Taking the Dread Out of Performance Reviews

When it comes to performance reviews, there are two absolute truths for every organization:

1. No manager wants to write it or give it.

2. Every employee wants feedback.

It it the balancing of these two truths that I find plagues most organizations that I serve. Managers dread performance reviews because they take up an inordinate amount of time to write and give thoroughly, and the potential legal liabilities surrounding the written review can make the task all the more taxing because of the need to cross every “t” and dot every “i” in the review. Managers also tell me that they dread reviews because employees will ask for a salary increase if the evaluation indicates that the employee has achieved or improved since the last evaluation. Due to this fear, along with the aforementioned time and potential liabilities, many managers have chucked the performance review altogether so that one of the most common things I hear from employees since the Great Recession is “We don’t do performance reviews here.”

Yet, employees want a review, and over and over again they tell me that they want feedback on their performance whether or not salary is at issue. In a time when corporate layoffs and terminations are rampant, employees want to know how they are faring with their company and their boss. If the manager struggles with giving frequent feedback and does not provide a review, the employee feels awash in a sea of doubt and uncertainty, and likely becomes disengaged. This is even more true of the Gen X and Gen Y worker who has a psychological need for security, emotional connection, and opportunity in the workplace, so they strongly desire feedback to know how they stack up and where they can improve. If you are a manager and not providing reviews or feedback, watch as a Gen X or Gen Y worker becomes increasingly disengaged or perhaps leaves altogether. They just don’t thrive in a “We told you we loved you when we hired you, and if it ever changes, we will let you know” environment. Employees also hate surprises in reviews when there was ample opportunity to give feedback regularly.


So if managers hate giving reviews, and employees eagerly desire feedback, what gives? I believe there are a few best practices that can take the dread out of performance reviews and provide employees with the feedback and security they crave:

  • Leave your desk, walk around the office for 30 minutes per day, and schedule it. Former Campbell Soups CEO Doug Conant points out in his book Touch Points that the 30 minutes he spent walking around the company every day was the most valuable 30 minutes of his day. It is a time to connect with employees on personal matters important to them like their children or a personal hobby, but it is also a time to observe the employee, give feedback, thank employees for their good work, and put out fires that otherwise would fester. Fifteen to thirty minutes of walk around time every day, scheduled right into your calendar, will provide opportunities for off-the-cuff feedback and cut down on the need for extensive reviews later.
  • Provide employees with regular, spontaneous, in-the-moment, positive and opportunity feedback.  Not a meeting a week later to “discuss what happened last week.” Not an evaluation. Not a write up. Just right there, on the spot, in the moment feedback that is objective, not dramatic, and specific. This article in this week’s Time is very helpful. If you stick with only observed facts (e.g, “I saw you slumping in your chair.”), not judgments (e.g., “You are lazy.”), and provide the feedback only when you can speak in non-emotional tones, you will find that there is little drama created by this type of review. Employees tend to welcome it as a genuine interest in helping them improve rather than a scold or set-up for disciplinary action. This feedback should be quick, and perhaps followed with a question like, “Do you have any more questions of me?” or “Do you think you can do this next time? I’m here to help you.” I personally like the STAR method of feedback:
    • Situation
    • Task [describe the situation or task that led to the feedback]  “Mary, I noticed the customer approaching you, and it seemed that she had a question.”
    • Action [describe the action the employee took] “But I saw you look down and turn away from the customer.”
    • Result [the result of the action] “The customer was helpless and seemed very frustrated.”
    • Then … for opportunity feedback, go back through the same STAR method, and suggest (or ask) an alternative:
    • Situation
    • Task [“So next time when you see a customer approaching you who looks confused or lost …”]
    • Action [“Give eye contact, smile and approach the customer.”]
    • Result [“What do you think will be the result if you do this?” or “The customer will feel that we care.”] For even more effective results, tie the result to the employee’s own future career goals or opportunities.
  • If performance reviews are necessary, there should be no surprises. If you are providing frequent feedback to your employees, there should be no surprises in the performance review, and therefore little drama. Surprises in performance reviews undermine your credibility as a manager and leader because the employee feels that it could have been avoided if you had provided regular feedback all along, and therefore it seems that you don’t really care about the employee. In fact, let’s just be honest: it feels like a passive aggressive form of feedback. Regular and honest feedback is your responsibility as a manager.
  • Divorce salary discussions from performance reviews. If you have been ignoring performance reviews because you fear that employees will want a pay raise, and you’re not willing to provide one just yet, then announce that you will begin a process of performance reviews that will not be tied to any salary discussions. This will prevent the employee from entering the evaluation with an expectation of a review, only to be let down or feel that they are underperforming when you avoid the discussion.
  • If you have high manager turnover, document the accomplishments of your employees. In cultures of transition or manager turnover, employees want to know that their next manager will know of their performance and accomplishments. If you have made the decision to avoid performance reviews, at least document in writing what your employees have achieved so that employees do not feel that they must prove themselves again and again with every new manager.
  • A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. Balance your positive and improvement feedback, and don’t just show up when something is going wrong. But one caution here: Don’t mix your feedback. Just because you’re a nice manager, don’t add positives to “make up for” your negative [For example, “Jose, you are very good with the technical aspects of your work, but I noticed that you are not connecting with our customers.”] This confuses employees, and it seems manipulative. Keep your positive feedback positive, and keep your improvement feedback focused on improvement. But don’t forget to do both. Positive reinforcement and reward makes it much easier to hear the improvement feedback in non-dramatic fashion. Why? Because it feels to the employee that you really care about them and their future, and that’s what they really want to know.
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