New Manager’s Survival Guide: Running Performance Reviews

by Ben Richardson
3rd October 2019    5 Minutes
Picture of Board Saying Awesome and Less Awesome

Many new managers and line managers struggle with performance reviews when they are first promoted.

Now that you are a team leader it is a fundamental part of your role to monitor, review and manage the performance of their team. It’s also something that you’ve probably got no experience of.

Done well a good performance review will be a very positive experience for both the line manager and team member. Both will leave clear on where they stand, what goals the other has for them and with a clear route to, and plan for achieving those goals.

A poor performance review will leave both parties dissatisfied.

The team leader will be left frustrated that they haven’t clearly communicated their points to their team member, and concerned that goals for the future won’t be achieved.

The team member will be left feeling that is was an arbitrary and unfair process. They will be demotivated and probably considering whether they want to remain with the organisation at all.

Let’s take a look at how to do a performance review the right way in the event that you don’t have access to some specific team leader training.

1. Think Like A Coach Not A Reviewer

For reviews to work well you need to keep things positive and upbeat.

Think and act like a coach rather than an evaluator you set the right tone throughout.

A coach is there to review performance but always with a focus on improving and maximising performance. Feedback and criticism with this focus will come with the right tone and emphasis to be accepted and understood. They will also be part of a two-way process with the coach listening carefully to what the other person has to say. Also, remember that the best coaches communicate their points across using stories and gently influence rather having to use direct instructions.

An evaluator simply points out faults and strengths. There is no thought as to how useful and constructive this feedback will be and how to best phrase it. This is a receipe for a bad outcome.

2. Planning

Performance reviews need to be planned carefully and in advance. It is not something to do unprepared.

You need to start planning and diarising performance reviews early and stick to those plans. You also need to block out preparation time for reviews and time to review and document them afterwards.

Performance reviews are an important part of your role and you need to allocate time accordingly.

3. Communication

It is important that your team understands how and when you will be running reviews. Schedule them well in advance.

This gives your team time to prepare for the review and also shows them that this is something that you’re taking seriously.

4. Frequency

Think about how often you should do a performance review. Once per year is not enough.

The right frequency will be different in different organisations and with different levels of staff, but make sure that you don’t leave too long between reviews.

Regular reviews mean that issues are aired while they are still relatively minor and avoids them building up for too long.

5. Duration

Allow plenty of time for performance reviews. You don’t know what someone will want to raise. If they raise a difficult topic the last thing you want to do is to have to cut the discussion short.

Allocating an hour shows that this is something you take seriously and gives plenty of time for discussion. Many managers will allocate 90 minutes just to be sure.

6. Documentation

Your organisation will probably have review forms. Complete these early and send them to the team member in question comfortably in advance.

It’s not fair to ‘ambush’ them with a completed document at the last minute or in the review itself.

Let them have time to review the document and you’ll have a much more constructive conversation.

7. Clarity Of Purpose

A performance review is important enough to have its own meeting. Don’t try to combine performance reviews with other meetings.

Many people make the mistake of combining performance and compensation reviews. If at all possible avoid this.

8. Be Clear And Specific

You need to watch your language during a performance review. The team member will be listening carefully and analysing it so speak clearly and deliberately (see this article for examples of good phrases to use in a performance review).

Vague comments and reviews of someone’s performance don’t work, especially when criticising. You need to give clear specific examples to back up your points.

For example, if you were receiving a poor review which of these two phrases would you rather hear.

‘Your reports aren’t good enough’ OR
‘Your last 3 reports have contained an unacceptable number of spelling errors and the layout has not made it easy for me to follow.’

Clearly the second.

It makes clear the issues that you need to address and that the criticism has a real basis in fact. It also allows you to refute the criticism if you feel it is unwarranted as you can discuss the specific points raised.

The first comment leaves you completely unclear what aspect of the reports wasn’t good enough.

9. Keep Notes Throughout The Year

Memories are fickle things. In order to give the type of clear specific feedback we mentioned above, you will need to start keeping notes.

Although you may think that you’ll remember things in the moment, you’ll probably find when you come to write a performance review later that you won’t.

You’ll have a number of them to write and remembering good examples of the type of behaviour that you want to discuss will prove to be very difficult.

Keeping notes also avoids having a bias to their most recent performance as that is where you can most clearly recall examples for discussion.

10. Produce Notes Of The Meeting

At the end of the meeting, it’s critical that both participants agree on an action plan and that a note of the meeting is then produced to formalise this along with a record of what was discussed.

This gives you both a permanent record of what was discussed and agreed.

It also gives you somewhere to start when discussing performance next with that particular team member.

10. Focus on Behaviours and Results Not Traits.

A behaviour is something that someone does. A result is something that some causes to happen.

Both of these are good things to discuss and evaluate as they are observable and / or measurable and they are under the team member’s control.

On the other hand, a trait is something internal to the person and almost impossible to evaluate in a fair and clear way. Examples include motiviation, conscientiousness, leadership etc.

These are all things that you will probably want to discuss but it is much better to do so at the level of specific behaviours. A trait if too vague and nebulous a concept.

If you want to discuss conscientiousness with someone, it is much better to discuss it at the level of behaviours and outcomes that demonstrate their conscientiousness ( for example, timekeeping, record keeping etc) rather than discussing conscientiousness as a whole.

12. Look To The Future

Inevitably you will spend the majority of your time discussing the past.

However, as we said above you need to think and act like a coach, not an evaluator.

In that role, you would be discussing the past so that you can discuss how the lessons and points that come from that discussion can be applied to the person’s career and personal development in the future.

Where and how can they improve in the future? What can you do to help facilitate these development goals?

So make sure that you also spend some time discussing future plans for the team member’s personal development. As ever try to make these SMART (see the Establishing Goals section of this article for more details on SMART objective setting)

13. Two Way Dialogue

A performance review isn’t just a chance for you to give your opinions and to evaluate your performance.

The best performance reviews are an open, honest discussion of how things have gone, what has gone well, what has gone poorly and how things can be improved for the future.

You need to get your team member talking and to open up. If not you’ll never get to the bottom of any issues and problems that they’re having.

Asking them to review their own performance can be a good way to get them talking early in the review. Many people also find that this can be quite revealing.

It is often the case that your best performers will rate themselves more poorly than you do. They’ll be focused on where they can improve and the mistakes that they’ve made. This leads naturally to a discussion of where they can improve and how you can help assist with that. It also leads to a positive discussion about the difference between your view and theirs.

Conversely, your poor performers will rate themselves more highly than you do. This then provides a natural opening to discuss the gap between your view and theirs.

 

FURTHER READING:

This is part of our series of articles for new managers and line managers. Other articles include:

New Managers Survival Guide: The Complete Guide To One To One Meetings

New Manager’s Survival Guide: 4 Things To Do On Day One

New Manager’s Survival Guide: 3 Things To Do In Your First Week

New Manager’s Survival Guide: 4 Things To Do In Your First Month