Not many professionals like performance reviews. Our shared distaste may be the closest thing we have to a universal belief in the modern business world.
The negative perception of reviews seems to come from deep misunderstandings about the value of the entire process. From a manager’s perspective, an annual performance review requires them to sum up an employee’s body of work for an entire year, and then offer something constructive. From an employee’s perspective, the manager may be considering whether or not the employee warrants a raise or gets to keep their job.
In an attempt to avoid the stress and anxiety of performance reviews, many companies have simply abandoned them. However, that route offers no benefits for the company or its employees. Reviews are opportunities for people to identify ways they can improve job skills and career prospects and receive the help they need in order to do it.
Below are five suggestions for how managers can improve performance reviews and make the process better for everyone. Many of the comments shared here come from having conducted more than 100 performance reviews at several different companies from a boutique tech public relations firm to a larger corporate setting. I’ve tried to compile the best insights gained along the way.
Stick to a regular schedule instead of once per year.
Companies have begun shifting toward frequent, regular feedback with employees rather than just annual or quarterly reviews. Central to this program is a steady schedule of one-on-one meetings between employees and supervisors.
Holding regular one-on-ones can shift perceptions around work feedback. Perhaps most important, regular conversations may defuse and demystify the entire process for both parties. Discussing work, challenges, accomplishments and goals becomes commonplace and appreciated, instead of rare and stressful.
As companies move to regular one-on-one meetings, they may also find the dreaded annual review process becomes much more simple. When managers and employees have been in regular contact throughout the year, and both working toward positive outcomes, the yearly meeting is simply another step. This opens feedback as a channel for improvement, rather than being taken as nothing but reprimands for poor work.
Set clear objectives and measurements.
Studies have shown that well-chosen goals can be motivating, with or without a monetary incentive. When building a regular cadence of meetings, managers should use that time to help employees set goals.
These need to be achievable objectives with clear, actionable items. Checking in with these goals should also become central to the regular one-on-one meetings. The manager should not simply select performance improvement goals for the employee — employees are often far more likely to be motivated by goals they have helped create.
Finally, measurable results should be established for each goal, so employees understand how their progress will be determined. This process of managers and employees working together for improvement and advancement will build stronger relationships of trust and cooperation.
Have an open information policy.
Having worked for several private companies in my past, I’ve found corporate leaders to be quite protective of company information. This begins as a necessary element of a company’s well-being but can slip into hoarding information due to a lack of trust or concerns about control. Likewise, most employees understand that every company has information that needs to be kept private, but when the secrecy goes too far, people may start to believe management is hiding critical information from them.
Developing a system of sharing information can help companies improve the relationships and feedback between managers and employees. By sharing inside information with employees whenever possible — whether through quarterly meetings or even anecdotal emails from the CEO from time to time — a company demonstrates its trust in people and encourages employee engagement.
Without question, personnel records and information must always be kept private, and product strategies or road maps need to be carefully guarded. Most other information, including plans for the future and the financial health of the company, can almost always be shared with employees.
Create channels of mutual feedback.
Feedback within a company should never flow only in one direction. Building trust between managers and employees means that people need to feel safe enough to express their ideas and have a mutual willingness to consider each other’s viewpoints.
To that end, leadership should make themselves as accessible as possible on a daily basis. One tool for assuring this is the “skip-level meeting,” where employees meet once or twice per year with the person a step above their direct manager on the organizational chart. This practice can help eliminate personal biases and improve visibility across the entire organization. More importantly, it can catch when relationships between talented managers and talented employees are simply not working.
Leaders should wear their titles lightly, and an open company should have few walls, physical or otherwise. When the people at the top are accessible and open to feedback, it will help reinforce the goal of everyone striving for the same objectives.
Recognize work and goal achievement.
Employee recognition is the final step that ties everything together. Like feedback, recognizing the work and contributions of people in an organization should be more regular than handing out an employee of the month award.
Regular recognition from managers should include acknowledgment of hard work and jobs well done but also encompass important employee dates, like work anniversaries. When managers share recognition and goal achievements with departments (and companies, when appropriate), employees’ sense of appreciation and engagement may grow.
The only caveat is that managers often fall into the trap of “balancing” praise with constructive feedback, as if unqualified praise will somehow remove the employee’s incentive to work hard. Leaders should remember to keep it to praise when it has been earned. Save the feedback for a one-on-one meeting.
As workplace expectations and practices continue to evolve, the benefits of feedback should be a major element of the relationships between managers and employees. By following these steps, companies can ensure feedback continues to strengthen the organization and its people.