Three Tips for Pain Free Performance Reviews December 18 2013

dentistThis is the time of year that instills fear and loathing in the hearts of managers everywhere. The good news is that you may be planning on taking some extended time off during the holiday season. The bad news is you may also be planning to spend some of those precious hours writing up annual performance reviews for the people that report to you.

If that sounds like what you’ll be doing over the next couple of weeks, I’m here with three tips to help make it at least somewhat pain free for you as you write the reviews and, more importantly, as you deliver them in the weeks to come.

I understand that you likely have an app, format or template that your organization requires you to use as you prepare the reviews. No matter what format you have to use, you should be able to use the following tips:

Be Specific: In your review, cite two or three things your direct report did well this past year. Be specific in terms of what they did that stood out for you and the specific behaviors they demonstrated that you would like to see them continue to do this year. Tie their achievements back to the difference they made in achieving the big goals for your organization. Explain why what they did mattered. Conversely, when you have constructive feedback to deliver, focus on the behaviors they need to adjust or skills they need to acquire to be more effective next year. Again, tie those improvement opportunities into why they matter to the overall success of the organization.

Less is More: People can only process so much in one conversation. If at all possible, practice the principle of less is more in writing up and delivering the performance review. Focus on the two or three things that you really want them to keep doing and build on and the one or two (no more than two!) things you really need for them to improve. Focus, focus, focus if you want the review to actually make a difference.

More is More: Yes, I know this seems to contradict the previous point but I’m actually going in a different direction. The annual performance review is a fundamentally flawed premise. The reason why was best explained to me years ago in a speech I heard by Robert Townsend, former CEO of Avis and author of the classic leadership book, Up the Organization. Townsend said that the annual performance review is the equivalent of whacking your dog on the rear with a newspaper once a year for every time he peed on the carpet in the preceding twelve months. You’re just not going to get your point across. Far better is the more is more approach. Do yourself and your team a favor in 2014 and make a resolution to have regular conversations (in real time or at least monthly sounds good) about performance throughout the year. Even if your organization’s HR department doesn’t require it, establishing the norm of talking about performance throughout the year is the best way to keep everyone continuously improving and focused on what matters most.

What’s your take? What are your best ideas for making the performance review process meaningful and pain free?

4 Responses to “Three Tips for Pain Free Performance Reviews”

  1. Lynne Lloyd says:

    Thanks for your article on this important topic, Scott. I have posted it on selected LinkedIn groups. Also interested in your reference to the leadership book by Robert Townsend.

    Scott, one point you made in your introductory paragraph was of interest and some concern: that managers and leaders are taking up their vacation time to write up performance review reports. Is there such a thing as 'vacation' time for the senior team anymore? What are the costs for stress and burn-out if managers and leaders keep thinking and doing work during vacation? Are many so addicted to work and exceeding the expectations piled up on them that they cannot leave the building, computer or mobile device? Predicting more breakdowns and burn-outs for both genders in the years ahead.

  2. Andrew McFarland says:

    My favorite analogy (attributed to Charles Coonradt) is this:

    Work is like bowling – “except there’s a guy called a supervisor who stands in front of the pins with a curtain.”
    He can see the pins, but the bowler can’t. The bowler throws the ball, hears something, and says, “How’d I do?”
    The supervisor says, “Change your grip.”
    The bowler says, “But how did I do?”
    The supervisor says, “Move your foot.” The bowler changes his grip and moves his foot and throws another ball.
    He hears the pins fall and asks, “How am I doing?”
    “Don’t worry about it. We’ve got a review coming up in six months. We’ll let you know then.”

    A blog post I wrote that may add to the discussion: The Chain Reaction between Performance Appraisals and Customer Experience

  3. One angle to make the perf. review process (PRP) less painful involves better alignment between individual performance and clear behaviors and goals preached yearlong from respected senior leaders.

    Too often the top team echos their desires early in the year, then maybe quarterly (on an analyst call that few executes listen to). Meanwhile, down in the trenches, the troops sway off course from distractions, shiny new projects, and potential politics. Then, behaviors stray from the north-star strategy(s) important to the senior team (and shareholders).

    Next, performance slowly swerves into the shoulder.., because the messaging from the top is… Missing.

    Want better performance, thus an easier PRP?

    Communicate more.


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