In Performance Evaluations, Don’t Confuse the “What” with the “How”

A reader asks:

“We’re gearing up for performance reviews. Traditionally our form has asked questions about what work habits people should improve in, how well they work with their managers, what projects they’d like to take on in the future, etc. But since this year we set formal goals for individual staff members for the first time, I’m wondering how we can incorporate those into our review process.”


You’re absolutely right to want to incorporate goals into your performance evaluations.

Too often, we see performance evaluations that focus on how a staff member does their work and often how they feel about it – while failing to focus on what they are getting done. We think this is bonkers! Instead, evaluations should ask about results front-and-center: What were the staff member’s goals this year? And to what extent did they achieve them?

Of course, results shouldn’t be the only component of an evaluation. Looking at how the staff member operates can often capture important information too, such as whether the staffer is acting in a way consistent with the organization’s values or demonstrating the skills they’ll ultimately need to succeed in the role (such as mastering the strategies of organizing or running effective meetings). These are things that will impact the results the person will deliver, now and in the future, and they definitely matter.

But when evaluations focus on the how to the extent that it crowds out the what, organizations end up with little or no accountability around what staff members have been responsible for – and miss what first and foremost should be an opportunity to candidly assess how well a staff member’s overall performance is serving the organization’s mission. After all, as the manager or executive director, you are (or should be) accountable for the results your team or organization delivers. If you’re not holding your team members accountable for the same thing, you’re fundamentally carrying all the weight of meeting your goals – as well as getting all the glory!

So, then, what does that mean in terms of what your evaluations should actually look like and how they’re structured? We like a structure organized like this:

1.     Results – What were the staff member’s goals for the evaluation period? What results (outcomes) did they achieve against those goals?

2.     Behavioral factors – How did the staff member achieve those results (factors like initiative and persistence and other organizational values, as well as skills essential to the position)

3.     Overall summary and tenure considerations

By putting the “what” front and center, you will reinforce that real-world results are a central ingredient of staff member performance.

See our sample performance evaluation form here – and a shorter version here. We also have a sample evaluation form for boards to use in evaluating executive directors here.