“I’m so excited for my performance review!
Said no one, ever.
Most people, including me, have had the jitters from time to time on performance review day. And no wonder it's a big deal - it can set the tone for the rest of your career.
Whether you are delivering the review or on the receiving end, I want to share my tips on having the most open and honest conversation that builds a relationship.
This conversation has the potential to enrich or flatline a relationship, so it's best to be prepared to make the most out of your time together.
If you are a manager, here’s how you should prepare:
Think about what you want to say, how you plan to say, and what you want the big takeaways to be for your employee when they leave the conversation.
- Evaluating peer feedback to find common themes or concerns and synthesizing those in meeting notes.
- Being open and curious about how the feedback is received, you have no idea how they will respond.
- Set the time in your employee's calendar to let them know this is coming.
- Don’t surprise them with the feedback they haven't heard before, especially if it is negative.
- Ask your employee to conduct their own review in advance. This can be formal or informal, depending on your style and organizational culture.
- Choosing a neutral and calming physical environment doesn’t put the employee at a disadvantage in the conversation.
Remember: The goal of a performance review is not to “talk to” the employee but to have an open dialogue with them that identifies the areas in which they can improve, the areas in which they already excel, and the next steps they can take to further their career.
Preparing to Deliver Negative Feedback
This is the most significant stressor for managers (and employees) going into a performance review. How do you deliver criticism in a constructive, engaging way and reduce the risk of defensive responses that might undercut the purpose of that feedback?
There are three key points to remember:
- Be Specific – It’s not enough to say, “projects are taking longer than they should”. It would be best if you were more specific, sharing individual examples or recurring issues along with the real-world implications of those events. “Expense reports are taking 25% longer compared to this time last year, and we’ve received 12 revision requests.” Think of feedback like a GPS, a navigation system. If the directions aren't clear, you are going to get lost.
- Keep it Professional – Avoid language that makes it personal, which might trigger a defensive reaction. Remain objective, discuss individual behaviours, and avoid attacking someone’s character.
- Avoid Hyperbole – Again, remain specific and speak to individual behaviours with tangible examples. Avoid hyperbole that is difficult to counter such as “you always…” or “you never…”. Such statements can make someone instantly defensive. No one always or never does something. This can be a significant bias on your part and will diminish your credibility.
It's normal when receiving negative feedback to get defensive. It’s your brain's way of coping with what it perceives in a threat. Be prepared for this, and take a deep breath. It's uncomfortable for both of you, you don’t need to get hooked and on the defensive too. But remember, if this issue happened a long time ago and you didn't give feedback then, you missed an opportunity.
Remain objective, specific, and as language-neutral as possible while giving them space to voice frustration.
Preparing to Deliver Positive Feedback
Most managers focus heavily on the negative feedback and don’t prepare for the positive. This is a mistake. Positive feedback is just as important, ensuring employees know they are on the right track, identifying standout behaviour, and providing actionable steps to advance their careers continually. This means:
- Not Sandwiching Feedback – Managers should keep negative and positive feedback separate. They shouldn’t sandwich them together to lessen the blow of the negative. Employees will fixate on the negative and the positive will be forgotten, or worse seen as disingenuous. It lessens the impact of that part of the conversation.
- Focus on Behaviours – As with negative feedback, managers should focus on the behaviours and actions of an employee, not the outcome. “Your calm demeanour and attention to detail were an important part of our success in renewing ABC Company’s contract” is a much better piece of feedback than “You helped us sign ABC Company to another year”.
The goal here is to clarify what the employee has done right and what you appreciate about how they did it.
If you are a woman receiving her performance review
A study in Harvard Business Review shared that women are systematically less likely to receive specific feedback than men.
You may be wondering why specific feedback is so important – isn’t “Job well done!” good enough?
When comparing feedback side by side, you might hear this in a male colleague's performance review: “In the product roadmap you created, you considered X, but in not accounting for Y from the engineering team, the strategy was unworkable.”
Whereas a female employee might only get this feedback: “You lack strategic thinking.”
You can see how this inequitable feedback automatically sets up the female employee for failure, as they don’t know where they went wrong. Similarly, when the feedback is generally good, not identifying specific accomplishments will often not lead to a promotion.
So, what’s the remedy to turning your review around?
Be sure to ask specific questions! With each mention of what you did well or could have done better, ask questions until you are entirely clear on what you missed and how you could have done it differently, or what went well and the impact it had on the business. It’s just as important to ask about what went well as it is to ask about what could have been better.
If your end-of-year review includes a place for you to contribute, make sure you note your accomplishments and successes and what specific business outcomes you accomplished.
And if you're in need of more help in the promotions department or just figuring out if you’re even in the right job, be sure to check out my LeadHERship Program!
How to Conduct your Own Performance Review
Do you have curiosity about your performance? Do you know where you stand with yourself, your leader, and your colleagues concerning your efforts? Don't wait until something formal is scheduled to have a conversation. If you had one recently, have another with a different lens. With any goal, getting feedback and refining what is working and not working is critical for growth and success.
Each member on my team gives me one area of focus/feedback every quarter to continue to improve my leadership and support their efforts. It is beneficial for me to track those trends and regularly check in on how I am doing. This makes me a stronger leader for my team, and together we become a more unified group.
Have a conversation with people who are connected to your success.
- Whether you have a team or not, here are some sample questions you can ask:
- Where do you see me adding the most value?
- What feedback do you have for me with the work I am currently doing?
- What opportunities do you see for me to improve?
- How can I help you be more successful with my efforts?
Sometimes, feedback is hard to hear. It takes bravery and people who care to share their perspectives honestly. For you, it takes guts and humility to truly listen and try to understand.
Remember, the conversation is the relationship, so what do you really want to know?