At least half the pain of the performance review are all the questions that come with it. Most performance appraisals look like a dull, thick stack of paper reminiscent of a standardized test. There are so many questions packed in that any good ones get lost in an avalanche of bad or pointless ones.
Why do so many performance review questions miss the mark? In short, because the mark is hard to hit. Asking a question might seem simple but when you’re searching for a deeply insightful answer you need to use an even more insightful question.
There is both an art and science to nailing your perfect set of performance review questions, and while a quick Google search will yield tons of generic sample questions, it’s unlikely any of them will truly fit your unique business or team. But asking the right questions in your performance review means a lot to your employees and your bottom line. Good questions can improve work relationships and spur your people into actively solving problem for your customers.
To start learning about how to ask the right performance review questions, let’s break things down bit by bit. First, we’ll look at how to ask good questions in general. Then we’ll look at how to craft great performance review questions.
A simple process for asking the right performance review questions
We don’t always think of how to ask questions simply because asking a question feels like such a normal thing to do.
But when it comes to work situations (especially stressful work situations) questions can feel like they're carrying a lot of hidden meaning. For example, a question like, “Why didn’t you meet your department goals this quarter?” could be read as more of an accusation than a question.
The Global Digital Citizen Foundation is an educational nonprofit that works with educators all around the globe to help develop critical and creative thinking skills in learning environments (and yes, your office should be a learning environment). As such, the GDCF has a very intentional way of looking at a question.
They basically turn it into a five-step process built to find information. Here's how they break it down.
Start with your focus and purpose
How do you know what to ask if you don’t know what you’re looking for?
Start with the focus of your question, or what you want to know. You're also going to think about the purpose of the question — why you want to know it or ask about it. "This is what we've always asked" or "These questions were on the free template I downloaded" are not good a good place to start from.
Check your intent and frame your question
Intent is a great checkpoint to ask yourself where your question really comes from (and if it’s really a question at all).
There are times we ask questions more to express our opinions, like saying, “Did you really think that would work?” What's the intent behind the question? Genuine curiosity or something else? The intent of each question should align with the intent of your performance management strategy.
Once you're clear on your intent, you have to frame the question and take a careful look to make sure it’s clear and does not bias the responder. If you really want to know if something’s working or not, you must be both direct and objective.
Don't forget to ask follow-up questions
Last but not least, you must use follow-up questions to figure out if you need new or different questions.
Often businesses neglect the follow up even though this can actually be the most valuable stage of the performance review process. The follow up is where you are at your most informed and your employees are already focused on the topic. There will never be a better time to dig deep and discover the smarter questions that lead to better answers.
And of course, sharing feedback should be a regular event and following up is a great way to regularize performance feedback.
Why open-ended questions are an important part of performance appraisals
Open-ended questions can be tricky for HR departments.
These questions take time and if they’re not done right they could lead to a long conversation on a less than useful topic. Not to mention, they don’t produce the same, easy-to-examine flow of quantitative data like the tidy multiple choice or yes/no questions do. Still, open-ended questions bring out big insights that other questions just can't reach.
Using open-ended questions can help employees develop a greater sense of self-reflection and encourage them to find their own ways to improve their work performance. Many employees want to improve and helping them do that will win their loyalty. In fact, research indicates that a lack of personal development opportunities may be a key reason why millennials switch jobs so often.
One way to show interest in your employee's future development is to focus on questions that can help the employee grow. Open-ended questions like, “What is an area you’re looking to improve?” can demonstrate an interest in an employee's future career path, open up growth opportunities, and even improve performance all at once.
If it takes an extra 10 minutes for your employee to answer an insightful forward-looking open question rather than a simple yes or no, consider it time well-spent.
What are "the don'ts" of employee review questions?
Just as there are great guidelines for how to ask better questions, there some very helpful rules to help you avoid asking bad questions.
First, avoid asking questions about why someone failed to perform at a specific project or task. Even though you might not have a negative intention when putting this question together, integrity is a core survival function and when it's called into question, it can trigger a person's limbic system. Instead of listening objectively, the employee's natural reaction is to fight, flight, freeze, or in the most likely scenario for your performance review, defend.
If you know a particular employee isn’t performing as well as they could, address it but don't belabor it. Rather than put them on the defensive, a better approach would be to look to the future with open-ended questions like, “What can we take from this quarter that will help us in the next one?”
Of course, you should also avoid any leading questions as these can also indicate bias and prejudgment, even if you don't mean them that way.
If you're ever in any doubt about the role or validity of a certain question, go back to your process. Look at its focus, purpose, intent, and framing. Can you follow this up to see how helpful it was? Is there a way to make this more specific without blaming? Would this work better as an open-ended question? Are your own personal values baked into the question?
Be real and relentless about the role of each question on your appraisal form. If it doesn't fit the goal or culture you're striving for, remove or replace it.
How to build the right employee survey or review
One thing that will always apply to every aspect of the employee performance review or survey is what you want to get out of it.
Obviously, no one wants it to be a morale-killer but you may want your review to target specific things such as, mid-term goals, long-term goals, manager issues, employee development and so on. It's better to determine the focus and the purpose first then build out from there rather than try to adapt a 24-page review form to address a specific area.
Ask more often
Regular feedback and reviews can have an advantage over annual surveys because they allow you to narrow your focus and give everyone — employees, managers, and HR — a smaller number of questions to contend with. Generally speaking, good types of questions to ask would be upward review questions (that ask for an assessment of management), peer review, and self-review. This can make the review process seem more fair and inclusive to more opinions than just management's.
Remember, avoiding bias can be hard because biased wording usually happens on an unconscious level. For instance, the question “Would you say your manager is communicative?” has a positive bias in its wording because it uses “communicative” instead of “unresponsive” or something similar. Try mixing in other versions of the question with different wording.
Keep it simple
Be careful not to overload questions with multiple points or needless complexity. Use plain English and avoid jargon or confusing wording in general. Go ahead and explain things if you need to. For example, don’t ask if an employee's coworkers are efficient and hard-working in one question, ask it as separate points in two questions. (And if you need help, check out our post on How To: Create a Radically Simple Review Form.)
Try grouping your questions according to context, going from general to gradually more specific. Once you have your questions down, there’s no need to stow them away until review day. Giving your employees the question well beforehand could help everyone out. Author of How to Be Good at Performance Appraisals, Dick Grote says that sharing your questions helps to “set expectations early” and “make it clear how you’ll evaluate your employees.” Giving everyone a chance to get on the same page can help make it a win for everyone.
A review is NOT a standardized test and you definitely don’t want it to feel like the SAT. When an employee sees what they’re being reviewed on, they also see what matters to the business.
It becomes easier to align their focus to yours and it’s easier for everyone to hold each other to that alignment. Prepare and adapt your questions regularly to help the whole office stay aligned to the big picture goal of the business.