Writing and delivering performance reviews can be one of the most challenging tasks for any manager. It’s difficult to give a review that successfully navigates the emotional and interpersonal dynamics while also balancing the complex, competing goals that are present in most performance reviews. In my work as an executive coach, one of the most frequent requests I get from clients is to provide feedback on performance reviews they’ve drafted before they deliver them. Most of the time, my feedback centers around asking them the following five questions.
What are your goals for the discussion? Before you even begin drafting a review, consider your goals and objectives for the discussion, and evaluate how these goals may be congruent with, or opposed to, one another. For example, you may want to provide positive reinforcement in some areas while also giving a warning or wake-up call in others. Or you may want your team member to think about incremental improvements in certain aspects of the job while making significant changes in others. Your goal may be to focus on the individual’s job performance, interpersonal interactions, organizational citizenship, executive presence, or some combination thereof. You may want to focus on your staffer’s performance in their current role while also providing learning opportunities to set the foundation for success in future roles. Share a draft review with a trusted colleague, boss, mentor, or coach, and ask them if the review you’ve written is in line with the goals you are trying to achieve.
Are you focusing on their behavior, personality, or both? Some managers believe that setting up an individual for success requires focusing on behavior; other managers think it’s about character or personality. There are pros and cons to both approaches. On one hand, talking about what your reviewee does in specific instances comes across as less judgmental, more fact-based, and more multifaceted. On the other hand, discussing how someone comes across more generally can provide a simpler, more-holistic focus with easier-to-remember themes. But an individual may feel judged if the feedback is more about who they are than what they do. It’s helpful to try to strike a balance between the behavioral aspects of how someone performs and the overall feeling or impression that others get from them. If the review you’ve drafted only references specific events or work products, you may want to include some summary or holistic feedback. Conversely, if the review is too general, it’s helpful to reference specific incidents or deliverables.
Are you exercising your authority? In my experience, most bosses want to be liked, and start from a place of wanting to persuade an employee to see things as they do. But if an employee doesn’t seem to “get it” over time, you may have to become more assertive and definitive about your perceptions — as well as the perceptions of those who contributed 360-degree feedback. It’s tempting to sugarcoat feedback to preserve harmony in the short term, but doing so does not set up the individual for success in the long term. It’s also challenging in a review meeting to balance being participative and democratic, letting the other person drive the discussion, and validating your direct report’s perceptions of reality while also exercising your authority as a boss, defining reality as you see it, and taking control of the meeting. It can be tempting for a manager to attribute tougher messages to others and to play the role of messenger for negative feedback. But it is more helpful if the manager owns the feedback and is more candid and direct. Before delivering the review, look over what you have drafted to ensure it reads as coming from a boss rather than from a peer or subordinate.
Are you conveying the right tone? It’s easy to be either too positive or too negative in a review meeting. Sometimes an employee who is struggling takes away the message that everything is going well in his job performance; sometimes a star employee might think you are disappointed with how well she is doing. Tone of voice, facial expression, nonverbal communication, and emotion matter a lot in a review discussion. Your direct reports’ perception of how positive or negative the feedback is can create self-fulfilling dynamics, and depend as much on their sensitivities as on your intentions, so it’s important to consider adapting your approach to be most effective with different individuals, personalities, and perspectives. For particularly challenging review meetings, you may want to role-play the discussion in advance with a coach or colleague to make sure you are conveying the right tone and are prepared to respond to any challenges or pushback from the reviewee. It’s also helpful to balance a focus on the individual’s performance with consideration of the situational factors that make their job easier or more difficult. Taking context into account can provide a review that employees will feel is balanced, fair, helpful, and motivational.
What next? The most important components of follow-up to a review meeting are the goals that the individual and you agree on. In order to be motivational and effective, goals should be challenging but realistic. They should include both performance and learning aspirations, balancing past results in their current role and preparation for future roles. The follow-up after a performance review meeting should include the things your direct report will do to further his or her performance and learning and the thing you will be doing to support and coach them toward their goals. After a review meeting, it’s helpful to ask your direct report to send you a follow-up email that summarizes next steps and to schedule a meeting a few months in the future to review progress. It’s also very beneficial to ask for feedback after review meetings to ask your direct report what would have made the feedback and discussion more helpful for them.
Preparing and delivering effective performance reviews is a delicate, complex balancing act. No one gets all of it right all of the time, and everyone gets some of it wrong some of the time. Ideally, by striving for balance, approaching the exercise in an open, mindful manner, and getting feedback about the review before and after it happens, managers can provide effective reviews that improve individual, team, and organizational performance. The best managers are always striving to get better at giving performance reviews and feedback, and are open to receiving the feedback that enables them to do so.
Author: Ben Dattner