Sometimes employees think their managers have it easy, but leaders face the same challenges where some tasks are more appealing than others.  Conducting performance appraisals is usually not something that a leader enjoys. This can be for different reasons; however, it is typically because there is a fear of conflict, a reluctance to provide difficult feedback, worry around employee ‘push back’ and concern about the time investment each performance review takes.

The performance appraisal can be an excellent investment of time for both parties and commonly goes a long way to build trust, enable self-awareness, increase productivity, and achieve new milestones. However, when the leader does not adequately prepare or enters the process without a partnership mindset, things can go downhill very quickly.

6 tips to conduct an effective and engaging performance review

A leader’s reputation can be built or broken at performance review time. It is where employees either feel supported and valued, or that their leader has disrespected them by demonstrating a lack of preparation and a disingenuous approach. The following highlights 6 key things that great leaders do at performance time.

1. Prepare

A lack of preparation is a recipe for disaster.  It is disrespectful to the employee as it sends them the message that they are not important enough to invest the time and sets a bad tone for the discussion. It is important that leaders allocate appropriate time to plan for the performance feedback to ensure that it is clear, meaningful and concise. 

Being prepared means: 

  • Understanding the employee’s role and responsibilities.
  • Gathering relevant feedback.
  • Knowing how the employee is tracking against position requirements.
  • Planning the structure of the conversation to include positive and constructive feedback.
  • Considering what could and should be improved.
  • Reflecting on a plan to manage any obstacles.
  • Asking, “Have I done everything possible to help my team member succeed?”.
  • Preparing an itinerary and open-ended questions to prompt a meaningful conversation.

2. Listen 

Quite often, leaders can forget that the performance review is about the employee.  It is important that they enter the performance discussion with the intention to listen to what the team member is saying - it is a performance ‘conversation’ and not a ‘lecture’.

Some leaders will open the discussion by providing the employee with all of the details about how they are going up front.  A more effective way to manage this is to commence the conversation by asking the employee an open question.  A few examples could be:

  • “I’m really interested in understanding more about how you are tracking with project X. What is going well and what obstacles have you faced?”
  • Before I provide you with some feedback, I am very keen to hear your thoughts on how you feel you are going in the position?”
  • Can we just take a few minutes for you to share your insights on what has been working well and where you feel that you need more support?”

These examples set the tone with the employee that the leader is interested in understanding how they are feeling.  It helps to build trust and shows that the manager is interested in the employee’s thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, this increases the likelihood of them sharing any struggles with their work.   

It is fantastic when open dialogue occurs as it saves the leader from having to highlight a negative that the team member was already aware of.  An employee is more likely to ‘own’ the development when they feel that they have been part of the discovery process.

3. Be brave

It is human nature to want to avoid conflict.  It may be fine to make that choice in everyday life; however, a leader has the responsibility to help employees understand what is going well and what might not be.

This can be challenging, but planning for this conversation is the key to success.  Withholding difficult feedback does not help the employee as they may be unaware there is a gap in expectations and performance.  Employees may not like to hear constructive feedback, however, on reflection, most employees will value honesty if it was delivered fairly and with the right intent.

If a performance gap is not addressed, it can unfairly disadvantage an employee as it may lead to a poor performance review, ineligibility for a bonus or pay rise, a performance improvement plan (PIP), or eventually to termination.

For some tips on how to have courageous conversations and further information on the value of performance feedback see 'The value of feedback in performance'.

4. Consider the audience

Managers may have multiple employees doing the same job in their team, however, they are all unique individuals with their own set of skills, experiences and preferences.

It is recommended that leaders consider the employee when planning the performance discussion.  For example, an employee with a direct and succinct communication style will probably not enjoy a ‘fluffy’ approach to delivering difficult feedback.

It is therefore important that leaders can adjust the way in which they position the meeting with each team member.  Learning styles, past conversations, personalities, ability to receive constructive feedback and other mitigating external factors are all important in planning for these discussions. Further information on communications styles can be found here.

Employees will be motivated by different things to listen to a performance review. Below are three examples of employee preferences:

  1. Performance-prove goal-orientated: Employees who are driven and perform at their best to prove competence in their position.
  2. Performance-avoid goal-orientated: Employees who don’t want to look foolish and may not take criticism well.
  3. Learning goal-orientated: Employees that enjoy learning for the sake of gaining knowledge and who will pursue challenges despite setbacks.

5. Agree on actions

It can be frustrating for both employees and leaders to undertake a lengthy performance discussion and end it without key learnings or agreement on actions.

No employee is perfect and even the star performers need to know what they can do to improve. A performance discussion without agreed actions and robust discussion is purely a meeting and carries the risk that both parties begin seeing the process as invaluable and a waste of time.

It is recommended that leaders enter the performance discussion with some ideas around feedback and key actions to be agreed upon but ensure that they are open to discussing what the employee feels is important. Agreeing on actions creates ownership and mutual understanding of how performance gaps will be closed.

An example of agreeing an action is:

“Thankyou Sarah for sharing your thoughts on how you can reduce errors on the monthly report. What I have understood is that you are going to introduce a double checking process prior to submitting and ask a team member to proof it for you as well.  Is that correct?”

6. Look through the windscreen

Many performance reviews fail because they are purely a ‘tick the box’ process that focuses on the past.

When discussing performance, an employee needs to understand where the gap is, but they also need to identify how to improve. The outcome is more positive when leaders focus on desired behaviours instead of remaining fixated on the past. Understanding what went wrong is important, but it is not the whole story.

Building performance in partnership

Performance discussions should not be an uncomfortable or unproductive experience. At its core, performance reviews are designed to bring awareness to gaps, celebrate achievements, and initiate support to ensure success. The employee is always in control of their own performance outcomes, but the leader has the ultimate role in positioning the employee for success.

Further information

For assistance with your workplace matters, Members of Ai Group can contact us or call our Workplace Advice Line on 1300 55 66 77 for further information. Ai Group has an extensive performance management section offering members a range of tools, resources and support to optimise and manage performance. 

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Georgina Pacor

Georgina is Senior HR Content Editor – Publications at Ai Group. She is an accomplished Human Resource professional with over 25 years of generalist and leadership experience in a broad range of industries including financial services, tourism, travel, government and agriculture. She has successfully advised and partnered with senior leaders to implement people and performance initiatives that align to business strategy. Georgina is committed to utilising her experience to create resources that educate and engage and is passionate about supporting members to optimise an inclusive workforce culture that drives performance.