BY VIRGINIA BLASER
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April means many in the State Department and other foreign affairs agencies are deeply engaged with annual evaluation writing … and the dread, the pressure, the angst, and the work that it brings. A significant part of the stress comes from the knowledge that our promotions and those of our staff depend almost entirely on the words in an annual form.
Many of us also share a concern that success isn’t about who actually performed the best, but rather the ability (yours, your rater’s, and your reviewer’s) to document that performance along a spectrum of written and unwritten rules.
In my experience, many people in the State Department feel negatively about employee evaluation reports (EERs), counseling meetings, and our promotion process because they have had minimal engagement with their supervisor around evaluation and counseling or have had prior bad experiences with counseling and evaluation.
During my three decades in the State Department, I saw how some extremely poor evaluation practices entrenched in our culture disadvantaged those who may not be strong writers, are not familiar with how to game the evaluation system, or who have supervisors who are not fully engaged in the evaluation process or poor writers themselves.
The result: Our best are not necessarily the ones getting promoted.
Almost two decades ago, a group of first-time deputy chiefs of mission gathered informally on the margins of a regional military conference. Giddy in our excitement to embrace our new leadership roles, we talked about the future of the department, expressing what we wished “they” (meaning the higher-ups) would do to make our Service better.
One colleague stopped us in our tracks: “You do realize that ‘we’ are now ‘they,’ and it is on us to make things better now, don’t you?” It was a humbling lesson that stayed with me; for the rest of my career, I always asked myself what power I had to make things better right then and there.
The experience underscores that each of us has the opportunity to make our evaluation and promotion system better. We don’t have to wait on (much-needed) policy improvements from the department. Indeed, if each of us doesn’t embrace a better way of doing things, our system will continue to fail us all. So here are a few things you can do today.
1. Don’t consider an evaluation a singular moment in time; consider it as part of a continuum. Great counseling, evaluation, and performance all tie together in a performance management feedback loop that constantly builds strength and aids the growth of both the supervisor and the employee. This runs from a first performance counseling session all the way to a formal evaluation; then the process begins again.
A substantial number of studies reinforce this, noting that a manager who engages employees in the evaluation process has a striking influence on the employee and the workplace. For example, a 2013 Gallup “State of the American Workplace” report found that employees who had goal-focused conversations with their manager in the past six months were almost three times (!) more likely to be engaged in the workplace.
I created a workbook for each of my employees, making sure we went through the evaluation process a step at a time throughout each evaluation period (usually a year or less). Walking through the process each year, I learned a lot, came to understand my staff better, and was better placed to mentor and support them and the organization.
A key was robust counseling sessions that built one upon the other, with the employee speaking at least 80 percent of the time during each session. I applied my worksheet process to all of my employees equally, across specialties and cones, from local staff to direct hires and to embassy family member employees.
One critical element of inclusion and support to diversity is a need for managers to give equal support, attention, and opportunities to all without bias. My worksheets helped me do that.
An evaluation is as good as it is genuine and reflective of the effort and time all parties put into it during the year.
2. Or, consider evaluation writing like the harvest season. Another way to think about the evaluation cycle is as EER “season.” I always considered the weeks we write, review, and submit evaluations to be a bit like the harvest—when we reap what we have sown, nurtured, and cared for over the previous year. This works for our own evaluations and for those we write for our staff.
Our bounty this year depends on the skills, techniques, strategies, and lessons we learned or tried in prior years. We may choose to leave some areas fallow (for example, taking a job that may not allow you to supervise others but gives you substantive experience) in order to improve other aspects of our skill set or career. In other years we have amazing rains at all the right times and enjoy a bumper crop; and those are very “promotable” years/evaluations.
3. Put in the time. An evaluation is as good as it is genuine and reflective of the effort and time all parties put into it during the year. To the “season” analogy, if you don’t appropriately leverage other parts of the year—including planting thoughtful goals and position descriptions, and regularly tending to performance through focused counseling sessions—there will be very little of value to harvest at the end of the growing season.
The time put into the evaluation cycle is important. I routinely set aside hourly sessions with each of my direct reports three to four times a year. To those who say, “I don’t have time for that!” my response is that you need to make time, just as you make time for other important priorities. If I could do it as a DCM and chargé, including during periods of political or other crisis, so can you.
Indeed, there is no better investment you can make into your staff, your office, your post, or the future of the department than these hours.
Let me put it another way: Imagine your own supervisor prioritizing time with you a few times a year, a regular meeting you can count on where, uninterrupted, your supervisor sits one-on-one to ask you thoughtful questions and genuinely listens. How would that make you feel? Seen? Recognized? Respected? Valued? Heard? Would it impact how you worked with your supervisor? Or how you felt about the job?
Data suggests strongly that it would. And you have the power to do that today for each and every one of your direct reports. Why wouldn’t you do it? What could possibly be more important?
4. Be consistent. Leverage evaluation forms. Eliminate surprise. Many workplaces, including the State Department, have required forms for counseling. They may require you to write a narrative once or more a year, prior to a final evaluation. Or perhaps you are only required to submit an annual evaluation and no other paperwork.
Final, formal evaluations should never contain surprises for the employee. Low rankings or areas for improvement should have been raised, documented, and addressed with guidance and time to show improvement during the rating period. Anything less is simply unfair to the employee and the workplace.
If your office does not require (or does not enforce the requirement for) written or formal counseling sessions prior to periodic evaluations, do them anyway. Providing both written and verbal counseling and evaluation is your responsibility as a fair supervisor. People absorb information differently, and as a supervisor you should adapt your methodologies to support your employees and their growth.
When your employee has multiple mechanisms and opportunities to benefit from counseling, they are more likely to grow and improve their performance.
Studies reinforce that a manager who engages employees in the evaluation process has a striking influence on the employee and the workplace.
5. Always write for the right audience. Having chaired a specialist threshold panel, served on countless post-based EER review panels, and written hundreds of EERs for staff from every cone, specialty, grade, and foreign affairs agency, I would urge writers to produce a document for the only audience that matters: the panel.
Consider the task panels shoulder: reviewing hundreds and hundreds of EERs for 6 to 12 hours a day nonstop. The review process is fatiguing because it requires intense focus. Making EERs easy for caring but tired colleagues to read so that they reach the appropriate conclusion about each employee is important. Writing for the review panel, however, is also a skill that requires practice and training.
1. Provide formal training in performance counseling and/or EER writing. In more than three decades of government service, my training spanned from shooting guns to writing contracts, conducting television interviews, and interpreting complex immigration laws. Throughout my career, I spent hours every year in mandatory (and repetitive) classes on cybersecurity, counterintelligence, and retiring documents. But never—not once—was I offered formal training in performance counseling or EER writing.
If the future of our Service depends on our ability to support performance of staff and promote the best, then genuine training in this space isn’t just important, it’s vital. It is important for leadership across the foreign affairs agencies to correct this oversight and find ways to address the bias and inequality that is baked into our current processes.
2. Enforce good rules already in place. Some good practices are already required on paper, but because they are not embedded in our culture, they do not occur in practice.
For example, the “mandatory” counseling session date required by our evaluation system. Typically this date is set to line up with when evaluations are due to make it appear on paper as if a counseling session had been held, when in fact no genuine counseling occurs.
Similarly, when performance issues arise, many supervisors elect not to document concerns or discuss them with the employee as is technically required.
3. Embrace new technologies. One aspect of evaluation writing that will be intriguing to watch evolve is the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to expertly draft complex text, including EERs. On the assumption this is already well underway in the Foreign Service, I predict that AI text generators (like GPT-3) will evolve into the modern-day equivalent of spell check and Microsoft editor (easy tools that I wished more staff would use with regularity!).
As far as EERs are concerned, this kind of assisted writing doesn’t concern me as a negative trend because the act of writing an EER is the last of a series of tasks needed to arrive at a genuine and meaningful evaluation. Because AI is only a tool, the need for the “human in the loop” becomes more important than ever, including in the counseling and evaluation process.
AI writing may even help defeat bias in our evaluation writing, eliminating the trend that “good writers” (or those whose bosses are good writers) get promoted over others. As long as the rest of the feedback loop includes appropriate personal and human engagement between supervisors and employees, I urge the department to embrace the opportunity AI text generation represents and get ahead of the inevitable by teaching people how to use such tools.
4. Train and equip promotion boards. My experience serving on a promotion panel is that the vast majority of our colleagues take the responsibility seriously. They want to be fair and follow the rules and do a good job. But given the seriousness of the task, boards need better equipment and tools and more training—before they open the first EER.
Windowless rooms and bare-bones computer setups are not conducive to the best outcomes. And as technologies grow, many of our panel members may need specific training on how new technologies impact our traditional system, so that the bias inevitably created between those who use new tech and those who don’t is fairly addressed.
It is time for the State Department and the other foreign affairs agencies to acknowledge that evaluation writing is a skill that requires new tools, practice, and training. The good news is that our evaluation and promotion systems can be quickly improved if the agencies and individual supervisors make the effort to change poor practices at the individual, managerial, and policy levels.
This isn’t just important for diversity, morale, inclusion, and performance—it is critical to the survival and legitimacy of the Foreign Service.
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