You set up meetings with all your direct reports and head to a small conference room for the day. One-by-one they come in, you hand over an official review document, and then deliver feedback sandwiches. This is why you’re good, this is why you're bad, but wait (insert big smile) here is another reason why you’re good. Ok, talk to you later.
You hate it, your employees hate it and the feedback is so jumbled up into sandwich form that the message is often missed.
Performance reviews are a fundamentally difficult task because they require one person to stand in judgement of another. That said if you set yourself up in advance and don’t try to squeeze too much out of this half-an-hour once-a-year they can be a great opportunity to have conversations that set your team up to succeed.
Here are five things you can do to make your performance reviews feel more natural and productive.
The review process should start at the beginning of the year, not the end. It is important that you earn the right to hold your employees accountable and you do that by letting them know the expectations ahead of time and explaining how the review process will work.
Reviews are not about telling an employee every thing they did wrong this year, they are about discussing progress on the issues that have been previously identified and discussed. These expectations should be updated and expanded on all year. If you see something that needs improvement it is on you to let the employee know about it immediately and throughout the year. Then at the review you can give feedback on their improvement.
It is also important during expectation setting that your employees have a chance to voice their own expectations. What is it they want out of their career. Where do they want to grow. What skills do they want to develop. If you are designing the reviews around advancing the employee’s self-interest they will be far more interested than if you are only talking about things that advance your career or help the company. Remember not everyone is trying to become CEO.
When the topic of an upcoming performance review is a big mystery it creates a lot of tension for both sides, and it creates a power dynamic that is unproductive.
About a week before the review ask your employee to jot down some of their biggest accomplishments from the last year. This will include them in the preparation and will ensure that you don’t forget to talk about the things that are most important to your employee. Solicit feedback from several colleagues as well so that your review can be the result of more than just your own opinion.
Finish your final review with enough time to present it to the employee at least one hour before the meeting. This serves two purposes. One it respects the fact that feedback often creates an emotional response. It is important to give people time to express those emotions before having a rational discussion. Two it allows the employee to go into the meeting prepared. It is just like circulating an agenda, good meetings happen when everyone has had time to gather their thoughts and prepare for the discussion.
An end-of-year review is not the time to give lots of tactical feedback, whether it comes in the form of a laundry list or a feedback sandwich. If you are trying to make 20 different points or are sandwiching one important negative point between two unimportant positive points you are just being confusing. Decide on just one story and then stick to it.
This is easier than it sounds. For almost all your employees the story will be some variation on, "you are generally solid and doing good work for us," otherwise they wouldn’t still be working for you. Tell them the story of their successes and encourage them to continue to work hard.
For a few people near the margin the story will be that they are underperforming and at risk. For them it is important that you don’t sugarcoat anything, if they are really at risk you are doing them a disservice. Deliver an uncomplicated story of their situation and a clear explanation of how they need to improve.
Do not stand in judgement of your employee as a person. You can’t know enough about them, you haven’t earned the right, and it is guaranteed to generate conflict. What you do understand and have a right to judge are their actions at work. So rather than saying “You aren’t proactive enough,” you could say “I’m impressed that you’ve starting to reach out to sales leads without being prompted, I know that wasn’t easy at first.”
It is also important to give your report a chance to share their own opinions of their strengths and weaknesses. If you haven’t made them feel like they are under attack you might be surprised how candid two mature adults can be with each other. Listen carefully and focus in and expand on their ideas that fit into your plan. Let them own their growth as much as possible.
Finally if there are other areas you would like to see your employee improve going forward frame them as the new goals/expectations for the coming year. You are not judging them for being lacking in the year before, you are presenting the most valuable areas to grow in the coming year.
If possible, separate the discussion of money from the discussion of performance. The amount of money an employee will be bringing home over the next year has a very big impact on their life. They have probably already started thinking about how they will spend it and what that might mean for their happiness or for their kids happiness. There is so much tied up in the discussion of salary that trying to have a productive discussion of anything else while that hangs in the air is impossible.
If you can, separate money into a different meeting, or if you must include it with your performance discussion lead the meeting with the talk about money, give your employee a chance to digest what the news means for them, then move on to a discussion of their performance.