Performance reviews can be a stressful experience for both the person being reviewed and the reviewer. A lot can be riding on them including compensation and promotions, so it’s a heightened experience, often with a lot of emotions surrounding it.
Frequently as managers, we are not given any training as to how to handle these most effectively and to make them as productive an experience as possible. Here are some important guidelines for how to really maximize performance reviews as a manager and set your team up for success.
It doesn’t feel great when you’ve spent a ton of time thinking about your review and writing your self-appraisal only to meet with your boss and realize that they haven’t even read it. This process may be very meaningful for your employees and their careers, so in most cases they have likely taken this seriously. To demonstrate your respect and appreciation for them, it’s critical to come prepared having read their submissions and organized your own thoughts.
Just like we would instruct an individual to be tracking their accomplishments in real time to make performance reviews more streamlined, you can do the same as a manager. Start a document or tracker of some sort for each of your direct reports with a running list of accomplishments, improvements and development opportunities. It’s easy to suffer from recency effect or draw a complete blank about what your team has been up to when the performance cycle comes. This will be a great cheat sheet to help you prepare.
In addition to preparing your own thoughts and talking points, try to anticipate what your direct report might say or how they will respond. Ama La Vida Coach Maddie Deamer says, “Anticipate what the response/reaction may be – consider all the possibilities and go with an open mind to manage your own reactions.” She adds that before the meeting you should “consider what biases you may have.”
This process and conversation should be a focused opportunity for a deeper discussion but not one that hasn’t happened prior. Ama La Vida Coach Kristin Simon says, “This should NOT be the first time that you have discussed any of the points that you are providing. The performance review is just that, a REVIEW and summary of the past feedback and conversations that have happened throughout the year.”
The worst thing you can do is blindside someone with constructive feedback that you’ve been holding onto for this moment. This should be a time for reflection and a summary of key themes, not a time to air grievances. Coach Maddie says, “Direct reports should always know where they stand and how they can be growing, so they aren’t caught off guard in a review.”
Best practice is to provide feedback in real-time and regularly have coaching conversations with your direct reports. It’s important that in those conversations you and your direct report consistently realign on expectations. “Having set the right expectations from the outset of the performance management cycle is important. You and your report should be operating with the same understanding of what good (and great) looks like,” shares Ama La Vida Coach Stephanie Bilodeau.
“Learning about each other’s communication style is a good way to minimize surprises.” Ama La Vida Coach Peggy Wu
Consider the Emotional State of Your Direct Report
Even if there is a healthy culture in your organization, your employee may be bringing baggage from previous organizations and managers. Perhaps they have been burned in the past or felt that reviews were merely a check-the-box activity. They may not be approaching them from the same mindset that you are, and so it’s important to challenge your assumptions and be mindful that this may be an incredibly scary experience for them.
Coach Peggy Wu shares, “The timing of the review makes a difference for a direct report who’s dealing with a tough life issue. Can the review wait? If not, show acknowledgement of the direct report’s situation and let the direct report tell you if they feel they have the capacity for a meaningful conversation at this time about their performance.”
If you get into the conversation and unexpected emotions arise, pause for a minute. You can check in with your employee and ask them what they are feeling and if they would prefer to pick up the conversation again later.
Encourage Them to Take the Lead
This process is about your team’s growth and development, not about you giving them a report card. You may need to ask questions to prompt the conversation, and of course this is a time to deliver feedback, but they should be doing the majority of the talking.
For more junior employees or those who have had different experiences in the past, this may not be obvious. “Help them understand their role in the performance review, what you expect of them and HOW they can prepare, even if it’s just a list of questions for them to answer on their own before coming to the conversation. Guide them with some self-reflection structured homework. Then the employee will know WHAT they can do to prepare and feel more confident when you encourage them to take the lead in the conversation,” says Ama la Vida Coach Brenna Chambliss.
Ama La Vida Coach Betsy Westhoff encourages us to be intentional about what questions we do ask both in preparation and in the meeting. “It is so easy to get in our own heads and be in a single minded perspective. What kinds of questions might you consider asking your direct reports so that they are as open as they can be in sharing what is really going on for them?”
Elizabeth Martinez, who leads our Client Success team here at Ama La Vida, reminds us that by letting your employee drive the conversation, you are enabling them to take ownership of their career path. “Empowering your employees to lead their performance reviews, granting them ownership, fostering self-assessment, and aligning their goals with both the company’s vision and their own career development allows them to own their trajectory in self-development.”
Try to Get a Sense of Career Aspirations
These conversations aren’t just about someone’s performance currently but about where they are trying to go in the future. Even if they can’t articulate specific milestones they want to meet or roles they want to hold in the future, ask questions to help you understand where untapped skills and interests lie. This will help you unlock opportunities for them to grow, increase their engagement and build a roadmap for their future career path.
“Performance reviews are not just about past performance but also setting the stage for future state – what is the person’s growth mindset? Capabilities? Aspirations? Accountability for their growth? So I’d say – Performance and Potential,” brilliantly shares Ama La Vida Coach David Molotsky. I love the reframe to think about these conversations not just as performance reviews but “potential reviews.”
If you’re stuck figuring out what questions to ask, Ama La Vida Coach Laura McFadden shares two powerful ones. Ask these two questions adapted from the book “The Stay Interview:” “What aspects of your job or the organization do you find most fulfilling?” and “What is the biggest obstacle you are facing in your current role?”
Follow-Up and Follow Through
After the performance review concludes, you can’t just mentally archive it and wait until the next one. This is when your work begins to support your employee with what you two discussed. Identify opportunities for them to get new exposure, to develop new skills or to see real-life examples of some feedback you gave. You can even immediately transfer action items to future one-on-one agendas.
Make sure you tie up loose ends. It feels worse to share feedback that never gets addressed than it does to keep it to yourself. Even if the answer is, “this is not an opportunity right now,” closing the loop is better than keeping the person guessing.
By changing your mindset from performance reviews are awkward conversations where you have to deliver bad news to these are rare opportunities to have meaningful, in-depth discussions about your team’s growth goals, you open up possibilities. By following these guidelines you can truly help your team succeed and maximize your impact as a leader.