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Follow This Golden Rule During Performance Reviews

December 5, 2017

With the end of the year fast approaching, annual performance reviews may be looming in your not-so-distant future. Whether you’re providing reviews or receiving them, it’s typically a stressful time for all involved. Giving feedback is a delicate process on its own, but the performance appraisal process typically doubles as a time to make pay and promotion decisions as well. In order to make this a productive endeavor, I’d like to offer my absolute best piece of advice on your approach to performance reviews:

The feedback shared in a performance review should never come as a surprise.

This simple concept cannot be overstated. Performance reviews can serve many functions, but they should never be used to ambush or confront an employee. This kind of tactic will make the entire meeting a waste of time, and may even encourage your employee to start looking for another job. Major problems with this approach include:

  1. The employee is not going to absorb any information from the meeting other than the surprise(s). Most employees have already sized themselves up before a big review meeting. Any significant deviations from what they’re expecting will likely derail the entire meeting. You can bet that a negative surprise will prevent them from hearing anything else you have to say.

  2. Your relationship of trust will be destroyed. No matter how professionally-oriented the content may be, feedback is inherently personal. There needs to be a mutual demonstration of respect and collaboration in the appraisal meeting. By discussing sensitive information without proper preparation, the employee may stop trusting that you have their best interests at heart.

  3. Development in any of the surprise areas will be more difficult now. Instead of creating reasonable or expected goals, you’ve given the employee something to feel embarrassed about. By catching them off-guard, the employee is likely to be defensive about their development needs rather than open-minded. This initial deterrent will impact their motivation to improve because they didn’t have the chance to gradually buy into it.

    Related: The Changing Nature of Performance Management

If you are the one performing the appraisal, reflect on the following questions prior to the meeting to ensure that no surprises will occur:

  1. Have I provided informal feedback on these trends throughout the year?

    Another great rule of thumb when providing feedback is to do it as often as possible, for all types and ranges of performance. If you’ve noticed a development opportunity for an employee at some point throughout the year, the worst thing you can do is file it away and bring it up at their end of year review. At that point, you may not have specific examples to draw from or the feedback may sound vague and unhelpful. Feedback is most effective when it’s provided soon after the behavior or performance takes place. This gives the employee an immediate chance to start improving and ties the feedback to a salient instance. By bringing up performance issues in the moment, you can reduce the likelihood that there will be surprises about development during formal appraisals.

    Read more: Why Real-Time Feedback is the Future of Employee Development
  2. Have I been honest in my feedback with the employee throughout the year?

    Resist the urge to only provide positive feedback. Oftentimes, even when we are directly asked for “constructive criticism,” people prefer to avoid any potential conflict and focus solely on the good. While positivity is a wonderful quality in a leader, this can be damaging in the long run if you aren’t pairing it with honesty. This approach is also unfair to the employee; you can’t expect them to improve in an area if you haven’t communicated with them about it until their appraisal. If you take this approach, you can expect to hear pushback such as: “Then why was I told I was doing fine just last month?” or “But I asked you about this and you said I did a great job!”. To avoid this type of appraisal meeting, provide honest feedback throughout the year and document any attempts towards improvement that you've noticed. This will give the conversation a concrete direction and lessen the odds that the feedback will be received poorly.

If you can confidently answer yes to the above two questions, then you shouldn’t blame yourself if performance feedback is received poorly. You may be dealing with a particularly unperceptive or unmotivated individual, and in those cases, firm feedback is almost always a shock. But the vast majority of your employees should be in tune with their own track, which means that they will more or less know what to expect from their performance appraisal. So, if you want to keep performance appraisals from being more painful than they already are, make sure to prepare your employee for what’s ahead. Otherwise, the next unwelcome surprise you may get is their two weeks’ notice.

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Jaclyn Menendez, PhD Jaclyn Menendez, PhD is a Project Consultant at PSI based out of Fort Collins, Colorado. Her areas of expertise include testing, assessments, and project management. Jaclyn has contributed to the development, validation, and implementation of assessments with various clients. She has managed, analyzed, and presented data analyses for content and criterion validation studies.