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The Day Job – Don’t be afraid (Evaluations Part 1)


So, you have 18 lines to write a performance evaluation for a subordinate. This is your big chance for him to really shine! Now all you have to do is take the entire list of accomplishments for the year and jam them in.

You cut, and you paste, and you reword, and you compress, and finally, it’s all in there: every accomplishment, number, and flashy adverb in exactly enough characters to fill the sheet.
Good job.
All you have to do now is send it to Jamie and–

Please, stop.
Don’t send it. 

Writing military and civilian performance evaluations is hard. I’m only good at them after years of practice and a lot of mentorship from people better at it than I am. It’s impossible to cover the whole subject in a thousand words, entire books have been written on the subject, but I can at least give you the same guidance I got a few years ago.

Don’t be afraid of empty space.

Empty space is good, and I don’t mean a little empty space at the end of a sentence. I mean entire lines of it if warranted. 

Some of you might be going into convulsions right now at the thought of entire empty lines on evals for yourself or your top performers. I’ve heard the responses way too many times.

“But what about his time doing this, and that, and that one time he did these?”
“I only have a little space, I must use it all!”

When I look at an evaluation so jam-packed that I can’t see where one point starts and another ends, I shuffle it, and technically your subordinate, to the bottom of the pile. I’m going to get to it sooner or later, but looking at it hurts my eyes, and that’s probably not good for whoever sent it to me. I take note of that sort of thing, and so does everyone else in a position like mine.
I already know what you’re trying to tell me: This person is fantastic, she’s done it all, she’s the voice of reason. He’s smart, and popular, and a real go-getter.

Here’s what you’re really telling me: You have no idea what’s important, you can’t use the data you have effectively, so you’re just throwing it all at me in the space you have and hoping I’ll see something I like. 

How is that good for the person you’re trying to sell as the top candidate for that next promotion?

Here’s where I start any evaluation for someone I’m really trying to sell.
Again, this isn’t a hard-fast rule of how to write, and it’s not new material. I’m not breaking new ground here by any means, but this is what works for me.

First I need to know what’s important to the organization so I can include things that matter. Let me put it another way:

I don’t start the evaluation with the person’s accomplishments.

That’s where most evaluations go wrong, at the very beginning. That person’s accomplishments as they stand are only valuable in terms of the organization you’re in and what it values. Of the 20 line items on the person’s brag sheet that could go in, I promise that they are not all valuable to anyone making decisions. 

I start drafting a performance evaluation by listing the organization’s biggest accomplishments for that period.

– Did it just complete a big inspection?
– Did it receive a regional, national, or industry award?
– What big initiatives have paid off in the last year?
– What finally got fixed that was a documented problem?

Why do I start here? Because this is a tangible representation of what’s important to the upper management. This is what the people in charge are looking at and investing resources into. Even successful businesses only have one or two of these big wins a year.

Now we have an immediate look at what’s important to your organization.
The next step is to take that laundry list of your person’s accomplishments and attach them to those successes.

As an example, the person’s input has 20 accomplishments, but only seven of them apply to the organization’s two big successes for the year.

– For accomplishment number one, the successful accreditation inspection, your subordinate did three things to contribute.

  – For number two, let’s say it’s a successful initiative for quality improvement, he did four things that made it all possible.

With this example, I would start the evaluation with success number 2, quality improvement, and that person’s role in it. The next bullet would be about the successful inspection.

When you start this way, you’re telling your boss that you know what’s important to the organization, and you can sell your star performer as a part of the organization as a whole, not just another technician in a single department. This keeps the boss reading instead of shuffling it to the bottom of the pile. 

Again, this isn’t a how-to for writing performance evaluations or whatever your industry calls them, but it’s an example of how to identify what’s valuable to the people you work for so you can start making smarter decisions about what to put into those few lines.

If you don’t know what the organization values, then you’re:
(a) probably in the wrong job,
(b) not going to develop your subordinates successfully, and
(c) likely at the end of your career growth with that employer. 

When writing to what the organization values, you’ll probably find that you have some empty space left. The evaluation will be easier to read, it won’t be shuffled to the bottom of the pile, your star performer will get the credit he deserves, and so will you.

So, have you been giving your best performers the chance they deserve with well-written evaluations?

What successes has the organization experienced through the year?

And what about your department? Where are your successes?

A hint: I keep a running list of successes so I’m ready when it’s time to write the evaluations.


Have a great week out there. 



My good thing: We celebrated the ship’s birthday with cake and ice cream underway.

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3 Responses

  1. Dave says:

    I like this. I’ve seen many evaluations that are just jam packed with words for the sake of filling it with words because of the thought that “empty space means you didn’t do anything noteworthy”. Let’s just say I disagreed with that old logic.

  2. Julie Dye says:

    We are getting ready to write a whole slew of evaluations in the next month. This is great insight I will pass on to my Sailors.

  3. anonymous says:

    Thanks for the insights, the hardest part for me is always getting started.I am actually struggling a bit with my own evaluation. I have a whole list of successes and accomplishments that will never fit into that little block. Now I can look at it differently and weed some of them out without worrying that the write up will be lacking. Any thoughts on what to do if the “boss” doesnt have great writting skills and undoes all your hard work?


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