Also, prepare yourself by knowing your audience. Who are the power players in the room or conversation? What are their hot button topics? Knowing what you’re up against is half the battle.

Don’t be the first person to the party.

Nobody wants to admit it or say it out loud, but here’s the truth. Don’t be the first to calibrate within your management team when it comes time to dole out performance ratings or bonuses. Talking about your team first means everyone else will compare your people to those on their own team. You actually create arguments against your people and give the others in the room support for their own. The later you go in the process, the more people have already been vetted and you’ve got more examples and conversation to support your argument. It might sound like I’m telling you avoid going first at all costs. I am. Seriously. If your boss schedules your team review before others, find a reason to be sick. If it’s a group consensus meeting, excuse yourself to the bathroom repeatedly when they start the meeting. People will think you’ve got a serious bladder infection, but it might be the key between a good year or a great year for your team. #golast

If you use these three, you’re at least preparing yourself for the best possible outcome. You may not always win the fight. However, it will mean you’ll at least go down swinging. I can live with that, and hopefully you can too.


[1] That doesn’t stand for anything, by the way. But you can figure something out, I’m sure. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” for example, or “I wish demons tangoed in igloos with yaks.” Lots of options, people.

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