Taking the Fear Out of Performance Reviews

By Alexis Sparks written about 2 years ago

Lately, I’ve had a number of clients ask for tools and tricks around giving negative feedback during performance reviews. Why is it so difficult for us to have the tough conversation without sandwiching negative feedback between positives? How can managers ensure employees hear the message without it deflating them?

What if you had a conversation with an employee who brought up the areas they needed to improve themselves – instead of it coming from you? You can bet the conversation would go very differently, and the fear level would drop considerably for both parties. So I thought I’d kick off my first blog with a discussion on how both employees and managers can get over the fear and uncertainty of performance reviews.

It’s that the time of year again… when managers dread how employeees will take constructive feedback and when employees hope they’re not blindsided by anything in the review!

In some companies, the manager will ask colleagues and peers who work with that individual to give “360-degree” feedback on their performance. The one benefit of this approach is it helps provide more objective feedback, as it’s coming not just from their manager. So, as the employee, you walk into a room, sit down with your manager, and hear many opinions of your performance – without anyone asking how you thought you did. And at the end of the conversation, you’re expected to sign off that you agree to a document you had no part in writing!

My belief is that performance reviews should be a combination of input from the manager and a few colleagues as well as the employee’s own self-assessment.

This would eliminate the fear on both ends of the conversation. An employee should have the opportunity to contribute to their performance review. More times than not, an employee will give more discretionary effort if they feel their manager has allowed them to contribute to what is being documented about them. And they will feel supported to improve their performance for the following year, rather than defensive about their past performance.

Now you’re probably asking: How do you write your own performance review? Before I get into the “how,” I want to discuss the “who.” I do not believe everyone is capable of giving themselves honest feedback, positive or negative. You can probably think of a person you know who lacks self-awareness – someone who truly believes there is nothing to improve or someone who is always too hard on themselves and struggles to see the positive. If you are going to give yourself a performance review, make sure you feel comfortable going to that vulnerable state where you will have to be honest with yourself. No one is perfect and you are your own worst critic, so remember:

It is OK to own what you do well and constructively share where you see potential to grow.

So now let’s return to how you write your own performance review. This process is very introspective; ensure you are in a place with few distractions so you can spend time with your own thoughts. Remember to be candid and open with yourself. Don’t overthink – just write. There are three parts to this process:

  1. Accomplishments. Start by writing down everything you are proud of from the last year. It can be projects you worked on, sales you made or presentations you gave on which you felt you did a good job, and explain why.
  2. Opportunities. When were you disappointed in yourself? Or which situations did you feel you handled poorly? What areas of your job or behavior(s) do you believe there is an opportunity to improve? Don’t forget to explain why.
  3. Future state. After you write those down with detailed descriptions, look toward your desired future. What steps have you taken that are getting you closer to what you want in the future? What did you do last year that is holding you back from achieving your goals?

Once you have answered these three questions, pause to re-read it. Pat yourself on the back for everything you did well, and understand the areas you need to improve. Now take some time to write down goals you want to accomplish, keeping in mind your strengths and looking to change those areas that need improvement. This will be the platform on which you’ll create the plan to change your performance for the following year. Be intentional about what goals you set and be sure you’re ready to commit to this new plan.

By taking personal responsibility for your performance and writing it down, you will remove the fear from the review process. It will also allow you to have those candid conversations with your supervisor and bring a new perspective on how to approach performance conversations throughout the year.

If you’re a manager, consider how you might roll this out with your employees, coaching them on the self-assessment process.

Even if this is not a currently practice in your organization or your annual review has already passed, give yourself a performance review anyway! If your review time is coming up, surprise your boss by walking into the meeting armed with your own assessment. Identify elements where you’re aligned, and have a deeper discussion around where you have discrepancies. I promise you that in the long run this tool will allow you to build your self-awareness and dispel the fear you have walking into that next performance review. Not to mention your boss will be impressed with how well you took the feedback.