How to Give More Effective Performance Reviews

If performance reviews feel like just a formality, learn how to give feedback that strengthens an adds value to employees’ performance.

Too often, performance reviews are just a formality. And all too often, both the employee and supervisor dread them. 

According to Gallup, only 29% of employees believe their review process is fair, and only 14% say their reviews inspire them to improve. When in reality, performance reviews provide a chance for both managers and employees to develop self-awareness, and for bosses to learn how to help employees sharpen their greatest strengths.

 Done well, the performance review process opens a rich dialogue that leaves each party with a better understanding of the other’s needs, a clear set of goals, and a plan for building the most vital skillsets for the job role. The employee walks away with a better ability to self-evaluate, and the feeling of having a trusted mentor to ask for advice.

Gallup suggests calling them progress reviews rather than performance reviews, to emphasize the idea that everyone should be continually striving to improve. 

Hold Them Frequently

You might be cringing right now, thinking, “But if we all hate annual performance reviews, why would we hold them more often?” However, these conversations become more comfortable when you have them more frequently. Plus, you’re able to investigate into the details without racking your brain to remember what on earth the employee has been doing. 

That way, you’re incorporating performance management, by not focusing just on an end goal – you’re adjusting the process of getting there, and coaching the employee along.

Younger employees particularly expect and value ongoing feedback; Millennials want managers who act like coaches and even like team members. Regular check-ins are therefore likely to increase their job satisfaction. 

According to Fortune, many of the big players like Adobe, IBM, and Microsoft are scrapping the annual review process in favor of more frequent feedback. 

Consider how frequently you’d be comfortable holding employee performance reviews and talk with HR staff about increasing the number of reviews you give per year.

Maintain Performance Records

Performance evaluations are valuable if you keep a log of notes about employees’ accomplishments and mistakes. It will let you quickly refresh your memory about their performance. Harvard Business Press suggests in Performance Appraisal: Expert Solutions to Everyday Challenges, to try to maintain documentation of your opinions so you can provide well-cited evidence for them.

Create a file for each employee so that you’ll have a central place to keep these records. Better yet, use your HRMS to keep feedback inside their account so you don’t need to look for it anywhere else! Include details about awards, projects the employee lead or helped with, positive observations, and emails or memos from other superiors, suggests Sharon Armstrong in The Essential Performance Review Handbook. Observations should pertain to both accomplishments or “soft skills” the employee is developing, like growing more personable or honing team leadership abilities.

This might sound time-consuming at first, says Armstrong, but it actually saves you a lot of time. It’s easy to jot down a quick note when something’s at the forefront of your mind, and a lot harder to try to dredge up an employee’s successes and mistakes six months down the road.

If you don’t already have a log, start one today. Create a binder with a tab for each employee, or a set of files each labeled with a different employee’s name.

Refresh Your Memory

A couple of weeks prior to the review, ask employees to remind you of a few accomplishments they’re especially proud of from the period under review, suggests Harvard Business Review; and have them email you their notes. 

It’s easy to dwell on a recent mistake simply because it’s at the forefront of your mind. That’s called the recency effect, and it’s a key mistake bosses often make in performance reviews. Asking employees about their own contributions helps counteract that tendency.

Plus, we all have biases – if your employee had a rocky start, that may still color how you see her, even if she’s improved substantially since then. Relying on clear evidence rather than memory helps prevent those biases from guiding the review.

Give specific examples to illustrate your points using your notes from your file of the employee. If the employee’s first urge is to think, “That isn’t fair,” your specific examples will help her understand where you’re coming from.

If you feel confused about where to begin, write down particular behaviors that the employee should start, stop, and continue. Then add concrete examples to illustrate them.

Remember the Big Picture

Convey how an employee’s efforts contribute to the organization’s big-picture goals. Affirming the goals will ensure they’re fresh in his mind while also emphasizing his value. 

Help the employee set new personal goals for his work performance for the coming year (or a shorter period of time, depending on how often you hold reviews). Ask him about where he wants to go in his career and share advice on getting there. Affirming that you genuinely care about his future will make any criticisms easier to handle.

If organizational goals or vision have shifted since your last review, talk with the employee about how his role may need to adapt in response to the changes.

Give Space for Emotions

Harvard Business Review suggests delivering a written performance appraisal an hour or so before your actual meeting. That way, if the employee feels upset by any of the feedback, she has the chance to calm down and collect her thoughts. Your discussion will be much more productive when she’s able to prepare for it and engage in it calmly. 

Some managers ask the employee to present their own performance appraisal, but having the employee present it before the manager speaks puts the employee in a pretty awkward spot. They’re probably thinking, “What if I speak highly of myself, and then the manager tears me apart?”

An alternative is to ask them during the meeting about challenges they’ve faced, how they’ve tried to overcome them, and where they’re feeling stumped, without expecting them to deliver a full-fledged appraisal prior to yours.

An employee could review his own performance in writing as an exercise in self-reflection before the meeting. All employees would be well-advised to review their own performance periodically. However, rather than being formally presented to the manager as the employee nervously waits for review, it can just help inform the discussion. 

Be Straightforward

Employees have come to expect “compliment sandwiches” – the practice of delivering good news, then bad, then more good – so the intended effect has somewhat worn off. Plus, they don’t give employees an accurate picture of where they stand – your best performers and your mediocre employees all get the same message. Instead, be straightforward with employees about where they stand. For those who need to improve substantially, be encouraging about your belief in their ability to grow, and help them make a plan for doing so. Don’t give them the false belief that they’re already succeeding. 

Honesty doesn’t just drive results – it also helps you avoid any potential legal issues down the road. If you later need to let an employee go and haven’t informed them about performance issues that led to the decision, that could lead to trouble.

According to attorney Jeffrey Horton Thomas of Thomas Employment Law Advocates in West Hollywood, “Reviews become key evidence if a former employee alleges that an action taken by the employer was done for an illegal reason. Such actions could include if an employee is overly criticized by superiors, subjected to an undesirable transfer, denied a raise or promotion, demoted, or fired.”

Give specific details about what a person does well or could improve on, rather than general remarks like “You’re a strong leader.”

In short, show that you care about the person’s growth, but don’t shy away from tough conversations.

Read the Society for Human Resource Management’s article on reducing legal risks of performance reviews for more tips on avoiding any legal repercussions. 

Have a Two-Way Conversation

Give employees space to respond to your feedback. No one wants to feel they’re just being talked at, especially if the information is emotionally charged. If a normally above-average performer has had a rough year, she may want to share input on what lowered her performance. 

By listening, you can help people figure out how to work through the hurdles they’re facing, as well as increase employee engagement which is so crucial for company growth.

Likewise, ask for feedback about how you can better support their growth. Good leaders actively seek and give constructive feedback from the people they work closest with. A direct report can give you regular feedback about your managerial skills because of the particular relationship you have. “How can I be a better coach?” or “What kind of support do you need that you’re not already getting?” are great questions to ask. Welcome that feedback, and ask for it often so you also perform self-evaluations. 

Read this article from the Harvard Business Review for more tips on requesting feedback from your employees.

Deal with Surprises

There’s a commonly held belief that there should be no surprises in performance reviews, says Dick Grote in How to Be Good at Performance Appraisals. The idea is that the manager should have conveyed the same feedback throughout the year. That’s not true, Grote asserts.

“The process of writing a formal performance appraisal will bring to mind some problem areas that the manager wasn’t aware of – or didn’t realize the magnitude of – until she gave the employee’s performance the close scrutiny that the process demands,” Grote explains. 

If that happens to you, acknowledge to the employee that the process of writing the review gave you further insight into her performance. 

Surprises can also happen when you did communicate information throughout the year, Grote adds. An employee may be in denial about what you said, or about the magnitude of its importance. In that case, hold your ground and reassert that you did share the feedback and it was indeed important.

Follow Up

Sending the review to HR and then forgetting about it is a classic mistakeRather than stashing the review in a folder and ignoring it for the next 12 months, it’s important that you set goals and review them with the employee during your recurring check-ins. Using the annual review as a roadmap for periodic reviews throughout the year will keep the goals fresh in everyone’s mind. 

By acting less as a judge and more as a coach, you’ll get more from your performance reviews. Again, though, don’t sugarcoat news that’s hard to hear – just frame it in a way that shows you believe in the person’s potential. Unless you truly need to let the employee go, focus on creating a roadmap to success.

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