It’s that time of year again…
Update: you can find this topic covered in much greater detail in my Book.
Let’s get one thing straight: nobody likes performance reviews. They’re essential yet unpleasant; a trip to the proverbial dentist. Yet, despite the unpleasantness, they’re the best opportunity that you have to push your top performers further and course-correct those that are underperforming. Use them well, and your staff will only get better. Use them badly, and you’ll be in for some very awkward conversations.
I’ve been in many different performance reviews, on both sides of the table. In this article, I’ll outline what I like to do with my own direct reports. Most, if not all, use similar techniques with their own staff, so I’d like to think that these techniques have positive characteristics that are now being replicated elsewhere. None of the techniques are ingenious devices that I have invented myself; I’ve mostly learned from experience, by having both positive and uncomfortable conversations with my own bosses and my own staff, and some come from a selection of books that I’ve read over the years. But, I digress. Let’s prepare.
A performance review should be roughly an hour together in a private room. But what happens in preparation for the meeting? Good preparation is essential, both for you and your direct report. These review meetings carry lasting weight, so they deserve at least an hour of your time in planning for each of your staff. Being unprepared can result in you delivering a message that isn’t quite what you wanted, or missing the opportunity to give some very precise critique. Even worse, you might say something you regret or look like you have absolutely no idea about what they’ve been up to. Being unprepared can make your direct report feel neglected. They’ll wonder why you didn’t take the time for them. You only have a few opportunities in the year to give reviews, so make sure that you bring your A-game both before and during the meeting.
This does have ramifications for your time. If you have 6 or 7 direct reports then we’re talking about almost a full day of preparation, which can be very hard to fit around other commitments and meetings. The bottom line is that this is the most important commitment, so everything else, within reason, moves out of the way.
You should be writing your reviews so that they can be shared before the meeting. As the person on the receiving end of the review, it’s deeply unpleasant to turn up with no idea of the direction that the meeting is going to take, especially if it hasn’t been a stellar year for them. These meetings are not an occasion for a big reveal, and that’s true for both good and bad news. Save that for the magician at the Christmas party.
It goes without saying that the bad reviews are much harder to stomach than the good ones. Delivery of critique, especially when there is a lot to criticize, can put people in a spin. By sharing what you’ve written for them beforehand you give your staff time to mentally prepare.
To frame why this is useful, consider the five stages that people tend to go through when receiving bad news:
- Blame others
- Assume responsibility
- Find a solution
Staff reading the document before the meeting have the chance to move through steps 1-4 in their own minds. This makes the meeting focus on step 5, which is a much more productive use of both of your time.
Getting feedback from others
I always incorporate at least two pieces of peer feedback per member of staff. For each person, I pick two key people that they work with, either inside or outside of their team, and then send an email asking for candid feedback on them. This gives you an opportunity to get skip-level feedback if you ask one of their direct reports, or peer feedback if you ask someone else they work with in the organization.
Some people require very little guidance to write you a very long and detailed response, but some need prompting, especially if they haven’t done it before. The following questions can be a good place to start:
- How have you found working with this person over the time period?
- What are their main strengths that they bring to the organization?
- What do you think that they could improve upon?
- What’s your favourite memory of working with this person recently?
- Would you like to keep this feedback anonymous?
On that last bullet point: I always ask whether people would like to maintain anonymity. However, in my organization, I find that in most cases people don’t mind their name being attached. That’s a positive sign as it shows that people want to be accountable for their critique and feel comfortable doing so.
Who should write the review?
I’ve seen many organizations moving toward approaches where the staff write the majority of their own performance review themselves. I will make a controversial point here: this is very lazy.
I would hope that managers doing a good job could summarize the performance of their staff, and also outline some of their main achievements. Also, a self-review written by an underperforming member of staff about themselves will not be as negative as it needs to be, and that makes contradicting it even harder in the meeting. If they were wrong about their own performance, then what was the point of them writing it all in the first place?
Instead, the review should have equal input from both the manager and the direct report. The focus for the direct report is to summarize their achievements and feelings about their performance over the period, and the manager should do the same. If there is conflict in the two summaries then that is an excellent talking point for the meeting: why didn’t they know earlier?
My own approach to researching a performance review is like this:
- Review what the whole team has achieved in the time period since the last review.
- Review 1 to 1 notes for the period to pick out personal achievements, struggles, and themes that we discussed.
- Think hard about how they have been over the time period: were they mainly stressed, motivated, happy, neutral? Why?
- Think about the forthcoming time period. How would I really like that person to improve and excel? Are there upcoming projects they could contribute to? How do they want to grow for their own career goals to be met?
With this information to hand, I can begin writing the document.
Review document: a template
You may find that your workplace has a standard template, but here’s some sections that I like to use in mine:
- A summary of the main achievements for the period. (Looking backward)
- Areas to grow and develop over the next period. (Looking forward)
- A summary of peer feedback: either verbatim if they did not ask for anonymity, or paraphrased snippets if they did.
I typically write about 500-1000 words for each person. This may seem a lot, but it shows that I have taken the time and that I care about them. Under each section is space for the person to write their own additions in case there are things that I missed, or if they would like to make a rebuttal to anything that I have said. Sometimes I’m wrong.
Once I’m done, I’ll share it with them at least 1 day before the review with an attached note to take some quiet time and digest it, and to come to the meeting ready to talk it through.
The meeting itself
Before the meeting, check to see whether they’ve commented on anything you’ve written. Then, it’s time to become your best self and step through the meeting room door.
When it’s time to sit down, you should have plenty to talk about. Resist just reading through the document. You’ve both already done that. Instead, steer the conversation towards the positives, where you can dish out ample praise and thanks, and to the negatives, where you can discuss the situation and how to improve it.
Spend about 50% of the meeting looking backwards at the work that has been done, and 50% of it talking about the future. In the document, draft the goals that you both want to work towards in the coming period. This can be taken away for additional thought and then it can be signed off later.
If you’ve done all of the necessary preparation beforehand, these meetings typically go fairly well. However, sometimes that all goes out of the window and there are heated arguments or tears, or both. In these situations just listen and care for the person, but stick to the critique that you wrote. Offer your support to help them improve and grow, and let them know that they’re reacting because they care, and you equally care about them doing well. Don’t be afraid to step out for a bit to give both of you some time. It’s hard on you as well.
Leave money out of it
When performance reviews are at the end of the year, they have another piece of pertinent information attached: salary increases. This complicates things.
I’ve had performance reviews that acted as the grand unveiling of my salary increase. I wholeheartedly recommend against doing this. As soon as compensation is on the brink of being revealed, people tend to not engage as well in the performance discussion, which is what these meetings are really about. In the lead up to the pay rise surprise, people will sit there wondering when you’re going to tell them. As soon as you’ve told them, they’re either extremely happy and begin thinking about what they’re going to do with the extra money (a holiday in Spring? overpay the mortgage? invest more? start shopping in Waitrose?) or they’ll be seething because it’s not what they expected. All the while, the useful conversation floats on by and doesn’t land.
Instead, inform people of their pay rises at another time. Don’t let money distract you from a focussed conversation around performance. Personally I inform staff about salary increases by email, again, so that it gives people time to digest. If anyone wants to discuss it further, then they’re invited to take some time with me whenever they want.
Performance reviews are really hard. But with preparation, they can become slightly less so. Frame them in your mind as your ideal forum to dish out in-depth praise and critique that will have a lasting impact on your staff. Your stars can leave feeling motivated and wanting to achieve even more, and those that need improvement can leave with knowledge of how to do much better.
For all of the gigs that a manager does each year, performance reviews are your headline show. Rehearse, be calm, and it’ll be alright on the night. Good luck.