If we consider the goals of a performance review, I would say that in an ideal world, a performance review would provide an employee not only with an honest, practical review of their past work, but also with new motivation for the future. Often however, performance reviews are an annual source of uncertainty, stress, and frustration, with the most frequent complaint being that reviews present a biased or unfair view of their work. Inexperience on the part of the reviewer can play a big part in whether a review is successful or not.
As a reviewer, I must say that my style has changed fairly dramatically over the years. I provide annual reviews for approximately 40 front-line employees, and so over the past eight years in my position, I have conducted a few hundred reviews. I’ve also been lucky enough to have a manager who is extremely effective at giving me my own reviews, and I’ve adjusted some of his methods to use myself. I’ve definitely made some mistakes over the years, but I’ve come up with some tips to help others provide effective reviews.
Go in to the review knowing what you want to say. This first step may seem too simple or straightforward, but hear me out: it is definitely possible to go in either with too much or too little to say. A common error is to over-plan the review, and end up shutting out a fruitful discussion with the employee. It can be intimidating for an employee to see pages and pages of notes you wish to discuss with them. For myself, I find that the best strategy is to pull all the information together and then sort it and break it down into five broad topics I want to be sure to discuss. The topics should be a mix of both positive and negative, and should be supported by specific examples. When I go into the review, I keep only one page of notes, with key words and ideas rather than paragraphs. I try to bring up the areas as part of the natural flow of the review, rather than reading them all out at once.
Don’t focus on the small stuff. A good friend of mine who herself works in a Human Resources department recently told me about a review she received. In her review, her manager spent a large amount of time talking about a small data entry error that they had discussed earlier in the year. The manager reiterated the points she had brought up in the past, and finished the discussion by saying that “it was a surprise when you made that mistake, because normally you were so good at this”. Given that the mistake had not been repeated, my friend was very upset not only by the backhanded compliment, but also by the focus of her review. She felt that the review unfairly stressed small mistakes while glossing over general good performance. Rather than leaving the review feeling motivated to improve, she left thinking about looking for a new job.
It is natural for a manager to want to make sure that they bring up important points, particularly in areas they wish to see improvement in, or which have been issues in the past. However, it is also important to keep these discussions concise. A better way to approach this particular situation would have been for her manager to say something like “We did have an issue in November with data entry, and I’ve noticed since then we haven’t had a similar error. What strategies are you using that you think have helped?”. This way, rather than placing the focus on the error, the manager and employee can focus on the improvement and ways to sustain it.
Provide specific, truthful examples. As human beings, it is naturally difficult to see ourselves from an outside perspective. This is why an effective review can be so valuable to employee development. Recently I spoke with a member of our front-line staff who has frequent interactions with our customers. She had received a few customer complaints about a lack of friendliness, and I had noticed that during busy periods, she often stopped smiling, made less eye contact, and walked away before people finished speaking. When we had her review, I brought up a specific example, and explained how I thought that her focus on completing tasks was affecting her body language and facial expressions. I got a great response from her; she hadn’t noticed how much being busy or feeling stressed was affecting how others perceived her. Our discussion focussed on ways for her to manage her stress level, and being cognizant of her facial expression. We saw a great improvement in her customer service skills over the next few weeks, and when I spoke with her to follow up, she told me that she left the review feeling like she was understood and supported, and that successful change was achievable.
Being an effective reviewer means taking a specific example of a behaviour and then trying to find a root cause. Sometimes a reviewer might be able to see this on their own, and other times a discussion with the employee can help bring it to light. A reviewer can then help an employee to come up with a strategy to deal with the root cause, rather than focussing on the behaviour itself.
These are just a few tips that have helped me to improve my skills. I feel that there is so much potential in a good review to improve the employee relationship and performance, and too often we just miss out. What are your strategies for giving a good review?