Labor Pains - 4

How to Rev Employee Performance

Elizabeth Williams
By  Elizabeth Williams , DTN Special Correspondent
Endive producer Rich Collins prefers conversing rather than judging during performance reviews with his staff. (Photo courtesy of California Endive Farms)

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INDIANOLA, Iowa (DTN) -- Farming is not only about land, machinery, yields and livestock, said California farmer Rich Collins. "You also need to take care of your employees. Business owners tend to focus on the balance sheet. But you better look at your return on investment on your human capital, too, if you want your farm to be successful."

For the past 10 years, the Rio Vista, Calif., endive producer has incorporated steps outlined by Gregorio Billikopf when conducting performance reviews of his supervisors and managers. Billikopf is a labor management farm adviser with the University of California.

Billikopf turns the traditional performance review on its head and changes the whole dynamic of the discussion between employer and employee.

"After employee selection, performance appraisal is arguably the most important management tool -- yet it is greatly disliked and often neglected," said Billikopf. "In the traditional appraisal, the supervisor acts more as a judge than as a coach. Unfortunately, the focus is on blame rather than helping the subordinate assume responsibility for improvement. The subordinate often reacts with passive resistance or noticeable defensiveness. It's easier to ignore the problem and hope it goes away," Billikopf noted.

Billikopf's "Negotiated Performance Appraisal" (NPA) is not one-sided. It's a dialog. Collins explained, "In a lot of performance reviews, you have a scale 'poor to excellent,' zero to five points. You rank the employee on different aspects of the job. He says, 'Oh, I'm a 3.8.' You focus on the number, not the how or why. A Negotiated Performance Appraisal does not allow for that. It's a conversation."

The beauty of the NPA is its simplicity. About two weeks before you meet with your employee, you give him or her a sheet with four questions to answer: 1. In what areas do I perform well? 2. In what areas have I improved in the past six to 12 months? 3. In what areas can I improve? 4. What changes could my supervisor make so that I can succeed or thrive at my work?

As the boss, you also complete a list answering three questions: 1. In what areas does the employee excel? 2. In what areas has the employee improved in the past six to 12 months? 3. In what areas could the employee improve?

The questions may be simple, but they are not easy. "This process forces you to reflect, it forces you to praise, it forces you to constructively criticize and it forces you to put everything in perspective. The employee is not worthless and he is not Superman. And maybe there is something you could do better as a boss," explained Collins.

Which of those questions is the hardest for most employers? The first one -- giving praise to employees, according to Billikopf. "I have never encountered outbursts as resentful and emotional as managers' reactions to the notion of giving praise," said Billikopf. "I suspect that the greater the protestation, the more likely these individuals have subconsciously realized that giving praise is precisely what they need to do -- but are afraid of doing it."

The main purpose of listing the employees' strengths is to let them know those qualities have not gone unnoticed and it also increases the employees' confidence and willingness to receive constructive criticism.

Billikopf is not talking about general "you're a hard-worker" compliments. That's not going to make someone want to work harder. You need to be specific. Billikopf gives an example, "Alejandra, you know, I really value people who are proactive. For me, being proactive means that a person, (1) Takes care of things without being asked; and (2) Makes others aware of potential problems when these are outside her area of responsibility. That's taking initiative!" And then recall a specific incident as an example.

After using the NPA process, you look for those positive incidents and you put notes in a file, said Collins. "Then you bring them up during their Negotiated Performance Appraisal and they appreciate being appreciated," he said.

Billikopf recommended spending 20 minutes in the performance appraisal on that first question. Why 20 minutes? "During the NPA, one can see the tension in subordinates even when the strengths are being shared. Eventually, these individuals, when they realize this is a celebration, begin to relax. Most subordinates seem to be waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak," Billikopf said. Once they relax, the appraisal turns into a dialog and they are more receptive to what you say.

The employee always goes first in giving his/her responses to the questions. When discussing areas for improvement, the supervisor should share only the items on his list that the subordinate has not mentioned. Billikopf explained, "If the subordinate has taken ownership of a weakness, it is not necessary for the superior to rub it in."

Billikopf also recommends that when you list areas that need improvement, they are accompanied by detailed plans for strengthening each of the weak areas mentioned. Overly ambitious or non-specific goals such as "work harder" are not useful. Achievable, specific, measurable goals should be established -- with a timetable for reaching each objective.


What makes the NPA different from other performance reviews is the opportunity for the employee to list what the employer can do to help him be a better employee. "A conversation about changes that can be made by the supervisor underscores the problem-solving rather than blame-oriented approach," said Billikopf. "When supervisors recognize the need to adjust their own behavior, it is easier for subordinates to do the same."

This segment of the appraisal is not as scary as it sounds. "Usually, it's something like 'I need some equipment or training' or 'I'd like flex time' or 'I'd like to be able to make decisions'," reported Collins.

"The supervisor should avoid the natural tendency toward defensiveness. It is essential for the supervisor to listen in an empathetic way, even if the supervisor disagrees with what is being said," advised Billikopf.

"I have grown in the process," said Collins. "It's not easy. It's the softer side of business. I don't profess to be the best manager. But the process has forced a dialog between me and my employees. And it has forced everyone to be honest about how they are doing and what they can do better. It's helped me understand my employees better," concluded Collins. "Smart, young people have a lot of employment opportunities. Focusing on taking care of your employees is important, and today, you can't ignore it."

You can download Dr. Billikopf's book for free:

Agricultural Labor Management & Worker Productivity:…


If you just want his Negotiated Performance Appraisal process, you can go to:…


Elizabeth Williams