Performance Review Help

It’s that time of year again — time for the often-dreaded performance review.

Though we could easily debate the merits and imperfections in the review process of many companies, we will instead focus on how managers can better prepare to deliver an effective review.

Most managers want their people to come away from a review feeling acknowledged for what they do well, supported, engaged, motivated and clear about what is expected of them in terms of goals and future performance. Performance reviews are a critical and challenging task for any manager, and delivering them well requires considerable time and preparation.

When delivered well, performance reviews can drive improved business results for the organization and be powerful and motivating experiences for employees. Yet at the hand of the unskilled, those on the receiving end can feel like they’ve been run over by a truck. Poorly delivered reviews can result in demoralized, unmotivated or disgruntled employees — something most companies can ill afford.

In my coaching practice, clients often use me to help them prepare for a performance review (either as the one delivering the review or receiving it). Here are some typical complaints I hear from frustrated employees following their review (and how to avoid them):

“My review was totally subjective.” Stick with the facts; subjective comments lead to arguments.

“My boss couldn’t give me any examples.” Clarify the specific situation in which the behavior occurred to back up what you assert in the review.

“The feedback I got was vague.” Avoid generalizations or clichés, like, “You have common sense,” or “are a good leader.” Make clear the behavior you either want continued or changed.

“I was totally taken off guard.” Performance reviews shouldn’t be a surprise; managers should be providing ongoing and continuous performance feedback.

In my experience, most employees really do want to know how they are doing in their boss’s eyes, and want to understand how they can improve if they aren’t meeting expectations or what they need to demonstrate to be promoted. Unfortunately, many managers are simply unskilled and lack training in delivering this information.

Here are a few coaching tips to help you prepare for delivering a review:

  • Before conducting a review, get clear about your objectives. What are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to recognize and motivate a strong contributor? Retain a “star”? Put a poor performer on notice? Help a new or young employee map out her future with the company? Clarify the employee’s role and/or your expectations? Your objectives should drive how you deliver the review and your focus.
  • Take the time necessary to prepare well (employees can tell when you have), and identify examples to share with the employee to help him understand your feedback. Consider how you will deliver the kind of feedback that will motivate the employee for any desired behavior change.
  • Schedule smartly to avoid low energy, for you and the employee. Reviews in general can be draining experiences. Avoid scheduling them back to back (or last thing in the day when most people’s energy is low). Allow sufficient time for a meaningful, two-way conversation.
  • Consider the emotional component. Identify your own emotions around delivering the review. How you manage your own emotions during the review is important (particularly if you are highly anxious). Anticipate the emotions of the person you will be reviewing. How might you respond if you were hearing this?
  • Review last year’s goals. Remember, it’s an “annual” review, not a review of just the past few weeks.
  • Choose your words carefully when you are describing the employee. Use language that specifies behaviors or observable actions vs. generalizations and/or inferences such as “not professional.” Define what you mean.
  • Look ahead to goal setting for the coming year, whether or not your company’s review process encourages this.
  • For loaded situations, get help (either a professional coach or your HR professional). Even the most capable manager can benefit from expert help in delivering bad news and preparing for anticipated rebuttals or resistance. Having an outside perspective or someone to role play with you can help you better prepare for how the employee may respond or react.

I offer coaching help to leaders anywhere in the world preparing for reviews. or 360 682 5807.

Improve Performance Review Process

Delivering performance reviews can create a lot of anxiety for many bosses. They tend to put off preparing for them because of the enormousness of the paperwork involved and their discomfort delivering them.

Sadly, reviews are often viewed by managers as a “necessary evil” instead of an opportunity to help staff grow, advance their careers and improve performance (and, therefore, the business.) Performance reviews can be an effective method for bosses to acknowledge and recognize performance and identify and resolve employee role confusion or performance expectation gaps.

Used strategically, they also offer senior leaders a method to identify potential companywide challenges and opportunities.

The success of any company’s performance review process is dependent on top-down sponsorship to ensure cascading support from middle man- agers on down. Middle managers need to understand what is expected of them in delivering reviews. This isn’t likely without senior-level prioritization, clarity of expectations and proper sponsorship.

I work with many senior leaders who espouse that performance reviews are “important” but then fail to set the example by delivering well-executed reviews to their direct reports.

Midlevel managers are unlikely to put much effort into delivering reviews to their people if their bosses either don’t bother delivering theirs or do them at the last minute on the fly.

The first person to deliver a review in the company should be the top leader. This allows senior leaders to model performance review “best practices” to their direct reports and establish strategic goals for the coming year (so these goals can then be implemented into the reviews down the line).

Unfortunately, many companies overburden their managers (many who have large numbers of direct reports to review) with outdated, complicated forms and review processes that require countless hours to complete. Some have literally created internal monsters.

Here are some suggestions for improving the review process.

  • Success starts at the top. Senior leaders need to be actively engaged in the process — establishing reviews as a priority and backing this by providing tools and resources (coaching and training) for managers to deliver them effectively. A key skill in delivering reviews is providing feedback that has the desired effect. Managers aren’t born with this skill — but it is a skill that can be learned.
  • Develop a review process that works for people (simple and consistent). The emphasis should be on the employee versus having to complete monstrous forms. Long, complex review forms with highly subjective criteria can lead to noncompliance and often can defeat the purpose. Collect feedback on the forms/process — ask your people how it works or doesn’t and their suggestions for improving it.
  • Best practice in many companies begins with the employee first submitting a written self-evaluation to the boss. This way the boss doesn’t have to start with a blank sheet of paper. He or she can then add, agree or disagree with the points in the employee’s self-assessment. The boss then “conducts” the actual review (which should be a two-way conversation), exploring and further clarifying areas of disagreement, confusion, gaps and developing the improvement plan.
  • Though reviews by nature tend to focus on the past, they should also include goal setting for the coming year. Top-level managers need to establish goals that get passed to the next level down. Set goals that are “doable,” relevant, measurable and specific — with “by whens” (a date in the future when this should be completed — otherwise there is no “commitment”). Employees should walk out of a review clear about what the “success bar” looks like for the coming year and what kind of support they will be given to achieve it.
  • After the review conversation, task the employee with creating a document that summarizes what was said (and agreed to) in the review. The boss then approves or signs off on the document, which brings the review process to a close. That approach can lessen the paperwork burden for bosses and provide a document to refer to for next year’s review (and coaching conversations along the way).
  • Don’t count on improvement without a plan or follow-up.

To increase buy-in and commitment, involve the employee in the creation of the plan. Then periodically check in with the employee to see how the plan is going throughout the year.

Re-frame Your Performance Review

The dreaded annual performance review. In addition to pay increases, reviews offer other opportunities, like securing flextime/extra vacation days or development resources, improving the relationship between you and your boss, identifying the path to your next promotion and getting feedback to help your career. How you take advantage of this time and process, where the focus is all about you, is up to you.

This week’s focus: How to maximize the opportunities your review presents.

The “self evaluation” part of your review process is your chance to demonstrate your value.

  • Provide documentation of your accomplishments, particularly any results/benefits to the team and company (keep a log/file throughout the year so you aren’t starting from scratch when you sit down to write your review).

Focus on numbers and concrete examples, such as appreciative e-mails.

  • Whatever form your company uses, note key successes and emphasize any outstanding contributions, challenges overcome, growth you have made and new responsibilities you have taken on.
  • If asked about your challenges or weaknesses, try to be objective. Resist the temptation to claim you have none. We all have areas for improvement and your boss is likely well aware of yours.

If the boss thinks you can’t see your own shortcomings, the boss becomes concerned that you are a) unaware, and therefore unable to grow, or b) aren’t being straightforward and honest. Neither of these serves you.

Tips for the review conversation (I deliberately use the word “conversation;” your performance review is your opportunity to have an important dialogue with your boss regarding your relationship and your career!):

  • If your boss isn’t clear about how you spend your day, enlighten him or her. Revisit your role, job expectations and what your boss views as your priorities.

Ask for clarification about anything that is confusing or unclear.

  • Find out what keeps your boss awake at night so you can figure out how to help and increase your likelihood for a raise or promotion next year.
  • Address any relationship issues, such as ongoing annoyances that frustrate either of you. For receptive bosses, offer feedback or requests on how the boss can better support you to be successful in the future (what you would like more, or less, of from them). Let your boss know what you need to do your job better, such as resource support during rush or busy periods, new software programs or any self/leadership improvement support like personal coaching, training or academics.
  • Looking ahead to 2009, negotiate goal setting. You should be comfortable that your targeted goals are reasonably “doable.” Try to get detail about what specific actions or behaviors your boss wants (i.e., projects completed, sales targets, units produced or customer complaints handled, etc).
  • At the end of your review, summarize what was said (and agreed to) and then submit a document that captures these.
  • If you want more money, ask for it (it surprises me how many workers fail to ask) and make a solid case. Base your request on what you have brought in.

Quantify your value and contributions. If you can’t get the money you want now, see if you can get your boss to agree to a bonus or increase based on hitting targeted goals along the way in ’09. If not, try for flextime, extra vacation days, etc.

  • Lastly, thank your boss for his or her time and consideration.

How to receive any critical feedback your boss may offer during your review:

  • Attitude matters. Don’t sit there glowering with your arms crossed. Your career advancement may depend on how you react to the information and what you do with it.
  • Listen to understand first before you go into automatic defend or deny mode. Ask clarification questions. Summarize what you hear to make sure you have it correct. Offer any rebuttals professionally.
  • Ask your boss what he or she wants you to do differently. Explain how you will keep a negative from happening again: “I understand how my actions might have been perceived that way. Next time, I will handle it by … .” Or, “I want to strengthen our team and improve.”

A reminder: feedback is information from someone else’s perspective. Receiving tough feedback is an opportunity to learn about yourself and how your behaviors or actions are interpreted by another. If it’s something you have been blind to (and that can hinder your career advancement) it may well be a gift because now you can do something about it. If you can’t find a shred of truth in any of it, check in with others to see if your boss’ perspective is shared. In the end, you have to decide what to do with it.

Invest in yourself by hiring me as your coach! I can help you learn, develop and grow your leadership and emotional intelligence abilities.  I coach leaders all over the world via Skype.  Call me:  360 682 5807 or email: