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Performance Reviews: Why They Matter and How to Make the Most of Them

Love ‘em or hate ’em, whether giving one or getting one, a performance review is one of the most important tools managers and employees have to gauge and improve performance in the workplace. Employee reviews provide a record of employee performance vis-à-vis company expectations and, ideally, that review should be used to help the employee develop and grow professionally. When done right, with the proper dialogue, feedback and follow-through, a performance review can be an effective way to measure performance, articulate company expectations and formulate a game plan for results.

When Should It Be Done?
Traditionally, employee reviews are done on a yearly basis. But I find a strict annual format limiting in its ability to promote effective employee development. Annual reviews are not nearly as productive as a more frequent system of, say, quarterly reviews. A quarterly review has several advantages. First, it can be a less formal scenario, which can lead to a more honest and productive session. Let’s face it—most people approach their annual review with dread. And if you dread something and view it as onerous, chances are you won’t do as well and the review is less likely to be a successful and productive experience.

Second, and most important, a frequent review system is a much more productive and efficient way to evaluate performance. Why would you wait a whole year to tell an employee what they are doing well and what areas in which they need to improve? Why wait a whole year to get their feedback? Trying to cram an entire year’s worth of information and feedback into one review is too time-consuming. Quarterly reviews allow the information to be anchored in a more relevant and timely fashion. If the goal of the review is to improve productivity and help both the employee and the company develop professionally, then those reviews should be done in an efficient and timely manner and in the most productive way possible.

The Manager’s Mini-Review
Managers wear multiple hats in an organization, but I think their most important role is to build strong teams with the best employees for those jobs. Unfortunately, there is so much emphasis on leadership these days that organizations are forgetting to teach their managers how to manage their most important resource of all, their human capital. Managing people, as distinct from leading people, is actually the most important part of a manager’s job, and yet this skill is often neglected, so performance reviews are often done poorly.

An easy way to get in the habit of reviewing your employees is to institute quick reviews after the completion of a project – an After Action Review in the lingo of the armed forces. An AAR is a great way to start a dialogue, get feedback and get results. And it’s really simple: after a project, sit down with the team right away for 15 to 30 minutes and have a review session.

Ask your team members:

  • What went well?
  • What didn’t go well?
  • What could we do differently next time?
  • What could the team do more of/less of?

Have each team member talk about his performance. The immediacy of the project will keep it fresh in everyone’s mind and they will be more honest with their answers. An AAR has the advantage of being almost a self-review, where employees can reflect on how they, and the team, performed.

The Mega-Review
Some organizations do what is called a 360 Review, which entails soliciting feedback on an employee’s performance from all levels of the organization. Now, the idea of a 360 is really cool. It is an integrative process and reflects and emphasizes the importance of that employee’s role in the big company picture. The 360 message is, let’s get company-wide feedback to help people develop into really effective organizational players.

The reality and the application of the 360 review, however, is often a lackluster affair. It’s just too much. But a 360, like any review, can be effective if it’s done right.

First, you must ask the right people for feedback. They must be relevant players and should be people who can really contribute constructive feedback. Second, the review needs to be tied to true organizational or positional success factors. For example, don’t ask about leadership if this person does not have a leadership position. Next, reviewers have to be honest and direct. It is a waste of everyone’s time if they aren’t.

Last, in order for a review to be effective, it must be followed up with a development game plan tailored for that individual. That plan of action has to be monitored and followed up on, or the review is pointless. In 360s, what often happens is that after the review is completed, the results are given to the employee and then nobody ever follows up on it. This is why the mega-reviews are often a complete waste of time. Someone needs to own the process to ensure all the time spent on the darn thing actually produces some tangible results.

How to prepare for your review
If you are going to be reviewed, it is imperative that you be prepared. The best thing to do is to sit down and do your own assessment of your performance and your job itself.
Ask yourself:

  • What have I done well?
  • What can I improve on?
  • Do I have all the tools I need to do my job?
  • What are my personal/professional goals in this job? In this organization?
  • What kind of professional development do I need to get to the next level?

Remember, the review is not just about how well you have performed. You should also put the review in the context of where you are now and where you want to be in five years. Think about what you want to get out of it, and then set some goals and intentions for your review.

Reviews can be very stressful. Two key things to remember during your review are to listen and to breathe. I know that seems obvious but it’s not. People get really nervous and remembering to breathe will help you relax. Ask questions that will help you really understand the feedback and your boss’ perspective: Say things like: “Tell me more”, “give me more details,”” what would it look like”, “give me an example,” etc. What you want to do is build a dialogue with your reviewer in order to understand clearly what they are telling you.

Try not to rebut or argue. You want to understand how your actions and how your work is being perceived. The point is to create a dialogue with your boss about how you can improve your performance.

After the review, be proactive and follow up with an action plan to address your feedback. Request time with your boss in a month or two to follow up on and monitor your progress. This is key because part of what you have to do is change perception. Keeping your boss involved in your efforts to improve your performance will force him or her to “see” the improvements. Don’t let your supervisor off the hook in following up. It’s the most important part of the review process.

As an aside, if you are a manager who has to deliver a bad review to an employee, it is very important that you own up to your part of the problem; after all, it was your job to supervise that employee, so you have to be fair and take responsibility for your action (or inaction). This does not mean you let the employee off the hook, but you do have to take an active role in the action plan for improvement.

The right way to review
There are some very simple steps to follow to ensure that reviews are worthwhile, for both the manager and the employee.

  1. Be specific: If you are giving a review, provide specific examples of an employee’s strengths and weaknesses. Give concrete examples of what works and what doesn’t. Put the feedback in context of employee development and organizational contribution and organizational goals—here is why it is important for you to have this skill, here is what is great about you doing this, etc.
  2. Be timely: Provide frequent opportunities, if not full-blown reviews, to give and receive feedback. The more immediate the dialogue the fresher and more honest the answers and the solutions will be. This where the AAR comes in handy.
  3. Follow up: If you give a review you have to follow up on the areas you want to see improvement. The best way to do this is to develop a plan of action for the employee and then set a regular schedule to follow-up. No one will grow and develop professionally without a solid plan of action.

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