Hate Performance Reviews? This One's For You

I read a Washington Post article this week that reported that basically every single person hates performance reviews.  Even people who claim to want to learn and develop new skills.

Then, I had two clients share frustrations about not having received a performance review recently.  How can they learn and develop new skills without getting feedback on how they’re doing?

What’s wrong with this picture?

It boils down to one thing: we are getting this performance review thing all wrong.

And the answer isn’t to stop performance reviews all together (sorry to all of you that hate them), but to make them better – more meaningful, more effective, and more supportive of real change for our people and our organizations.

Here are 5 simple things you can do to develop a performance review system that creates real results for your organization:

1. Talk with your employees about feedback … now

If you haven’t already, get together with each employee that reports to you, and have a conversation about feedback.  Talk about how tricky it can be to both give and receive feedback (especially the negative kind), and discuss how the two of you can work together to do it better.  The more collaborative and consensual you make the process of giving and receiving feedback, the more effective you’ll be.

What do you say in this conversation?  Try something like this:

Hey Bob, thanks for sitting down with me to talk about this feedback stuff.  You know that as your boss, it’s my job to give you feedback.  I also really value feedback, because without it, how can you be expected to know how you’re doing and to improve your performance?  One thing I know about feedback is that it doesn’t work if the receiver doesn’t want to hear it and doesn’t want to change.  So, I wanted to ask you – do you actually want my feedback on how you’re doing, even if that feedback is about things you can do better? (Hopefully Bob says yes here).  How do you like to receive feedback?  Do you prefer a soft delivery, or are you more of a straight shooter?  You can count on me to give you feedback frequently – not just at your annual performance review – because I know that feedback is only truly effective when it’s given quickly.  Giving and receiving feedback can be challenging, so can we agree that we’ll allow each other to make mistakes and we’ll work together to keep getting better?  Thanks so much for the chat, Bob.

2. Prepare, and accept it won’t be perfect

Whether you’re on the giving or receiving end of a performance review (or any conversation involving feedback, for that matter), you’ll want to take time to prepare.  This includes not only compiling and being thoughtful about the content of the review, but also doing some mental prep work.

Notice what internal responses you have while you prepare for the meeting.  Maybe your heartbeat picks up, your palms get sweaty, or you go into complete emotional panic?  It’s so natural and common to have fears about giving or receiving feedback.  Why do you think so many people avoid doing it until the annual performance meeting?  Take some time to explore and better understand your fears.  Are you afraid of creating conflict?  Are you afraid of not being liked?  Are you afraid of learning some new truth about yourself?  Are you afraid of change?  Understanding the source of your reaction can help shift you from a feeling of panic (“ah I’m sweating and I don’t know what’s going on here!”) to a sense of calm acceptance (“ahh OK, that’s what’s going on here…”).  From that place of calm, you can then develop some strategies that will get you centered before the meeting, so that you’re in the best mental and emotional state to either give or receive feedback.

And most importantly, accept that despite all of your thoughtful preparation, the meeting is not going to be perfect.   If you’re holding yourself to perfect standards, then you’ll only increase your anxiety and make the meeting much harder on yourself and your co-worker.   Drop the idea of perfect, and giving and receiving feedback will be much easier.

3. Don’t hold onto the sticky feedback – get it out there

You know that piece of feedback that really gets your heart racing?  You were planning to give it towards the end of the performance review meeting, right?  Or maybe you were going to sandwich it in between two pieces of good feedback?  I hear ya – you want to start the meeting off on a good note and not go right for the touchy topic.

This might sound radical, but I’m going to challenge you to get the sticky feedback right out on the table, at the beginning of the meeting.  Why?  Because there’s emotion in that feedback for you.  If you’re holding it in, then all of the great, positive feedback that you were planning to give first will be contaminated by the emotion under the surface.  You’ll be distracted and not able to truly celebrate your co-workers’ successes.  Tackle the most difficult feedback first, clear it from the space, and then you can focus on giving really clear, specific, and impactful feedback about everything your co-worker is doing well.

Try starting your meeting like this…

Hey Sally, there are some great things you’re doing in your role, and I want you to know that you should be really proud about what you’ve accomplished this year.  I want to give my complete focus to all of the positive feedback I have to give you, and I don’t think I can do that without talking to you first about this topic that’s not as clear-cut.  Is it OK if we start with that feedback first – clarify what’s going on and let it rest, so that we can give our undivided attention to how and where you’re excelling?

If you’re feeling anxiety about a specific area of performance, then chances are your colleague is too.  So it’s better if you can both get what you need to say off of your chest, and then move on to the good stuff.

4. Separate your observations from your interpretations

This crazy, quick mental process happens when we observe something.  We see it happen (e.g. the phone rings, Charlie is sitting next to the phone, and he doesn’t answer it), make assumptions (Charlie had no logical, acceptable reason for not answering the phone), draw conclusions (Charlie was being lazy), and update our belief system (Charlie isn’t as good of an employee as I thought).

When you’re delivering feedback to your co-workers, be careful to separate your observations from your assumptions, conclusions, and beliefs.  Try this format:

  • First, tell them what you observed (“Charlie, the other day the phone rang and you just watched it without picking it up”)
  • Second, tell them what meaning you attach to that observation (“Since we have a policy that we always drop what we’re doing to answer the phone, it appeared as if you weren’t doing your job.”)
  • Third, tell them how you feel about what you observed and concluded (“… and that disappoints me.”)
  • Fourth, tell them how you feel about that feeling (“You know I really hate looking over your shoulder and micro-managing, so I feel silly even bringing this up, but I just can’t get past it.”)

This process allows you to check out your own interpretations with what’s going on in Charlie’s world.  Further, by opening up and being candid about what’s going on for you internally, you encourage Charlie to open up and share what’s going on for him as well.

5. Feedforward

There are two traits about feedback that make it a hard pill for some people to swallow: it focuses on the past, and it can’t be changed.  To help us shift into a more expansive and dynamic conversation, leadership guru Marshall Goldsmith came up with a brilliant concept called Feedforward.  Instead of speaking only about what people have have done wrong or right in the past, Feedforward helps people envision and focus on a positive future.

Bringing Feedforward into your organization is simple.  Once everyone has received a performance review, presumably they’ll have a couple of things they’re working to improve.  Have your employees pair up for a Feedforward exercise.  The first employee will say, “I’m working on XX. Can you give me some Feedforward?”  And the other employee then provides a couple of suggestions for the future that might help the employee achieve positive change.  The Feedforward recipient isn’t able to critique the Feedforward – they simply take note of the suggestions and thank their partner for the ideas.

Feedforward  helps your employees to avoid dwelling on what happened in the past and shift focus to planning for what’s possible in the future.

Now, I’d love to hear from you!  

What do you think about performance reviews, and what have you and your organization done to make them more effective and supportive for your employees?  

Thanks as always for your wisdom and ideas!