8+1 Tips for Performance Reviews

🙋‍♀️ This is a cross-post from my newsletter, Leading by Design. If you liked the post below, consider subscribing! I post one issue per month.

In the previous Leading by Design issue, we’ve talked about how annual performance evaluations tend to be a waste of time for everyone involved. You could replace formulaic, unproductive end-of-year reviews with a more forward-thinking performance management method like CPM (Continuous Performance Management).

In this issue, we’re going to explore the ways you can improve the actual process of writing a performance review. We’ll go through tips for preparing, writing and communicating your feedback to your direct reports. Everything below is loosely based on my experience and knowledge, so your mileage may vary.

✍️ Preparing the review

Practice giving continuous feedback throughout the year. Even if you don’t explicitly follow CPM, you can practice giving feedback to your team in a consistent fashion. Your direct reports shouldn’t be surprised by what they hear during their annual review. If there are any surprises, it’s a sign that you didn’t communicate your feedback when it was timely (and useful) to do so.

Avoid recency bias. This is some of the most common advice one can get on performance appraisals. Look beyond your direct report’s performance during last month and make sure they get fairly evaluated based on what they worked on during the entire year. To mitigate the perils of recency bias, I take copious notes during my day-to-day. Anything that might come up throughout the week goes on my list, which I communicate weekly through 1:1 meetings. I write down both positive and corrective feedback, complete with dates and specific examples. When the time comes to write the actual review, I already have a list of arguments I can use to illustrate my points.

Don’t start from a blank slate. Writing a review is so nerve-wracking, it’s no wonder that your fear of the blank page goes into overdrive every time you start. Apart from keeping daily notes, you could also begin by evaluating if your direct report met last year’s objectives. Go through the areas of growth on which you’ve both decided to work and assess their progress. If you do that only to find out that lots of the previous annual review objectives are obsolete, maybe it’s time to switch to a new, more flexible way of performance management.

Ask their co-workers for feedback. Another tool that can help you fill in the gaps in your reports’ performance appraisal is 360 feedback surveys. They don’t have to be super convoluted to be helpful. My usual method is setting up a Typeform with three simple questions:

  • What should Jane Doe continue doing?
  • What should Jane Doe start doing?
  • What should Jane Doe stop doing?

These questions are specific enough to help you gather actionable feedback, but harmless enough for people not to feel like they destroy someone’s chance to promotion or salary raise. I send this form to everyone that works close to my direct reports, apart from me. This can include developers, product managers, marketing managers, salespeople etc. You want to make sure you send these out about a month or so before starting to writing your reviews, to give people ample time to provide their feedback. Have in mind that you’ll need at least one follow-up email because people will forget.

🔎 During the review meeting

Share your review before the meeting. Or not. There are two conflicting schools of thought about when you’re supposed to share your review document with your direct reports, each with their pros and cons. You could share their review before your meeting, giving them enough time to go through it at least once. This method gives them time to prepare, but on the other hand, it leaves your feedback open to misinterpretation and can cause defensiveness. Or you could share their review after your meeting, to make sure that they focus entirely on what you’re saying. The disadvantage is that people might come into the meeting overly cautious and stressed about what they’re going to hear. Whichever method you choose, make sure to communicate this clearly to your team.

Everyone obsesses about corrective feedback. Most people will first skim their evaluation review to find negative feedback, glossing over any praise. Corrective feedback often causes people to react defensively, despite everyone’s best efforts. To help them, try framing evaluation reviews as the start, not the ending of a conversation. Aim for “here is what we’ll focus on during the next year”, not “here are the ways your skills are lacking”. It’s easier for employees to acquire a growth mindset if you explain them clearly that reviews are a means to identify areas of growth, not punishment for not achieving an arbitrary standard.

Make sure to recap. Conversation can flow organically in a review meeting, and your direct report might lose sight of the specific points you’ve made. Make sure you take some time before the end of the session to repeat the main feedback points and agree on areas of growth and shared objectives.

🤝 After the review meeting

Keep all annual reviews in a single place. You don’t have to use specialised software for performance appraisals (even though in Workable, we use Small Improvements). You can use a simple Google Doc and share the review when you see fit. Just make sure that after sharing, you move the reviews in a specific shared folder that will only be available to the respective team member. It’s easier to go back to previous review cycles and check progress this way.

Iterate on set objectives. What you agreed upon during the meeting is not set in stone. If there’s a shift in company strategy or a reorg you should revisit the set objectives for all affected team members. Don’t let review deliverables get stale - check on progress periodically and make changes as needed.

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