‘Annual performance review’ -three words that frequently strike terror into the hearts of team leaders and team members alike.  For the former they represent endless form filling and back to back awkward conversations in stuffy rooms.  For the latter they mean self-justification, and uncomfortable, stilted discussions with the boss. 

 This may be a slight exaggeration, but it’s certainly true that in many organisations performance reviews have become a sterile set piece stand-off which neither party enjoys or benefits from. 

Which is a shame as the principles behind them are sound – the need for organisations to be clear on what they expect and for employees to understand how they are doing and be recognised when they are doing well. Bad performance reviews are a real lost opportunity as one to one discussions are precious and when done well can be the jewel in the line manager’s communication crown. 

 So, what goes wrong?  The reality of performance reviews is often stressed managers squeezing meetings into too little time, often running late, with no discussion and nothing like a mutually agreed way forward.  Bosses are tempted to take the easier option, avoiding tough conversations, giving everyone similar scores and not addressing big issues. As a result, performance reviews become the box ticking exercise parodied in TV’s ‘The Office’ and in Scott Adams’ Dilbert stories. 

 Performance reviews do not have to be like this, though.  Well prepared and executed, they offer unrivalled opportunity for line managers to find out more about the individual and his or her skills and preferences, as well as to help them understand where the organisation is headed and his or her role in achieving it.  The key is to equip leaders with the skills to have real dialogue – to ask the right questions which help people open up, be able to listen to and do something with what they say, and localise messages so that people can see clearly what they mean for them. Listening is the key to success and it can often be hard for managers to do – the more senior they become, the more such behaviour is squeezed out and replaced by the instinct to tell and move on. 

 As we work with clients, we hear many horror stories about performance reviews – the line managers who put them off until they are irrelevant, the leaders who give broad platitudes which neither motivate nor help development, the shell-shocked supervisors staring vacantly as they try to summon the energy to conduct their tenth session of the day, the bosses who use judgmental language (you’re not brilliant at this…) with no evidence or data to back it up and help people improve. 

 Fortunately, that’s not the whole picture.  We have also seen many examples of great performance reviews.  The most successful are the leaders who believe in ‘no surprises’ – they do not see performance reviews as one off discussions every six months, but an ongoing process.  They use the review session as time to check in and refocus, but have regular conversations with their people about their role throughout the year. When performance review conversations are held, leaders who do them well are those who do not leave things to chance and ‘wing’ it.  They make sure they cover a set of key things, which we have condensed into seven guidelines. 

 

  1. Get ready– prepare what you need to achieve from the conversation 
  2. Dress the set– get the environment right– find somewhere where you can both be comfortable 
  3. Set the scene– explain up front what will happen and what will be covered 
  4. Give facts and explain implicationswhen giving feedback always be specific and give examples both in terms of what they have done and its impact and what they need to do to develop. 
  5. Ask questionsgood open questions to help them think it through and have their say.  Ask what they need from you 
  6. Discuss optionsprovide information so that the other person is clear on the options available and the pros and cons of each 
  7. Agree a way forward– who will do what, when.  The other person is much more likely to stick with what is agreed if they have been able to shape it 

 Innovative organisations have also recognised that there are two distinct parts to performance review.  One is the leader being clear about what needs to happen and ensuring that his or her team can make the connection between their work and the organisation’s objectives. The other is helping the individual hone their skills and behaviour so they can deliver it.  This latter is a continual process and one which does not rely solely on the team leader.  Self assessment – where people review themselves – can be powerful, provided that they have a clear framework to measure themselves against such as a role or competency profile, otherwise they may focus on what is important to them and not necessarily the role.  Also, many of us can be heavily self-critical, so we have found that self-assessment in a potent part of the review process if it is tempered by a boss and/or peer who can provide an external take. 

 The same is true for 360-degree reviews where people get input from peers, subordinates and their leaders.  We have so few opportunities for feedback that they can be highly illuminating. We have several clients who use our survey tool, Inpulse, to provide 360-degree commentary.  Again, though it works best where leaders provide a clear framework and help individuals work with the feedback they have. 

 Things are certainly changing and performance reviews themselves are under increasing scrutiny and seen by more and more organisations to be performing below track. Some leading businesses are scrapping them altogether, or refocusing them on future potential, while others are expanding them to cover not just what people have achieved, but also how they have done it.  The shift is clearly from dictate to dialogue. 

 The challenge is that the key skills needed to do this – asking questions and listening – and ones which leaders often feel they are good at and can resent being coached to do. This is a shame as in our experience, many of them may know what to do, but don’t do it in practice. They can really benefit from tools, techniques and most importantly practice in real one to one dialogue both in performance review discussions and day to day. Those that do invest the time to do this will find they have stronger relationships, more motivated and focused people and that for themselves, the task of performance review becomes quite rewarding.