Employee performance reviews is a high-stakes conversation.
When it goes well employees feel appreciated, trusted, empowered, listened to and therefore motivated even further to add value to the company. It makes them feel proud of what they have achieved, and at the same time, gives them the confidence and eagerness to overcome the new challenges before them.
On the other hand, there are many performance reviews that turn out as a disappointing and bitter experience. It ends up as an emotionally charged exchange of monologues with no clear agreement in sight. It likely ends with the manager pushing through the terms of what is expected without a clear buy-in from the employee. The employee, short of walking out of the meeting, feels misjudged, incompetent, angry, and/or too lethargic to tackle the next set of challenges.
The manager also goes through a similar experience. An enrichening exchange makes the manager feel useful, fills their job with meaning, and excites them about the future of the team. A bitter or even hostile exchange makes the manager feel unproductive, incompetent, and seeds doubt in his or her mind on the team’s ability to meet and exceed the challenges ahead.
Multiply this by the number of employees in your workforce, and it becomes clear how high the stakes of this review is.
And it’s not because you are giving a generally positive feedback that the meeting will be fruitful, or that all reviews with a constructive (negative) feedback all turn out sour. A review consisting of positive feedback but poorly delivered can make the employee feel bored, perhaps even entitled, and unchallenged. On the other hand, a constructive review, delivered properly can fire employees up to meet the challenge. I remember when I was a Director in a large international organization, one of my colleagues received a 1 (lowest) rating out of a scale of 5 one year, and from that disappointment bounced back to a 5 (top) rating the next year. It was because the review was delivered in a caring, productive way: she had a clear vision of what she had to change, she knew she had the manager’s support and confidence to make the needed changes, and she knew that she was capable of being a top performing player by adapting to what was asked of her.
Here, I provide 5 tips to make the reviews a moment of fruitful exchange, whether you need to deliver negative or positive feedback.
#1 Clarify what is expected and prepare productively
First, clarify what is expected: what you, as the manager, need to prepare, and what the employee needs to prepare. Be clear what the expected inputs are and whether there is a template to follow. Communicate early, book time ahead, and model your behavior to show through your careful preparation and communication that this is a meaningful, important conversation for both of you.
Then prepare productively. Block time, go into a quiet room, turn your mobile phone off. Don’t try to do this in the middle of multiple distractions. Step back and think of the highlights of this employee. You may have so many things you want to suggest to change, but begin the exercise with the positives. What is the one thing you really admire about this person? This will help put you in the right mind frame and remind you that everyone has strengths and growth areas, no one is perfect, nor flawless. How about an area of development that could really help this person be more productive? Limit yourself in the number of development areas you want to suggest. It is hard to handle, and digest any more than three.
#2 Make the review as objective as possible
Review meetings are, by nature, charged in emotion. This is because it is a moment we take stock of what the employee has delivered to date, and is the recognition of all the hours and days of work this employee has put in so far. And although we can tell the employees that the feedback for their work needs to be separated from any value judgement about themselves as people, of course it’s hard not to take things personally. And it is almost with certainty that during the review, you will have a moment when you and the employee will not agree on a specific point of view, and will need to talk it through. If both of you, on the other hand, fully agree on all points that were put forward from the outset, it is questionable whether the review meeting was really productive –did it generate any real learnings or shed light for new areas of growth? So it should be safe to assume that within a productive meeting, there would be at least one occasion where you would need to exchange opinions on a different or new point of view. Setting new goals – use the “SMART” methodology
If you are setting new goals for the coming year, ensure your objectives are SMART: that is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. This is a commonly used and effective methodology that helps ensure that the objectives set are clearly defined and understood in terms of the desired outcome by both the manager and the employee.
Reviewing past performance – use facts, concrete examples, and input from others
When you are reviewing the outcome of the previous year, it is critical to bring facts and concrete examples to move away from the trap of general impressions. It is important to illustrate your points with concretely observed behaviors, examples and outcomes so that it is clear to the employee, and to yourself, the point you are illustrating. For example, vague feedback, such as “you are too quiet” (which I had personally received once from a CEO) isn’t really helpful. It left me confused as to what was expected of me. Did he want me to speak up louder, or more often, and in which occasions? I felt I was speaking up within the right circumstances, and that I was delivering on my promises. It is more useful to be more concrete and also to add the “why” behind it. For example, later I understood that the CEO meant that I should speak up more in the executive committee, because my diverse experience in marketing and strategy were invaluable to a team that lacked the breadth and experience I had. With this clarity, it turned the feedback into a feasible and motivating objective for me. I was able to change my behavior and contributions during the executive committee meetings to meet the CEO’s expectations and add more value to the company. And it made me feel more competent and useful.
Also, when preparing the reviews, it is important to gather other people’s feedback around this employee. This helps remove any unconscious bias you may have, challenge or validate your own opinions, and also helps the employee’s acceptance of this point. There are 2 simple questions you can ask, such as “What do you most admire about this person?” and “What do you recommend this person do differently?” or other versions of the same question. It will also help you, as the manager, find new aspects around this employee that you didn’t know about either. You only see the employees under certain, limited, circumstances, and is not always representative of their total contribution at work . Getting feedback from others helps broaden the scope of feedback, and will lead to a more honest, fuller appreciation of the employee.
#3 Establish a psychologically safe environment
Why is psychological safety important? This is because it provides an environment where people feel honest to share their vulnerabilities, and helps build a trusting bonding between yourself and the employee. While it takes time and much proof of trust to build a psychologically safe environment, there are some immediate behaviors that can be demonstrated to signal your intent to make this a safe place to speak honestly.
First, provide balanced feedback, and start with the positives.
Even if there are development points you want to highlight, and may even be the predominant point of the entire review, engage the employee by showing that you genuinely care by talking about their relative areas of strength. Take a moment to congratulate them for all the great work they have delivered so far. Only once the positive feedback has been shared, then you can move into a prioritized list of between one to three development areas. Note that any list longer than three development areas is too overwhelming to digest, as well as to plan concrete actions upon. So prioritize the top one to three areas.
Second, walk in with a mindset ready to listen and learn.
Be curious. During a review, especially on a topic where you may not be in agreement with the employee, it is very common for you, as the manager, to focus every angle of the dialogue to find a way to convince the employee. This may lead you to even get into a state of tunnel vision, or feel frustrated and angry that the employee doesn’t understand what you are eluding to. Focusing on convincing the employee to why you are right may lead to a shorter review meeting with some kind of agreement at the end that may satisfy you. But this is a counter-productive approach in the long term. In the longer term, the employee feels uneasy and unconvinced with the conclusion as they feel their side of the story was not fully covered or understood. They will be less likely to own, feel responsible for and committed to the conclusion of the meeting.
So when you feel that there is a difference in opinion, this is the moment to try to deliberately change your mindset and be curious about where this other point of view comes from.
Trigger your active listening mechanism, which can be done by letting the person speak without interruption, reframing what was said to confirm understanding, asking open-ended questions to clarify. By actively listening, you will first learn something from this exchange that you may not have known before. It will also increase the satisfaction of the employee because they feel listened to, and it helps alleviate any tension that could be building. It is important not to be scared of, or avoid different opinions, which is a natural tendency in all of us. But enter that conversation with an open-mindset, and find a way to get to common ground together.
#4 Take a step back and provide a bigger picture and context
During the review, managers tend to focus on the immediate priorities, tasks and projects to be completed. Yet, this is an excellent opportunity to step back and help translate to every employee the bigger picture of the company – its strategy and perhaps some of its challenges. Then help build the bridge and link the team’s and then each individual’s work to the bigger picture. Based on the employee surveys we run for our customers, sometimes close to 50% of the employees do not have a clear view of the company strategy, and on average, close to 30% of employees do not see how their work contributes to the overall goal.
Taking a step back and making this link is important, because knowing how their work builds into the big picture goal motivates employees. It gives their work more concrete meaning, and fulfillment.
#5 Follow up throughout the year
All too often, the only time we set aside to speak about the employees’ contribution and growth challenges are during the review cycle. And as many companies operate on an annual review basis, what happens is that there are 11 months where there is little to no feedback on the quality or quantity of the work that is being delivered by the employee, and there is an annual spike as people enter the review period, and list all the feedback observed in the last 11 months. In the fast-moving world we live in today, that cycle of feedback is too little and too scarce to help employees contribute, develop and grow in line with the company’s strategic needs. So it is critical to put in place a way to monitor regular progress employees are making towards their goal, without having to go through a labor intensive process each time. It can be as simple as providing feedback regularly, or giving them encouraging feedback when you see them deliberately put in place something you had agreed together as part of their goals, whether it be tasks or behavioral changes.
In summary, review meetings, done productively, can be a starting point for a virtuous cycle. It can be a moment for both the manager and employee to have a frank, yet caring discussion, sharing both the achievements and also the growth needs of the employees. It can be a motivating discussion where the employee can see how their work contributes to the bigger whole. It can be a moment of exploration and learning by both the manager and employee. It can help trigger deeper bonding and trust, where the manager can signal how they care for the employee, and want to see them continually grow and achieve great things. By following the 5 tips presented above, you have a much higher chance of achieving this virtuous cycle, and trigger more engagement, and a higher performance of your team.
elendi provides a platform that implements the best practice review process in a highly engaging platform. Managers and employees can create and assess objectives, do a capabilities diagnostic to highlight the strengths and growth areas, provide ongoing feedback to keep employees motivated, and establish personalized, relevant training goals.