I've come to the conclusion over the years that pretty much nobody likes performance reviews. Either you are having great dialogue and development conversations with people already and might not need them – or you are forced into conversations that don't set the stage for regular dialogue. That said, there are things you can do that will make this a better experience for both parties.
Here are seven things you can do that will help you (and the people you lead) survive performance reviews:
1) Start early and do harder ones first: You won't do an effective job at handling all the advice below if you start late on this project. Too many leaders with large teams write all their performance reviews on the same day in a short period of time. Rather, take the time to think through what you will write (and later say) and how you plan to communicate it. Also, do the hardest reviews first – this will help clear your mind and also keep you from stressing about difficult reviews throughout the process.
2) If you need to, practice: Many reviews won't require practice in advance, but at least some will. Practice giving tough feedback and having difficult conversations with a neutral party (not another employee, of course). Tap into help from a peer, leader, or human resources professional who can help.
3) Don't spring surprises (and if you have to, give people time to save face): Feedback should be coming from you regularly during the review period. If there is something negative that shows up on the performance review, the person you are reviewing should already have been hearing about it from you for awhile and had a chance to begin working on it. When this isn't possible (due to leadership transitions) give people time to absorb negative feedback and save some face before attempting to have a constructive conversation.
4) Balance the conversation appropriately: If the person you are reviewing is doing great work in 95% of their duties, don't spend half the time talking about the 1-2 areas where they are lacking. Save that conversation for another time to go into more detail. Likewise, if a person is seriously under performing in a major of their work, then don't try to find positive things to talk about to balance out the bad news – your time giving feedback needs to accurately reflect the work they are doing.
5) Give specific examples: You aren't credible on your praise if the best you can say is “good job” and you don't give people a path to correct themselves if critical feedback only suggests a “needs improvement.” People need to know specifically what they are doing well so they can repeat and specifically where to make changes to be more in alignment with great performance. Plus, you build trust with people when you cite specific examples. Agree or not, at least they know you care enough to pay attention.
6) Hold your ground: During the review conversation is not the time to be making changes to what you are communicating (thus the importance of point #1). Decide on your message in advance and stick to it. A mixed message based upon strong feedback from the other party only serves to make the conversation more complicated and sending a different message than you intended. If you've had a hard time holding your ground in the past, you need to practice in advance. See point #2.
7) Avoid talking about others not present: You are reviewing one person at a time, not the entire team. Be sure your feedback focuses on the person at hand and doesn't veer into an inappropriate conversation about what others are or are not doing in their development. If you need to speak about others for the purpose of examples, stick to the facts and not your opinions or feedback about their development.
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