For many dance studio owners, the idea of conducting staff evaluations is daunting. Many teachers are former students, and owners take pride in maintaining the “family atmosphere” of their studio. So to actually sit down and formally assess an employee, whom you may have known since the age of 5, seems awfully corporate. But according to Sylvia Hepler, owner of Launching Lives, an executive coaching firm, businesses that give short shrift to appraisals miss an essential opportunity to garner  feedback necessary to maintain goals and enhance employee performance.

Kathy Blake of Kathy Blake Dance Studios in Amherst, New Hampshire, initiated a performance review process two years ago. “It was extraordinary,” she says. “The entire culture of my studio shifted.” So to help you use staff evaluations to your studio’s advantage, we asked several veteran studio owners to share their experiences.

Ease employees into the process.

It’s a good idea to hold staff reviews twice per year—at the beginning of the season to set goals and expectations and again at the end to measure progress and update goals for the next evaluation period. Consider scheduling an extra review mid-season if an employee seems to be having difficulty meeting expectations. Each performance appraisal should last between 45 minutes to an hour and be held somewhere neutral, like a staff meeting room or a local coffee shop, especially if your office might seem intimidating to some. But don’t forget to inform staff members about their upcoming evaluation with enough notice for them to plan—you don’t want to make them feel uneasy, or even worse, ambushed.

Give credit where credit is due.

Before the meeting, both employer and employee should fill out an evaluation form. Begin the meeting by exchanging and reading each other’s form. “The beauty of this is that it provides the springboard for your conversation,” says Hepler. “You can ask, ‘What are your observations about the similarities in our answers? What about the differences?’” A few questions Blake likes to ask are: What worked for you this school year? What didn’t work and how did that impact your performance? How were your talents recognized? How did you solve problems that arose? What would you do to improve for next year? And when giving feedback, make sure to balance the positives with the negatives. Start by focusing on the contributions the employee has made, then coolly discuss the areas he or she needs to improve on—this is no time for heated debates.

“I’ll put it in their boat,” says Bonnie Schuetz, owner of Boni’s Dance and Performing Arts Studio in The Woodlands, Texas. “I’ll ask a teacher, ‘How would you like to see yourself grow? For example, to be more patient or more creative?’ And often that will bring out points for discussion.” Schuetz also takes notes during the review, which she keeps in each individual’s file, and she refers to any parent e-mails received during their time of employment. “Of course, I deal with anything that comes up as it arises,” says Schuetz. “But at the end of the year they may have forgotten all about it, so we can discuss any new concerns then, as well.”

Ask for feedback.

The simple act of sitting down with each employee can be enlightening. For example, Blake noticed that one of her front desk workers seemed to be increasingly disgruntled. “During the evaluation, I realized that she didn’t want the extra responsibility I was pushing on her,” Blake recalls. “She simply preferred to do the basics. We adjusted her job description and her pay grade and then she was happy. I might have fired her otherwise.”
Nancy Giles, owner of The Southern Strutt in Irmo, South Carolina, turned the tables on her staff and asked them to evaluate her for the first time this past September. “I said to them, ‘Tell me what you need from me to make this better,’” she says. “I asked them what they expect out of me that’s not happening, as well as what I can do to make their job easier and help them feel supported. That’s hard to do, but I want to get it right.”

Just last year, as a result of staff feedback, Blake realized that her employees wanted more in-house education, and she quickly initiated a teacher-training program. “Before, I would have thought I was imposing it on them,” she says. “I think directors make a big mistake if they don’t evaluate themselves.”

Although you may feel that your “open-door” policy works just fine, performance reviews provide an official forum for discussions that might not take place any other time. “My faculty and staff look forward to evaluations now, and they’re more forthcoming with problems as they arise,” says Blake. “They feel listened to, praised and supported, and it makes them more willing to come forward.” DT

Conducting the Conversation

Be prepared. Know what you’re going to ask and how you will phrase it.
2. Give honest feedback. Don’t skip over difficult issues for fear it will be upsetting. Likewise, don’t inflate praise. Employees will learn to trust you.
3. Lead with the positive, then suggest areas where you would like to see improvement. 
4. Keep criticism constructive. Restrict comments to observed job behavior and back each up with specific examples. Don’t say: “You’re sloppy.” Do say: “I’d like you to keep your filing up-to-date. It looks bad to have personal student information on your desktop where it can be lost or seen by others.”
5. Make it a two-way conversation. Invite the employee to suggest goals, listen to their feedback and make good eye contact.
6. Be consistent. Your process should be the same for all.
7. Avoid surprises. Performance review is a year-round process. Give immediate feedback, both compliments and criticism, so that an employee has the chance to make adjustments before the official review.

Fiona Kirk is a freelance journalist whose work has also appeared in Pointe, Dance Spirit and Dance Retailer News.

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