The high road of performance reviews

"People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

Performance review is a singular moment in the year. Things are said that sometimes become defining moments in your career, in a positive or negative way. Navigating performance reviews requires work and attention.

When a performance review goes well, feedback has been given and taken. Motivation and trust have increased. How to best reach this state of flow?

This post is aimed at helping managers and individual contributors navigate the performance review effectively. We divide this document into three sections:

  1. The core principles
  2. The preparation time
  3. The delivery time

1. The core principles

Be kind: In the end, this is about human interactions. A correct feedback delivered in the wrong way will result in the wrong outcome. Be kind with the person in front of you. This goes both ways in the conversation.

Be truthful: Skipping difficult discussions is the easy way but will only make things worse in the long run. Don't skip the hard stuff. Learning to tell hard things is a skill, and there is no free lunch. It takes time and dedication. Learn and apply. You will fail sometimes, but you will get better at it over time.

Be open: Make sure to listen carefully to what is being said, even if (and in particular) if you don't like what you are hearing. Anger makes people deaf. Be proactively open to the conversation. Leave your ego at the door for the duration of the conversation.

Be coachable: No matter how well you did over the period, your manager will have constructive feedback for you (read: stuff you can do better). This is normal. Everyone can make progress. To the extent that you trust your manager, take it as a gift that can help you become better. Act on it. Build a plan to leverage this feedback. You don't have to do it on the spot. It can take months for it to pay back. You may not like what you hear, but the difference between you and a better you is whether you will step up your game. "If you want to change the world, get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward." (from a speech by William McRaven here)

2. The preparation time

Prepare your self-review thoroughly. If you're going to spend 200 days working for your company, why not spend a few hours taking care of yourself? I wrote a dedicated article about this.

Write effective reviews. Provide constructive feedback. Be specific (i.e. back your feedback with examples) but general (i.e. beware of isolated data points). Beware of recency bias.

As a manager:

Carefully review the reviewers for your report. Make sure that they provide good coverage of the interactions your report has had.

Share good practices with your team ahead of time.

Be crisp. You should be able to state the gist of the feedback in a couple of sentences. Iterate until you get to that level of clarity. Reach the same level of clarity for the areas of improvement and how you see the future for your report.

Dedicate time to difficult situations. Well in advance, think hard about the people for whom the review will be tricky. Spend extra time talking to people around them to collect additional information. Spare some time alone to think through the case. What exactly happened? Did you get to the root cause?

3. The delivery time

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. In particular for hard cases. The way you are going to deliver the message is crucial and could break an employee's morale for a while. If needed, write down a few key sentences to make sure you nail the message right.

Cut to the chase. Deliver the score right away. Every report enters the discussion with some expectation regarding their score. Delaying the delivery of this precious information is making the discussion painful and inefficient. The way I do it? "Here is your score. Now I will move on to explain why we reached this conclusion and what the way forward is, and then we'll do a Q and A. How does that sound?".

Own the process. Don't blame the hierarchy or the HR team. This would only reduce your credibility as a manager. You have full ownership and responsibility of the situation.

Use non-violent communication. The book is a must-read in the context of performance reviews. Some of the tips below are inspired by it.

Use silence. Silence is a great way to let the other person speak. A trained person will use it effectively with you. You don't notice it, because you're speaking within the silence they created :)

Repeat what the other said. This helps in two ways. One, it shows empathy. Two, it helps you make sure you understand the other person correctly. Once you internalize how much we mis-understand each other all the time, this becomes a no-brainer.

Ask open ended questions. This is the basis of negotiation. It helps you collect a lot more information than you would otherwise.

Use What and How, avoid Why. This is again another classic of negotiation. The Why question is hard. It is often associated with accusatory questions. The What and How questions are softer and more constructive.

Avoid the word But as much as possible. We use this word all the time, unaware that it often carries a truly violent aspect to it. The word But essentially destroys and negates everything that came before it. When you're saying "You had a great year, but...", the perceived message is actually "Tons of things went wrong, let's get down the list". Practice avoiding it. You'll see, it is really hard at the beginning!

Express feelings. It may seem hard to talk about feelings for tech folks like us, but in the end, that's what it is about. Letting the other person express how they feel about the situation (and not just what they think of it) will open up the conversation. Here is how it could go: "It seems to me that you are unhappy with the feedback I am giving you. What do you think?" And then, let the other person speak (for a while).

Leave space for disagreement. Make it clear that it is OK to disagree and to argue in a constructive way. On the other hand, do the best you can to leave the key pieces of feedback unequivocally delivered and duly noted.

Keep cool. No matter what happens during the conversation, keep things cool. Getting angry will only carry the message that you are not a coachable person. When you get angry, you are letting your ego drive the conversation. And that's not good for you. In the very worst case, if you don't like what you are hearing, tell the other person: "I am sorry, I do not like the way this conversation is going. Do you mind if we call a timeout and reconvene tomorrow/later today?"

As I close this article, I realize that a lot of it seems a bit daunting. In reality, most performance reviews go well. But again, this is an important milestone. Don't let improvisation drive the show.