Performance reviews: the good, the bad, and what you can do about them
Performance reviews are a controversial business practice that most managers have to deal with in some capacity. Whether we like them or not, most people have to abide by whatever system their company has put in place. Here are some reasons why reviews can be pitfalls for performance if not conducted with care. I then follow with some ways you can sidestep these pitfalls and get the most out of your review sessions.
Problem: the feedback is not timely.
If you’re doing your job well as a manager, you should be giving feedback in the moment or as soon as you can reasonably do so. You should not be waiting 3 or 6 or 9 months until a performance review. If you’ve given timely feedback, your team members will likely have already fixed the behavior. When this same feedback is repeated in a review setting months later, it can be frustrating. It’s kind of like getting in a fight with your significant other and one of you brings up past transgressions. It’s not productive and it doesn’t make anyone feel good. If anything, it can lead to resentment or may even reverse positive improvements.
And what if you haven’t given them the feedback before? This can be even worse. Waiting 6 months to give someone feedback is not only unproductive, but it can also erode trust. Staying silent is not honest or helpful. It comes from a place of fear or overwhelm. Each day we ask our people to give their all. When you withhold information in the moment that can help them grow, it can feel like a small betrayal. They’ve been working hard, oblivious to your concerns, and you’ve been holding on to something that could have been addressed and improved upon.
Problem: the idea of grading on a curve is crap.
We aren’t in high school anymore. In the real world, it’s entirely possible that you can have a team of above-average employees who work hard and perform well. If you’re doing your job right, this should be the case. When you are actively supporting your direct reports, providing mentoring so they can grow, instilling a sense of empathy for team members and customers, giving them autonomy so they can thrive, removing any blockers, treating them with respect, and dealing with any issues as they arise with candor and vulnerability, then it makes sense that you should have a killer team of high performers. Being forced to grade them on a curve is only going to piss them off and demotivate them.
Problem: incongruous reviews can lead to worse performance.
We all tend to remember and assign more weight to our good deeds and attributes and downplay or forget the negative ones. But the same fallacy does not hold for the people around us. When managers are prompted to recall past negative behaviors (or areas for growth), they will remember those things more accurately and tend to weight them more heavily. Thus what one person expects to be an excellent review, can end up being a “meets expectation” or worse. This incongruity can lead to disappointment and lower performance. It’s a flawed system.
How to maximize the good and minimize the bad.
Improvement: require your direct reports to provide a review of you.
I frequently ask my direct reports for feedback. Each 1:1 or completed project, I try to remember to check-in. Do you have feedback for me? What did you think of the way that was handled? Did I clearly communicate X in that last meeting? But 9 times out of 10, my direct reports give me a vague “nope, it was fine.”
As a new manager, it felt weird for performance reviews to be solely about the performance of my direct reports. It felt one-sided. So I started asking them to come prepared to their review sessions with 3 questions:
- What are 3 things that I could be doing better or things that I should stop doing?
- What are 3 things that I’m doing well and you’d like me to continue doing?
- What are 3 ways that I can best support you? (This can be in your day-to-day, in your growth, etc.)
And holy cow, I started getting insightful, actionable feedback. I also felt a shift in the dynamic of the reviews. It started feeling less like a boss/employee conversation and more like a peer-to-peer chat. Sort of like sitting beside someone versus sitting across a desk. It made space for more open, vulnerable conversations.
Improvement: let people know that they won’t get any surprises.
A great way to ease tension before review time is to let your people know that there won’t be any surprises. Assure them that they already know what you are going to say. Many times the idea of a review can send even the best employee into an anxiety tailspin. Letting them know what to expect can alleviate this needless stress.
Improvement: reinforce positive behaviors and set goals.
The best way to use performance reviews is to reinforce good behavior. While we can be great about giving negative feedback in the moment, we many times forget to acknowledge the positive actions of our teams. I spend a significant portion of performance reviews celebrating improvements and expressing gratitude for hard work.
Another large percentage of my reviews are spent talking with my team members about their career goals and strategizing ways to get them there. We then set their new performance goals based on these desired outcomes. Rather than basing goals on areas that serve the company, make them more impactful by basing them on the aspirations of the individual. If your direct reports are working toward their dreams, they’ll also work harder for your company.
So even if performance reviews are mandated by your company, there are still ways to get value out of them while also minimizing the stress to your team. Doing a retro with your team on ways you can improve performance reviews can also be a great way to iterate to a better process that is tailored to your specific team members.