Performance Counseling Doesn’t Have To Be A Wasted Experience

Photo by Spc. Megan Leuck

Editor’s note: This article was originally published at the blog From The Green Notebook.

When it comes to intentionally developing our subordinates, one of the greatest tools in a leader’s kit bag is one-on-one counseling. Unfortunately, counseling is hit or miss across the Army. I would argue that the majority of officers and noncommissioned officers receive formal performance counseling only a handful of times over the course of their careers, leaving inflated officer and NCO evaluation reports as their only source of professional feedback. When we don’t provide subordinates with feedback, their professional growth is left up to chance; as a result we see toxic and weak leaders rise through the system, damaging the effectiveness of the overall Army.

I personally witnessed the power of counseling as I watched a young officer transform from an unproductive and poor leader into a highly effective one in just a few short months. All it took was a commander who was willing to take the time and sit down with him to have an open and honest dialogue. The commander’s commitment to that individual helped him become a stronger platoon leader, and in turn, improved the performance of the platoon and the company.

As a lieutenant, I only received formal feedback once or twice outside of my initial counseling sessions with my commanders. Because of this lack of feedback, I believe I missed great opportunities for professional growth early on in my career. Once in command, I made it a habit of setting aside time on my calendar to counsel all of the officers and NCOs who I rated. But like most leaders, I look back on my time in command with more than a few regrets. I wish I would have taken my counseling sessions beyond sustains and improves, and turned them into conversations.

Thankfully, one of my former subordinates, who is currently in command, has developed a quarterly counseling program built on trust, reflection, and quality conversations. To begin, he lets his subordinates know up front what to expect when sitting down by providing them with an outline of the conversation before they ever step into his office. It looks like this:

  1. My general perceptions of you as a leader.
  2. A discussion of key areas in which you are performing well.
  3. A discussion of key areas where you can improve your performance.
  4. My assessments of your values, performance, and potential based on what I have observed as your commander.
  5. A discussion of your future priorities.
  6. Your assessment of our organization.
  7. Your feedback to me on my leadership style and performance.

As you can see with the outline, he lets his subordinates know in advance that during their session, they will have a conversation about the individual being evaluated, the organization, and finally the commander. This gives them time to reflect and prepare for the conversation.

He also goes beyond the outline, providing reflection questions that will be used to inform the conversation. Below are a few example questions:

  1. What do you perceive as your three primary strengths and weaknesses?
  2. What are the aspects about this organization that you dislike the most? Enjoy the most? How can we make improvements?
  3. Outline three times since our last counseling sessions when you took smart risks that resulted in a “failure.” To what do you attribute this “failure?” What lessons did this experience provide you as you undertake future risks? How did you help others to learn from your risk? What could I have done to help this risk deliver better results?
  4. What are you doing for your own self-development?
  5. Assess my performance as your boss. Describe three of my weaknesses. Describe three of my strengths. What bothers you most about my leadership style? What is most effective characteristic about my leadership style?

These questions serve several purposes. First, they drive the subordinate to reflect on his/her experiences. Reflection is an important part of the learning process, because it is how we make sense of and better understand our past experiences. Second, they reinforce behaviors that the commander wants his subordinates to adopt: self development, risk-taking, and honest discourse. Finally, the questions make the individual assess the organization and the commander, two important elements the commander needs to know in order to remain effective.

Finally, the commander provides individuals with guidelines for these counseling sessions:

  1. This session is not designed to make you feel good about yourself. It is designed to help you improve your performance and therefore feel good about yourself.
  2. My present duty is to evaluate your performance and potential. We are here to discuss that evaluation. It is okay to disagree. I may not be accurate in my assessment, but keep in mind that it is my assessment. Part of the reason for meeting face-to-face is that it allows you a chance to help me refine my assessment.
  3. Try to think and talk dispassionately about your performance and potential --- almost as if we were talking about a third person.
  4. Whining is not allowed. If you don’t know, I will tell you when you are whining.
  5. Graduate level leaders listen to counseling and use it as they approach the future. Amateurs leave counseling sessions bitching about their boss. Decide to which group you wish to belong and act accordingly.

While these guidelines and questions open up the potential for more effective evaluations, there are a few key prerequisites that need to lay down the framework for this dialogue ahead of time. Trust is a prerequisite. Without trust, subordinates may not honestly communicate their observations about themselves, the organization, or the leader who is responsible for the counseling. Additionally, it takes time. Leaders have to be willing to set aside time to invest in their subordinate’s growth. Subordinates need time to reflect on their experiences in order to contribute quality dialogue to the conversation. Finally, it takes two. In order to make this an effective catalyst for professional growth, both leaders and subordinates have to be open to feedback. They should also be willing to make the necessary changes required to become a more effective leaders.

As leaders, we owe it to ourselves, our subordinates, and the Army to provide those who work for us feedback on their performance and to help coach them through the process. My hope is that this post will make you think about your counseling program, and if you don’t have one, take the steps to create one.

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