I’ve never figured out why so many people dread the prospect of performance reviews. Before you thunk your forehead with the heel of your hand, let me explain. I know that performance reviews are hideous — they can end in tears (I know that for a personal fact). But really, they don’t have to be torture. If you are the manager whose job it is to lead those reviews, the tone they take is entirely within your control.

I like to think of performance reviews (done well, that is) as an opportunity for a reset and a fresh start on a new year or quarter. Instead of an excruciating experience of judgment and copping to failure, they can be a way to affirm and acknowledge all the growth and progress made the period before and an exciting opportunity to start with a clean slate for the period just ahead. They are an opportunity to solidify your relationship with your team, one person at a time, and build trust. They are also the chance for you to demonstrate through your own actions what kind of culture of accountability you want to continue to develop.

Here’s how:

  • Keep your date. I’m appalled at how many times I hear from people that their bosses have let performance review seasons come and go without a peep. Either the managers don’t set up the appointments, don’t respond to their direct reports’ request for appointments, or blow off the appointments they made. These are all ways to tell your people not to care so much, and that in this culture someone’s word doesn’t mean a thing.
  • No surprises. There shouldn’t be a thing that you’d have to tell your people in their reviews about their performance that they don’t know already. Your ongoing communications throughout the year should have established a collaborative culture on your team. As a result, everyone should know how they stand with each other and with you. And you, for that matter, should know how you stand with your people (why wait for the engagement survey scores?).
  • Use the meeting as a model for excellent customer service. Everyone has customers, even if it’s just internal customers. Your team members are your customers. And the performance review appointment is a perfect way to show how you want them to treat theirs. Be on time. Make sure the setting is private and uninterrupted. Listen calmly and non-defensively to everything they have to say. Make sure they know that you heard and understood them. Work with them to arrive at solutions and approaches to challenges for the upcoming period. Give them what they need, starting with the confidence that you are invested in their success.
  • Take it on the chin. These performance reviews should be two-way, which means that you might hear some hard things about yourself. While I would never recommend that an individual risk getting fired by being too critical of his or her boss, self-empowered talent who are confident that they can find jobs elsewhere may use this meeting as an opportunity to tell you a thing or two. Respect the feedback and tuck it away in your mind for consideration in a moment that’s not so emotionally charged. Don’t punish your employee for candor.
  • Set your mutual goals high. Be positive and inspiring. Even if part of the conversation must include a review of some failed objectives, make sure the overall feeling of the meeting is upbeat and aspirational. If you want your people to stay engaged in the work they’re doing for you, give them something to build, not just fix.

By ending the meetings on a high note, not only are you helping your team stay ambitious and ready to reach for some major stretch goals, but you are also assigning yourself a more exciting and productive year ahead as well.

Martha Finney, president and CEO of Engagement Journeys, helps companies build authentically engaging workplace cultures. She is the author of more than 15 books, including The Truth About Getting the Best From People.

Image credit, NuStock, via iStock

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6 responses to “How to learn to love performance reviews”

  1. glynlumley says:

    Hi Martha

    Please could you clarify your use of the phrase 'performance review'? What performance is under review – that of the individual employee or that of the wider system of which s/he is a part?



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  3. Neil Reay says:

    At the company where I felt the best about giving and receiving performance reviews, the emphasis was on mutual goal-setting with the employee, not correction (which was expected to be done on an as-needed basis). The employee was expected to set personal job function goals, participate in Division goals, and an emphasis was put on personal development goals. For example, goals for taking a course or seminar in an area they feel weak, participating in a corporate task force, undertaking a new initiative, getting involved in an industry association, etc. When it was bonus time, 5% of salary could come from corporate performance, 10% for Division performance (where they had more impact), and 15% was based on achievement of the personal growth goals. Employees came in with lists of personal goals they wanted to pursue, rather than like a child expecting a scolding.

  4. Sean says:

    Hi Martha, I love that phrase 'give them something to build, not just fix'.

    It is so important as Western society in general tends towards negative, judgemental, cautious thinking- the type that Edward de Bono calls 'black hat' thinking.

    Also key is the two-way nature of the meeting. The word conversation does in the end mean 'to speak WITH', not to speak at!

    Thanks for the inspiring tips!

  5. Neil Reay says:

    I have observed two major issues that make for poor performance reviews across many companies. One, because it is a “required” annual activity with attendant paperwork, too many corrective actions are held off until the review, making it a bad performance beat-down with the shortfalls duly noted in the appropriate boxes. Corrective actions and praise should be given quickly and in the context of the performance, not put into files for later use. The annual review should be for setting stretch goals for the year.

    Second, the performance reviews are too often tied to annual salary adjustments, and because of limited budget funds, you almost always need to find “deficiencies” in performance to justify giving only the limited 2-3% raise allowed. A performance review can be tied to certain bonus payouts based on goal achievement, but salary should be a separate discussion (and reviews should take place before corporate gives a mandated limit, and they should be a guide in setting salary adjustments, rather than the other way around).