From the July 2006 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Positive Party

Annual evaluations can bring out the good in your employees

In 1952, Norman Vincent Peale suggested that we all can profoundly affect our own productivity in his blockbuster book, The Power of Positive Thinking. For generations, people have been taught to believe that optimistic thinking comes quite naturally to most people, if they would just think about it. Unfortunately, it wasn't until the early

1990s that psychologists showed that humans are more naturally programmed and find it intuitively easier to think and talk about all that is wrong. In other words, our human chemical mental makeup, reinforced by our generally pessimistic culture makes us--you guessed it--naturally negative.

The effect of this negativity on our personal lives is the subject of another discussion. Yet this approach to the world around us also has profound consequences for our professional lives--particularly in the way we interact with people who report to us. Indeed, in my consulting work, I've found that owners of financial planning firms tend to focus on, and even obsess over, what's wrong with their employees, rather than what they do right.

This trend is particularly evident in employment evaluations. An astonishing 65% of American employees reported receiving no positive recognition on the job during the past year, as reported by Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton in their book, How Full Is Your Bucket? (Gallup Press; 2004). As a result, these employees were less likely to be productive at work compared to their peers who received positive recognition, were twice as likely to leave their jobs, and three times as likely to fail to meet client needs. As a result, organizations that have fewer than 20 employees (like the majority of independent planning firms) suffer significantly all the way to the bottom line because of it.

I hope we have all experienced the profound effects of positive thinking in our daily lives. Some of us even put such thinking into practice. Many of us know how much more we can accomplish when we find someone who positively encourages and believes in us as much, if not more, than we believe in ourselves. On the other hand, we know how easily our spirit, ideas, and enthusiasm for life or work can be killed when one negative person confronts us. So why aren't more employers dishing out more plates of positive nourishment?

Over the past three years, I have facilitated more than 200 positive employee evaluations for financial planning firms. Any good business manager knows that conducting employee performance evaluations reaps tremendous benefits, including increased employee productivity, fewer mistakes, higher quality work, a better working culture, and an increased desire to share in the vision of the company, which creates a strong sense of loyalty toward the firm and its owner. The problem is that many financial planners simply don't know how to conduct a good evaluation of their employees to achieve these positive results.

Getting It Right

There are four questions you need to answer yourself before you conduct an employment evaluation:

  • What is the desired outcome? Employment evaluations can be used in many different ways to show employees how you expect them to perform. However, their primary purpose should be to motivate employees to do their jobs better and faster, while maintaining a high quality of work and client service. As a result, reviews should be an opportunity for you to reward and praise their work, not an avenue for you to vent frustrations that have been building up overtime.
  • By what standards are your employees going to be measured?

    There are nine factors (see "Assessing Employees Effectively," at right) on which you should evaluate your employees. Depending on the job description, you can weight each category differently, focusing on the areas that are most applicable and would help them achieve the highest results in the position they were hired to perform. For example, with a client service advisor or paraplanner, where the employee's primary job is to support a senior advisor, the areas of "client focus," "communication," and "results achievement" would carry more weight than "leadership" abilities. These "custom tailored" measurements also will help you identify the development and training each employee needs to move along your firm's career track.

  • When, and how often, are they going to be conducted? I recommend that you conduct an evaluation at the same time every year for each employee. If it's done regularly, they'll come to expect it. May and June can be good months to get a boost in performance over the traditionally slower summer quarter, or November and December, before what is often a hectic first quarter. I have found that many advisors conduct employment evaluations on the employee's anniversary date with the firm. While I see no problem with doing it this way, planners tend to forget when those dates are, until their employee requests a yearly raise. If you conduct evaluations for all your employees at the same time you can make them your priority for a week or two each year.
  • What is the process? Performance reviews are not just a way for you to review your employees' work. They should also be an opportunity for your employee to assess their own performance, which helps them play an active role in the review process. To do this, explain to your employees that they will be completing the same evaluation of themselves as you are of them. When you evaluate these reviews, focus not so much on what they say about themselves but rather the inconsistencies between what they believe about themselves and what you believe to be true about their work. These differences can facilitate a dialogue on their thought processes of where they are going and how they are doing within your company.

Evaluation Tips

Conducting an employment survey and reviewing the results is the easy part. Like a financial plan, it's sometimes difficult to present the outcomes. Business owners tend to rate their employees far more negatively than the employees would rate themselves. Consequently, an employee evaluation can turn negative fast, with the employer focusing solely on the things the employee is not doing or the mistakes they have made in the past. To keep this from happening, current psychological studies recommend that you follow every negative comment with five positive comments. For the employment evaluations I conduct, I write up for the employee five things they are doing right and one area they can improve upon as a goal for the future--"sandwiching" constructive criticism between positive points of praise.

As you're discussing areas of improvement for the future, allow the employee to talk about how they are feeling about their employment experience. The very problem you have with them could stem from a reaction to the environment they feel they are in. For example, you may feel they are not proactive in decision making, but they may feel their decision-making skills are being stifled by constant supervision or even second guessing. Before you list your concerns, listen to theirs. The conversation will have a much more positive tone and you will have a much more productive employee if they walk out of the evaluation thinking you are working together to achieve the firm's goals.

When I was growing up my father taught me to make the same two choices every morning. My first choice was to "choose to love" despite how disappointed I might be by the actions of others. The second was to "choose to be positive," first toward myself and then toward those around me. There's no doubt that being positive takes effort, but I also believe being positive takes nothing more than establishing good habits yourself. Committing yourself to these valuable habits throughout the employment evaluation process is the first step in removing Mother Nature's gloomy cloud that can rain on your company culture.

Angela Herbers is a virtual business manager and consultant for independent financial planning firms. She can be reached at angieherbers@cox.net.

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