4 keys to help managers give terrific performance reviews

"Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." 
 - G. K. Chesterton

The first time I heard this quote, I thought it was genius. I recognized the tendency in myself to suffer from “paralysis of analysis”. I was bent on doing things perfectly, which kept me from doing anything at all. Why didn’t I just get started and iterate from the mistakes I’d make?

Adopting Chesterton’s philosophy has worked well for me. I’m an adaptable guy, so I’ve found freedom in striving for progress and iteration over perfection. That said, Chesterton used the word ”anything.” Really? Anything?

No.

It turns out that Human Resources experts agree on 1 thing: poorly executed employee reviews are worse, much worse, than none at all.

In this post, I’m going to walk you through to 4 keys to giving terrific performance reviews. These reviews will help your employees grow into the people and teammates you want them to be. Plus, they’ll make the review process more productive, relevant, and yes, maybe even enjoyable! ????

1. Start with clarity…do YOU have any?

I love watching the Olympic games. Winter, summer…whatever. It’s probably a good thing they only come around every couple years because I’d become a permanent couch potato if they were held more frequently.

Like most sports fans, however, I have my frustrations with how some Olympic events are judged. I LOVE the sports where there is an objective standard. In the 2016 Rio Olympics, Usain Bolt ran the 100 meters in 9.81 seconds. Justin Gatlin ran the same distance in 9.89 seconds. Bolt won the gold, and no one protested. But in sports like gymnastics and figure skating, subjectivity reigns. In those events, there’s rarely a competition free of judging controversy.

Now, imagine a race where you line up runners at the starting line without giving them any idea of the race distance or where the finish line is located. Sprinters and long-distance runners would be confused. They’d have no idea how to run the race. After all, running a marathon requires a completely different strategy than running the 100 meters.

Unfortunately, this scenario is played out in businesses every day. As managers we evaluate our employees without giving them a clear idea of how they’re being judged. The reason? We often lack clarity in some key areas. Identifying some key measures will not only help our employees know which race they are running, but it will also define what the most important goal should be for those of us who are managers.

Clarify your values

Does your company have a clear set of values? If so, are they well defined?

Words—especially the abstract words we use as values—mean different things to different people. Attaching definitions to your values will get everyone on the same page.

I was the executive director of a non-profit for years, and our weekly staff meetings started with me outlining our values.

Every. Single. Week.

I tried doing it in different ways so it wouldn’t be boring, sometimes making fun of myself for repeating them. But one thing was certain: every person on my staff knew exactly what we valued, and they could easily define those values.

Whether you choose to verbally reinforce your values or display them prominently in your office, make sure your people know what you value.

Clarify your mission

Why do you do what you do? Who does it serve? Why does it matter?

I had a friend who started a business in manufacturing. Sure, he wanted to produce the best product in his industry, but his mission was far more important. He wanted to influence his employees, his industry, the world. Through his business, he wanted to live out his personal passion for virtues and values in the workplace.

So he made sure the performance measures he outlined for his employees stressed his mission. This transparency emboldened his staff to be proactive problem solvers with customers as well as fellow employees, increasing profits and reducing staff turnover.

People loved being in on the mission!

Clarify where your staff fit into the big picture

You might be familiar with this story.

3 employees of a technology company who did exactly the same job were asked, “What do you do?”

The first employee said, “I solder connections so that different circuits are securely connected.”

The second replied, “I create circuit boards so that computerized systems can operate properly.”

The third stated, “I am building the Space Shuttle!”

All 3 accurately described their job, but only one understood the big picture and how he was connected to it.

When your employees get the big picture, they’ll make more meaningful contributions. Plus, they’ll better understand what you expect of them.

Clarify objective measures and limit subjective measures

As I mentioned earlier, it’s far easier to evaluate performance with a stopwatch than it is with your impressions. Where you can, create objective performance measures.

  • How many calls did you make?
  • How long does it take for you to respond to a customer?
  • What is your fail rate on the pieces you manufacture?

Clarify the objective measures important to you and spell them out. Clearly. In advance.

Key takeaway: One of the most important questions to ask yourself as you prepare for performance reviews is, “Have I prepared them to succeed?” Starting there and executing a plan to answer that question positively is the first step to making performance reviews more productive and enjoyable!

2. Know your employees.

Have you ever had a boss who tried to motivate you but managed to push all the wrong buttons? Or perhaps they assumed you were a certain type of person, so they completely missed on their evaluation? In college, I had a leader who confronted me with, “Chris, you are the most disorganized person I have ever met!”

Let’s just say motivational encouragement wasn’t his strong suit.

He made this evaluation solely based on the way I kept my calendar. Had I ever missed a meeting or a deadline? Nope. He just didn’t understand my system, so he wanted me to adopt his.

Knowing people is the key

My friends with diesel-powered vehicles make sure they don’t put gasoline in their tank. The right fuel makes the vehicle run smoothly and efficiently, but the wrong fuel ruins the engine!

People need the right fuel, too. It needs to be specific to the person and their ability to metabolize it.

The right fuel—motivation, encouragement, constructive criticism, goals—given at the right time in the right manner to the right person can make for a powerful combination that leads to growth!

Let me state the obvious.

Knowing your people is the key to helping them grow into the kind of employees you want.

You’ll see the best results when you adapt how you deliver feedback based on what you know about your employee. This is how they’ll become the employees you want to be key players in your future.

So…

Be an information gatherer

For years, I directed an arm of a non-profit organization that had between 80 and 100 staff members. Since I wanted to make myself accessible to my staff, I generally had an open door policy. During that time, I always had a stack of information on my desk that helped me understand each staff member.

My goal was not to box them in by assuming they were somehow an aggregate of the information I had accumulated. Instead, I genuinely wanted to help them, and knowing more about them was incredibly helpful for me.

Let’s look at some great tools that will help you know your team better.

Personality inventories and strengths tests

Wait! Don’t leave this post…Please??

Okay, I bet this sub-heading caused a visceral reaction for some of you. Sure, some people LOVE these tests (I do!), but many people HATE them (my son does!)!

Usually, the reason people dislike these tools is because they’ve been used against them. At some point, someone said to them, “Well, you’re THIS, so you’ll never get where you want to go!”

Please don’t do that.

Instead, you can—and should—use personality inventories to gain a little insight into how you can encourage your staff specific to who they are.

Here are a couple I like:

  • StrengthsFinderThe Clifton StrengthsFinder™ measures the presence of 34 talent themes (strengths). This is my personal favorite. Since it deals with strengths, it generally resonates well with our staff.
  • DISCThe DiSC profile is a non-judgmental tool used for discussion of people’s behavioral differences. The DiSC model provides a common language that people can use to better understand themselves and adapt their behaviors with others—within a work team, a sales relationship, a leadership position, and other relationships.
  • Myers Briggs Type IndicatorThe Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) personality inventory is an introspective self-report questionnaire. It reveals psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions.
  • EnneagramThe Enneagram of Personality, or simply the Enneagram, is a model of human personality broken down into 9 interconnected personality types.
  • There are, of course, many more!

Learning styles

As you seek to coach your employees into growth, it’s important to note how they learn.

I have 4 kids, and I have to use 4 completely different styles of communication and motivation. I suppose I could try to communicate in a way that makes sense to me, but experience has shown me that communicating in their learning style is far more effective.

There are many ways to figure out your employees’ learning styles. The best way is to keep your eyes and ears open and make note of how your staff learn most effectively. Or you could just ask them.

Take regular notes and remember important details

I once had a boss who occasionally referred to my wife, Susan, as “Sue.” I can assure you that no one who knows my wife has ever called her Sue. I felt alienated from my boss whenever he referred to her as “Sue.” I’d think to myself, “I mean seriously…you can’t get my wife’s name right?”

But I’ve done similar things. Because if you’re anything like me, your memory is mush, too.

To avoid the faux pas of memory loss, take notes on your staff and keep them in a handy place.

  • What do they like?
  • Where did they grow up?
  • Do they like the outdoors?
  • Did they just finish a good book?
  • How many kids do they have?
  • What’s their spouse’s name? ????

While these may not be important details to you, every employee wants to feel known by their boss. By knowing this type of information and asking about things important to them, you’ll establish a line of trust. Then, they’ll be more receptive when you both encourage and correct them. Relationships are at the core of all good performance reviews.

Don’t take shortcuts

Hopefully these tips are helpful. But none of them replace the most important piece of advice I can give you.

Do you want to have great performance reviews? Do you want your staff to grow as a result? Then you need to care about them.

Seriously.

Key takeaway: Get to know your employees well and you will care about them.

3. Look for context before giving performance reviews.


Maybe you’re a little like me.

As I go throughout my day, I get so focused on my goals that I don’t pay much attention to what is going on around me. This can be especially true when I respond to people. When someone is inexplicably short with me or somehow underperforms my expectations, I rarely look for the context. Are they having a bad day? Are they justifiably upset with me?

Context Matters

Stephen Covey, in his well-known book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, shared a powerful story that highlights the importance of context.

“I remember a mini-paradigm shift I experienced one Sunday morning on a subway in New York. People were sitting quietly—some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene. Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.

The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.

It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”

The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”

Wow.

Employees work in a context, too!

As a manager, it is vitally important to understand your staff’s context. If you have a new employee, you would never expect them to know everything a 15-year veteran knows.

When reviewing the newbie, you would consider their trajectory.

  • Is their performance improving quarter by quarter?
  • Are they aggressively trying to learn your business?
  • Are they acquiring new skills, contributing to your company culture and meeting the modest goals you set for them?

Answering these questions (and many more) will give you the context you need to give all your employees fair performance reviews.

4 tips on gaining the context you need

1. Know your employees

In our last point, I talked about the importance of knowing your employees. By gathering important information about their lives, work styles, and strengths, you’ll get a window through which to gauge their performance.

Understanding who they are is imperative to understanding their context!

2. Remember the past

You should also…wait for it…look at past performance reviews. Do you look at their past performance reviews before gauging their current state? It’ll help you understand the trajectory of your employees. Are they growing? Regressing? Are they perpetually ahead on their goals, or are they consistently lagging behind?

I like to get a side-by-side comparison from quarter to quarter. Then, I don’t repeat myself as I give the contextual feedback necessary for growth.

3. Pull them out of a rut

Employee performance has its ebbs and flows. Everybody has a bad quarter from time to time.

If one of your employees has been a consistent performer then hits a bad stretch, ask questions that will help you coach them back to vocational health. Perhaps there are some obstacles you could have helped them through.

You need to know the context of their obstacles to help your employee overcome them.

4. Take notes

It’s important to keep regular notes on ongoing employee performance. Whether you use OneNote, Evernote, an Excel spreadsheet, or even Post-it notes, keeping notes on your staff will help you understand where they’ve been and where they are, and it will help you see where they need to go.

Good notes also keep you from the cardinal sin of performance reviews—only remembering the last 2 weeks of a review cycle, or worse, only remembering the bad stuff.

Work on developing your staff all year long by keeping up with their context!

Key takeaway: Knowing the context of each employee’s performance is not only valuable for evaluation. It also gives you what you need to coach each staff member to professional growth! Remember, “Growing employees make for a growing, profitable business.”

4. Collect data regularly to prepare for performance reviews.


I have a bad memory.

Not a clinically bad memory, I just seem to forget…well…almost everything. While I CAN remember what baseball Hall-of-Famer Rod Carew hit in 1977 (.388), I somehow can’t remember the plot of the movie I saw last week or the joke you told me yesterday. In that sense, I’m entertaining to the people around me. But as a manager of people wanting fair and honest performance reviews, I can be their worst nightmare.

And I am not alone.

We managers are infamous for our bad memories

In doing research for our new product, we surveyed people about their performance reviews. We wanted to know what they loved (very little) and what they hated (almost everything). In one particularly honest comment, an employee shared:

“Employee reviews are often painful and stressful for the employee, and can be hung over an employee’s head like Damocles’ sword. A terrible manager can ruin an employee’s year or even his or her career because they suck at doing reviews. Additionally, reviews are either based on the last two weeks of performance before the review, which is inaccurate, OR a running total count of every mistake the employee has ever made, which puts the manager in a ‘gotcha’ role.”

Ouch.

Did that description ring true for you? It did for me. I get to manage a great team. But despite my best efforts to put together meaningful performance reviews that help my people grow, I often find myself staring at the review deadline wondering what in the world I’m going to say. And I’m usually relying on my less-than-perfect memory.

To make the review process a helpful, profitable, and growing experience for both you and your staff, you need to find ways to gather important feedback regularly. While it’s true that the most helpful feedback happens in real-time, the truth is there are still issues that you need address and document in the context of performance reviews.

Let’s look at some tools that will help.

Tools that help you keep track of employee performance

Note-taking software. Products like Evernote and OneNote allow you to input data from different mediums—including your phone, desktop app, and email. Best of all, they allow for real-time input and categorization. It’s easy to email your Evernote app “James completed his Q3 rock on time and under budget.” From there, you can set up the category “James.” Now when his review comes up, you’ll have all the information you need to give specific feedback!

Word processing applications. I know some managers who use Microsoft Word, Google Apps, or even OpenOffice to create a document for each of their direct reports. As issues or milestones come up, they simply record the events in these documents. When it’s time to compile performance reviews, they simply open the document and use the information there to create the performance reviews.

Email clients. Many managers will use folders organized by employee as their documentation file cabinet. When they email their staff for project updates, they simply move the reply to the staff member’s folder. Some managers even create rules to automate this process. Then, they can use the search function to find all documentation related to either people or projects. If you’re disciplined, this can work!

If you’re looking for a solution that combines these and is integrated into the communication patterns you already use, check out our own applicationUptick. For many companies this will prove to be an easy-to-use and elegant solution to the problem!

Those are just 4 possibilities for gathering the input you need to provide your staff with meaningful, effective performance reviews.

But remember: the most important thing is not the tool you use. The most important thing is that you discipline yourself to regularly pull together the input you need to help your staff, and ultimately your business, succeed!

Let’s wrap it up.

We recently created a survey asking people to share their performance review experiences, and we were surprised by the level of emotion expressed by managers and employees alike. It seemed that almost everyone hates reviews, but why the emotion?

When it comes to the expectations set for performance reviews, most organizations set the bar pretty high. As a manager, I’ll say things like “I want to use this time to encourage you!”, or, “Let’s use your review to talk about ways you can grow personally and professionally…I can help you!” When all my staff gets from me is, “Hey…um…you did a good job this quarter.”, or “Did you ever finish that project I kept bugging you about?”, their expectations of having a meaningful review are dashed. They don’t feel known or cared for. They feel like the review is just an item on my checklist, and often they’re right.

The 4 keys we mention in this post have started turning it around for me, and I hope they are helpful to you. Remember, there is no substitute for knowing and caring about your staff. Using that as motivation, organize yourself so you can give meaningful, effective and terrific performance reviews!

I’d be very interested to hear below how your “expectations vs. reality” compare during performance reviews. Any other comments, questions, or criticisms? I’d love to hear from you!

Your employees deserve a plan.
Build it together with Uptick.

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