Mid-year review season is here! It’s that magical moment every summer when managers look at their teams and ask, “What the heck have these people been doing for the past six months?”
I’ve been a manager for over 25 years, and for most of that time, I’ve hated giving mid-year reviews. They are labor-intensive for me, anxiety-provoking for my team, and are rarely helpful to anybody.
But I’ve changed my tune on mid-year reviews, because I’ve changed my approach to them. Specifically, I’ve stopped thinking of performance reviews as something I do for the benefit of supervisors, and I’ve started doing them for the benefit of my team members.
Below, I’ll share the tools, tips, and strategies I use to make mid-year reviews a rewarding process for myself and my team.
How to Prepare for Mid-year Reviews
Preparation is 90% of the mid-year review process, just like rehearsal is 90% of the process when putting on a play. Preparing for mid-year reviews encompasses everything you do before writing down a single word: gathering information, talking to your team members, and coming up with a road map forward.
1. Use the right performance review template.
When you’re giving formalized mid-year performance reviews, you should be working from a template that determines what metrics you’re using to assess your team members and how you express those assessments. At Uptick, we’ve compiled 70 free performance review templates, and no two are exactly alike.
What’s important is that you find an assessment structure that makes sense for your workplace, with the right mix of quantitative and qualitative feedback. If you’re managing a toothpick factory, a one-page form that emphasizes the number of toothpicks everyone has produced might work for your needs. But if you’re managing a therapist’s office, you’ll need room to write out longer comments and assess a wider variety of metrics.
Doing mid-year reviews with the wrong template is like using a backhoe to build a gingerbread house, so make sure you’re using the right tools for the job.
If your company has been using the same template for years, and it doesn’t allow you to express nuance, ask to change to a new one. Otherwise, you run the risk that your team will be confused and hurt by reviews that don’t reflect their true performance.
2. Use Your Notes, Not Your Memory.
The main reason performance reviews usually stink is that managers are too busy to write down and keep track of feedback.
For most of my career, I wrote reviews off the top of my head, or maybe by glancing at a calendar or an occasional Word doc. But you can’t remember six months’ worth of a team member’s performance off the top of your head. (Let’s face it, most of us can barely remember what we had for breakfast yesterday.)
We built Uptick to solve this glaring problem in performance reviews, focusing instead on having rich, valuable one-on-one meetings that establish a regular cadence of updates and feedback. Even if I don’t write notes during one-on-ones, I record them, and I can use the search feature to choose the date and the category and the way I want to see the information.
3. Find the Story Arc of a Team Member’s Performance.
A lot can change for a team member over six months, and you can’t understand that journey as a series of isolated data points. Instead, I find a narrative that looks at an individual’s entire journey. Thinking of mid-year reviews as a story helps you to find the context of what went right and what went wrong.
I like to look at my notes for a team member from oldest to newest so I can find that arc the way a reader would. That way I can say, “The quarter started off with the team member working at a certain level and working on specific goals. Later, we hit an obstacle and dealt with it, recalibrating goals as we went.”
Framing performance reviews as stories makes it easier to see personal growth, which is what you’re trying to measure.
4. Avoid Surprises by Meeting With Team Members.
If you get only one thing from this blog post, let it be this: your team members should never be surprised by anything you write in a performance review.
If you have a healthy cadence of one-on-one meetings, you should already be communicating regularly about everything that will appear in a review. Yet, this often isn’t the case. A 2015 TriNet survey of millennials found that 62% felt “blindsided” by a review. That feeling is not only emotionally devastating but also demotivating.
That’s why, if I’m preparing a review, and I find myself reaching conclusions a team member isn’t expecting, I talk to them ahead of time. This happened to me recently, so I asked my team member out to lunch to hear his perspective on the concerns I had. We chatted, and he was totally open to my feedback and provided important clarification about the issue. That experience changed the way I wrote the review, partly because I could now reference the fact that we had already talked about the problem and had a plan in place to resolve it.
How to Give a Mid-year Performance Review
Once you’ve done all your preparation—and you should be preparing all year—it’s time to put pen to paper and write the mid-year review. Here’s how I approach that task in a way that positions my team for success.
5. Write for Your Audience.
The primary audience for your performance assessment is your team member. If you can’t put your findings in terms they’ll be able to hear, you can do irreparable damage to your relationship. So don’t use clinical business-speak that will come off as dehumanizing. Use language that will remind your team member that you’re on their side.
Be candid, but remember this review needs to support and grow your relationship.
That being said, you also have to write for a second audience: your supervisor, your successor, or a stranger in HR. Reviews can have a lasting impact on an employee’s professional future, so I’m always careful to be as clear as possible. I don’t want to put something on the record that could be misinterpreted and negatively affect an employee who is doing a great job.
6. Focus on Individual Growth, Not Comparisons with Peers.
Some companies favor “stack ranking,” which measures an employe’s performance against their peers for their performance evaluations. While that might be a useful tool to shake up a company where people have gotten lazy, in my experience, it’s a recipe for a miserable work culture. In fact, Facebook employees blamed it for the “cult-like” atmosphere there.
The fact is, if I measure a team member who has little experience against someone who has years of expertise, I’m doing them both a disservice. The team member who’s still learning the ropes will feel discouraged. Meanwhile, the seasoned expert might start phoning it in instead of continuing to grow.
If you want to nurture the growth of everyone on your team, you have to grade them on their own merits.
When you write reviews, return to the narrative you found by going over your one-on-one notes. Tell the story of how far the employee has come on the goals you set together. It’ll help you identify the team members with the most important qualities: determination and an eagerness to learn.
7. Define Metrics and Clarify Expectations.
Whether you use a quantitative or a qualitative performance review template, you need to spell out exactly what each grade means. This avoids confusion and the perception of unfairness.
For example, if you’re measuring “Communication Skills,” don’t just check a box labeled “below expectations,” “meets expectations,” or “exceeds expectations.” Your team member will likely be baffled, regardless of what grade you give them, because they’ll have no idea what they did right or wrong.
Instead, define the expectations clearly. Maybe your definition of good communication means returning emails within 24 hours or being attentive during meetings. Regardless, make these expectations clear from the beginning of onboarding. Your team members should never show up to a performance review and learn they got bad marks for something they didn’t even know they were being judged for.
8. overcome anxiety by focusing on action, not judgment.
Performance reviews make people profoundly anxious. Everyone hates to feel judged; it makes us reactive and sensitive to criticism. In a 2014 article titled Kill Your Performance Ratings, the authors argued that “labeling people with any form of numerical rating or ranking automatically generates an overwhelming ‘fight or flight’ response that impairs good judgment.“
The only way I can make mid-year reviews useful for my team is to overcome this instinctual fight-or-flight anxiety. And the way I overcome it is by keeping my reviews focused on the future.
The best mid-year reviews don’t just recap the last six months—they plan the next six months.
When a team member is underperforming, I don’t label them as “bad”; instead, I work with them to come up with a growth plan. Setting a plan defuses this fight-or-flight response because the plan gives my team members a sense of control. It puts them in an active position instead of being asked to passively accept judgement.
9. Make Performance Evaluations a Dialogue, Not a Monologue.
Ideally, you should conduct your performance review during an in-person discussion (or, for remote teams, a Zoom call). Even if you still have to write a report, meeting like this will give you crucial context.
When I meet to discuss reviews, I leave space for conversation. I encourage team members to react, clarify, and even disagree with my insights. They need to inform my judgments, not treat them like they’re set in stone. For team members who aren’t big talkers, I draw them out with questions like, “How does that make you feel?” and “Are there areas where you feel like I’ve missed the mark?”
10. Do Quarterly Performance Reviews.
Okay, so I sort of tricked you by putting this one last, but it’s true! Mid-year performance evaluations are important, and they’re a big improvement over the dreaded annual performance reviews. But six months is still a long time between check-ins, and employees can get way off track during that time. Quarterly reviews let you make smaller adjustments and make it easier to find the story arc in a team member’s performance.
Of course, quarterly reviews aren’t an option for every manager. If your team is too big, or you’re too swamped, you might not have time. But then you should work that much harder to regularly give feedback in one-on-one meetings.
Mid-year Reviews: Because Your Team Is Worth It
It’s taken me most of my professional life to develop effective strategies for giving mid-year reviews. (Hopefully, the tips in this blog will help shave a few years off your period of trial and error.)
My own experience with reviews has shifted dramatically since I started taking this approach to giving reviews. They used to be a stressful and confusing process that people were almost afraid to talk about. But by focusing the reviews on my relationship with team members and building that relationship in our one-on-ones, I’ve taken the terror out of the process.
When I asked my team recently if they thought these changes had made a difference, every person said it removed the mystery from the review. And that’s the thing: What do people fear? They fear what they don’t know. So if you remove the “don’t know,” there’s nothing to fear.