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Performance Reviews Stink. Here’s How We Can Improve Them.

Here we are at the end of the fiscal year. Before long, your supervisor will be scheduling that annual discussion on how your performance has been for 2020. The discussion will probably follow one of the following avenues:

  • An hour-long lecture of everything you’ve done wrong this year (a surprise to you!)
  • The dreaded “compliment sandwich”
  • A mediocre discussion of what you’ve done well ending with a request to “keep up the good work”

Now, for some people, that might work just fine. However, 95% of managers dread giving performance reviews. The employee numbers reflect similarly. Why is this the case, and what can we do about it? While it’s important to provide both positive feedback and constructive criticism, here are some methods to help improve your performance review process.

More Frequent Check-Ins

Performance review processes are getting shaken up all over the country, even to the point of eliminating them altogether! OK, maybe we can’t flat out eliminate the performance review process (especially being agencies). However, we can definitely think about increasing the number of times we have these discussions with our subordinates and/or managers. Many employees are concerned that management is disconnected from the real-life work that is being done. Therefore, they are unfit to provide accurate feedback on their job performance. More frequent check-ins allow for managers to get a better understanding of the actual work that their team is conducting, both on a day-to-day basis as well as any larger projects.

Additional check-ins also allow for quicker responses to any issues with that employee’s performance or any projects that require some additional support. How does it feel when your supervisor brings you in for your yearly review only to mention a problem that you didn’t even know about? These issues should come up once they’ve occurred, which not only keeps the situation fresh, but allows the employee to explain what has happened and the opportunity to fix it. What are the chances that an issue can be resolved if it’s brought up six months later?

Naturally, this brings up the question of how often these check-ins should occur. Your team may have weekly or bi-weekly check-ins, which can give the manager a solid idea of what kind of work is being done. However, one-on-ones provide more of that personal connection. It also gives the employee the chance to bring up any issues they are having in a private setting. I recommend no fewer than quarterly check-ins for this. Even bi-weekly or monthly could be beneficial depending on the nature of the relationship between the manager and the employees. Now, there can be too much of a bad thing – don’t be a micromanager and insist on meeting with your team every day!

More Concrete Feedback

Many supervisors are guilty of providing Cap’n Crunch Feedback. Essentially, it is feedback that seems sweet and substantial but does not provide any nutritional value. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • You’re just not good with people
  • You’ve been doing a great job on that project
  • You don’t seem very responsible

What do all of these things have in common? They don’t actually provide any evidence or facts. Why aren’t you good with people? What have you been doing well on the project? Supervisors may interpret certain actions or behaviors differently than the employee does. For example, let’s say you have a teammate who calls you about an issue without doing the customary, “how are you?” Some may see this as rude and pushy, while others would interpret this as getting down to business and being productive. This is why it’s vital to discuss the objective facts (words that were spoken, the number of times an employee was late, etc.) and the implications of those facts. This allows the employee to see what exactly it is they’ve done and the impact it has on their performance, their team, etc.

It’s important to take this concrete feedback beyond the previous cycle and extend it into the next cycle. Setting and defining actionable items and expectations for the coming months can only help with the next check-in or discussion. This helps the employee understand what the manager expects of them without having to guess. It also provides the employee the opportunity to provide their own feedback on those goals, what they think is doable, and what resources they would need in order to achieve those goals.

Of course, expectations and circumstances can change (hello, COVID-19). This can tie back to why more frequent check-ins can be beneficial. They build a more trusting relationship in the event that expectations and goals need to be adjusted.

More Avenues of Feedback

For many employees and managers, they often dread the performance process because the rating often falls entirely on that manager. While they do ultimately make the final determination, having a few more avenues of feedback can help in making that decision. You may have heard of 360-degree feedback, where you receive feedback from a manager, a colleague and a subordinate (if appropriate). It would also be beneficial to see if any customer feedback is available, whether through surveys, kudos, etc.

When it comes to asking from feedback for colleagues, it should go beyond just asking, “Hey, how do you think I did this year?” This can lead to that “Cap’n Crunch Feedback” and may not give the employee a clear picture of their performance. It’s beneficial to ask for feedback throughout the year, if possible.

For example, right after you’re done with a big team project, ask your teammates how they viewed your contributions to the project. Ask them how they felt communication went with you and whether the quality of the work met their expectations.

Allowing for multiple avenues of feedback also gives the employee a more objective view of their performance. It allows them to critically reflect on how they think they’ve done over the course of the performance year. If an employee is only receiving feedback from one (potentially biased) source, they may feel that this is not a true reflection of their work. Feedback from teammates, customers and their own personal reflection can allow employees to come prepared for that conversation of what’s working and what is not.

Myranda Whitesides is a Performance Support Specialist for the Interior Business Center, the Department of Interior’s Shared Services Center. She conducts personnel and payroll systems training for over 50 federal agencies, as well as providing training in Diversity and Inclusion for her peers. Myranda also serves as the Education Co-Director for the Mile High Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), coordinating Educational content for Human Resources professionals in the Denver Metro area. Myranda also enjoys singing, camping, and exploring local breweries and restaurants with her husband, Daniel.

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