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Delivering a Useful Performance Review 

Performance reviews are hard. Most managers don’t like giving performance reviews and most employees don’t like receiving them. Annual or biannual reviews are often delivered in a stale, non-actionable way. Most of the time, the feedback should have been shared ages ago anyways. 

Delivering a useful performance review requires a lot of effort and many managers tend to shy away from having these awkward conversations. This leaves everyone with a dull checklist of generic tasks and benchmarks that offers little to no direction for improvement. There’s a better way to do performance reviews.

A good review starts during the hiring process

When someone applies to the job and goes through the interview process, we use the role description as a way to clarify what expertise we’re looking for. It should also describe the mission of the job and how a potential hire can meet those outcomes. 

Unfortunately, most managers never refer back to the original job charter once they make a hire. They leave valuable milestones and expected outcomes out of the day to day work. I recommend turning your hiring charter into your expectations charter to create a starting point for the role and make performance reviews more actionable. 

Your expectations charter should include: 

  • The mission or goal for the role
  • What’s expected of the employee and the outcomes they need to drive
  • The resources they’ll have to complete their job effectively

If you aren’t clear about what outcomes are needed and how they’ll be measured, you can't fault an employee for missing targets. Treat the expectations charter like a syllabus for a class. It should provide clear milestones throughout the year. For frontline sales people, it’s pretty direct–hit your quota.  

→ Click here for a sample Performance Expectations Charter ←

Create a central repository of all feedback

One limitation of typical performance reviews is the big gaps of information in between conversations. A central repository where managers can keep track of all the little conversations with employees, performance stats, updates on progress, opportunities for growth, and challenges that have surfaced will act as a source of truth for future review.

Your performance reviews should never be surprising, especially when you have everything centrally logged and shared with all parties. If there are surprises, then two things may have gone wrong: 1) the manager didn’t communicate feedback in advance and/or 2) the rep didn’t listen to the feedback they were given. Ideally, the review should be a summary of all of the conversations that the manager and employee have already had to date. 

Creating a performance review, page by page

Performance reviews should not be a one pager with checkboxes and isolated feedback about the emplooyee’s work and outcomes. When I write performance reviews, I break them into 3 stages: preparing the data, writing the review, and setting next steps. At the end, I’ll have a seven page document.

Prepare your data

Page 1: 

The first page of the review should be the expectations charter. Make sure to update the charter over time as the role and expectations change. Measuring people on an outdated job description isn’t going to help anyone. 

Page 2: 

Your second page is the summary of performance truth that you have in your central log. This should include data from the quarter, or whatever time period you’ve set for a review, including whether the employee met their targets. 

Page 3:

You’ll want to include feedback from a 360 review process. That means you’re soliciting feedback from the employee’s peers, counterparts, subordinates, and other executives that work with them. Typically, 3 to 5 people is plenty. 

Find out what the employee was able to deliver for these people. Ask how the employee helped each of them accomplish their own goals and job mandates. Always remove names from the report to keep the focus on the feedback, not personal relationships. 

Break this feedback into two sections. First is called the “always proud” section. List out all of the good things that people have said about the employee and their performance. Have they been consistent, helpful, and accountable? Did they go above and beyond to help out a teammate or another colleague? Next is the “never satisfied” section of the review that includes all of the critical things that were said about the employee during the 360 review plus any missed outcomes. Be sure to include the critical items that the employee identified for themselves in the self review. 

Page 4: 

Here is where you share the persons self-assessment that should have been filled out prior to the review. When providing a self-assessment for someone to complete, avoid general 

questions like, “how well did you collaborate with others?” It’s too hard to pinpoint our own success on a scale for items like this. Instead, focus on specifics like whether the employee met their revenue goals. 

Writing the review and providing commentary

Page 5: 

This is the positive assessment summary. There are 2 sections on this page: 

  • Section 1 lists the successful outcomes aligned with the mission of the role over the review period. You can even use the red, yellow, green exercise to show how well the employee accomplished the outcomes. Think of it as a play by play summary. What specifically happened, and how did that track against their targets.  
  • Section 2 is the manager’s personal observations about what they believe happened based on what they saw throughout the review period. The manager might have insight into a difficult situation that the employee was able to overcome. This is also the place to include feedback that isn’t directly aligned to outcomes, like how the employee performed as teammate. 

Page 6: 

This is the negative assessment summary. Follow the same model as page 5 and list the missed outcomes and other goals that didn’t go well. The manager should add in notes on why they think that happened. 

In the second section covering the manager’s perspective on events, write down the color commentary you have for the employee. Specifically, this is where you are going to outline specific areas for improvement and what you think they employee can do about it. 

Next steps

Page 7:

Finally, your review should include next steps for the employee over the next 6 months, or until the next review. Include qualitative and quantitative feedback along with the next steps. If they missed their target by 30%, tell them what activities you expect to see from them moving forward. If they need to work on their interpersonal skills, give them advice and guidance. 

Seven pages of information seems like a lot but the majority of it is summarizing the information that was collected over time. As a manager, you’re providing context to back up your final review score and ensure that everyone is aligned. 

Delivering the review

Now it’s time to deliver the review to your employee. Schedule a one hour time slot and send the document to the employee ahead of time. I recommend sending it at 5 or 6 pm the day before your review is scheduled. You don't want to distract someone in the middle of their day while they're working and you don’t want too much time to pass before you’ve had a chance to contextualize. 

Create a conversational environment

If possible, take the conversation out of the formal setting. If you’re meeting in person, print out a copy of the review and go for a walk with your employee to talk it through. This helps people open up a bit more easily without feeling like they’re on display in the office. 

It also lowers the stake of the conversation. Performance reviews just aren’t as profound as people think they are. The review itself rarely leads to a promotion or a termination. If either of these are on the table, the employee should know well before the review. 

Your conversation should be short and sweet–it’s just a conversation. It’s a reflection of your employee’s work and there should be no surprises here. Tell the employee that you’re going to share the important things they need to hear. Address the challenges they need to overcome. Give them evidence to back up your claims, both from the 360 review and your own experiences. 

Stop talking

The review isn’t a one way conversation. After you’ve discussed your findings, stop talking and ask the employee how they feel about the feedback. Do they agree or disagree with any specific points? What are their thoughts, questions, or concerns? Ideally, the employee should understand the feedback because it’s not new information. A total disconnect means that the manager dropped the ball ahead of the review. 

Ask for the employee’s reflections in writing 

The work isn’t done at the end of the review conversation. There’s one more step. Ask your employee to send a one page memo with their reflections on the review. What do they want to change? What is their personal plan for the topics discussed? Attach this memo to the official review documentation for the next cycle.

If there’s a disconnect, provide a system of checks and balances that includes an appeals process. Employees should be able to talk to an HR manager or skip level manager about why they disagree with the score they received and to offer proof. 

Performance reviews should take time to create

Giving a really good performance review is hard. It takes a lot, and I mean a LOT, of work. At my peak, I had 15 direct reports to review. To do the review and your employees justice, you can’t leave these to the last minute. You can’t write two in the same day, there’s just no way. Schedule time to give reviews the attention they deserve. 

Remember, there are seven pages in a useful performance review: 

  1. Clear expectations charter
  2. Central source of performance truth
  3. 360 feedback: positive + negative
  4. Self review
  5. Manager’s comments on positive outcomes & outputs
  6. Manager’s comments on negative outcomes & outputs
  7. Next steps and opportunities for improvement

Read on