Sitting down for a performance review can be harrowing or helpful, depending on your manager’s style. Some offer helpful tips to fine-tune your work or, if your performance is slipping, get you back on track. Some just hand you a vague checklist enumerating all the things you’ve done right or wrong, and send you on your way.
But as difficult as it is to have a performance review, it can be even more stressful to give one. If you’re a manager, there’s a lot riding on doing it well: In the modern working world, performance reviews are a rare opportunity for boss and employee to learn and grow together. “In the past, performance reviews were about ranking and rating you in comparison with your colleagues,” says Lindsey Pollak, a workplace consultant and author of several books of career advice. “But it’s since evolved. The best performance reviews, from both sides, are an opportunity to take stock of what you’ve achieved, and what you’ve planned moving forward.”
It takes some preparation and nuance to craft an effective performance review, especially if it’s your first time reviewing a subordinate. Here are some tips to help you deliver useful, motivating feedback that’ll keep your employees on top of their game.
Do your homework
There are no cookie-cutter managers; in that same vein, there are no cookie-cutter employees, either. Each employee has their own set of strengths and weaknesses, and a performance review gives you the opportunity to discuss with them how best to harness those strengths to keep the workplace humming smoothly.
“Your physical experience is going to affect your emotional experience. If you’re hungry, or stayed up too late, it’s hard to have the self-command to find the right words.”
That means you need to do some preparation. “Don’t just wing it,” Pollak says. In addition to preparing from a content perspective — what you want to say, how much you want to say, and what tone you want to use to say it — she suggests keeping in mind each employee’s particular quirks and styles. “Maybe the person has been struggling personally and you want to be mindful. Maybe the person is a long-standing employee. Maybe the person is older or younger than you, and you want to think about that dynamic,” she says. “Be thoughtful. Don’t just hope it goes well; plan for it to go well.”
Another, often overlooked part of preparation is making sure you’re in the right frame of mind to deliver your feedback — so if you’re prone to grumpiness, hunger, or any other environmental or physical triggers, set yourself up to avoid them. “Your physical experience is going to affect your emotional experience,” says writer Gretchen Rubin, host of the Happier podcast. “If you’re hungry, or stayed up too late, it’s hard to have the self-command to find the right words, and communicate in the right constructive way.”
Don’t put the employee on the defensive
No matter how poorly your employee might be performing, if you immediately start berating them at the start of a review, you’ll freak them out too much to make the meeting productive. By contrast, in a more relaxed environment, “the employee is thinking well about their performance and not reacting to feeling threatened,” says David Rock, CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work. He suggests first asking the employee how they think they’re doing, rather than starting the review off with your assessment. “Giving the employee the chance to tell you about their areas of growth is a lot less threatening than you having to tell them,” he says. “The employee gets to look smart by explaining their gaps rather than feeling defensive.”
Pollak agrees that it’s a good idea to let the employee talk. “I work with an HR consultant who likes to start reviews with, ‘The first agenda item is you. Tell me how you’re doing, how you’re feeling,’” she says. “Letting them have their say will guide you, as the reviewer, regarding how you want to make the conversation go.”
Rock says that one of the most important aspects of a performance review is helping the employee create better working habits. This goes for employees who are performing well in addition to employees who are performing poorly — you want to help struggling workers hit missed targets, but you also want high achievers not to burn out.
“A central mechanism for building new habits is to facilitate a moment of insight for the employee,” Rock says. “The goal of a good performance review should be to help people have insights, in particular strong insights, about how they can get even better.” A good way to achieve this, he says, is to ask your employees to come up with their own ideal workplace experience. “Ask questions about solutions, and the future, that make people reflect deeply,” Rock says. “Better to ask, ‘What are your thoughts about the most important priorities this quarter?’ than to say, ‘Let me tell you the most important priorities this quarter.’ You’ll get a lot more insight from questions than statements.”
Acknowledge your employee’s feelings
When you give your employee a chance to talk, remember that they may see their performance or particular job struggles differently from you. If that’s the case, take the time to listen. “Sometimes you get into a situation where someone says something, and you want to tell them they don’t feel the way they feel,” Rubin says. “You tell them they’re not scared, annoyed, overwhelmed, or that they don’t have the right to be so pessimistic. Then you get a situation where both people get frustrated with each other and are not communicating.”
So if your employee tells you that they’re struggling with a certain aspect of the job, it’s important to hear them, even if you don’t agree with the particular problem. “If someone is feeling very annoyed, they know they’re feeling annoyed,” Rubin says. “Show that you’re listening. Say, ‘I hear what you are saying.’ You’re not saying, ‘You’re right to feel that way,’ you’re saying, ‘This is the way that you feel.’”
Don’t just give high-performing employees a pat on the head
The point of a performance review is not just to let an employee know how they’re doing, but to ensure they improve. You don’t want a successful subordinate to burn out or get complacent. “Often, a good performance review will actually be a missed opportunity,” Pollak says. Instead of simply telling your employee they did well, she recommends using the performance review to understand their motivators. “What excites them? What are they passionate about? Where is their curiosity? What are the goals they want to achieve next?” Pollak says. “Gather information regarding what fuels this person and what achievements they have on their mind.”
Rock also suggests coming up with “stretch goals” for your employee, like new targets to hit or projects to tackle to help them improve further. “Even when someone has had a very good review, the question should be ‘What’s next?’ and ‘How do you keep the work interesting and exciting and challenging in the year ahead?’” he says. “They don’t always need to be revenue or performance targets, but they should be something that forces us to learn and grow. The research is clear: We perform best when we’re learning and growing.”
This may be a good time to ask your employee about longer-term career goals, to show that you’re interested in their trajectory and let them know that there’s room for future advancement, even if that advancement isn’t imminent. “Maybe you have a very junior employee who is doing great and wants to be a CEO someday,” Pollak says. “I’m not saying you promote them to CEO, but you can tell them, ‘You should attend some of these CEO meetings,’ or ‘Have you read these three books?’ or ‘Why don’t you come to this meeting?’”
And don’t berate low performers
If someone is falling behind at work, they’re probably already aware when they come in for their performance review. For one thing, people tend to be aware of their own screwups and missed targets, even if they can’t seem to get back on track on their own. For another, as a manager, you should have been regularly checking in with them to let them know how they’re doing and help them course-correct. “If this is the first time you’re having this conversation, that’s a big problem,” Pollak says. “The best managers don’t bring any surprises to your review. It should be more of a planning session than a delivering of new information.”
You should, of course, reiterate to your employee that they’re still performing below expectations. “You’re trying to create some threat, but you want to make sure that it’s not overwhelming, that it’s a manageable threat,” Rock says. “It’s important to give people facts, but at the same time, don’t let the uncertainty take over and cause panic.”
Be explicit and clear, but also try to provide your employee with concrete targets to hit. “Rather than saying, ‘You need to improve performance or things will become a problem,’ you’re better to say, ‘You need to hit at least 50 percent of target within 30 days,’” Rock says. If you pair your negative feedback with a positive, concrete approach for improvement, it may give them the drive and confidence to succeed.