Performance reviews are routinely one of the most dreaded, if not outright loathed, responsibilities that leaders have. They are the candy corn, if you will, in your Halloween treat basket. Turns out, there are actually some good reasons for this poor reputation. More often than not, the performance criteria and the actual demands of the role are not aligned, leading to an evaluation that is neither helpful nor relevant. Further, if performance discussions have been put off all year long, using a single session to evaluate and then reward or demerit performance is extremely difficult, not to mention ineffective. And lastly, at their worst, performance evaluations are simply a compliance exercise: checking a box to acknowledge the spirit of, but not the actual commitment to, real developmental and job performance improvement.
Imagine, instead of an uncomfortable meeting you dread the approach of every year, you actually had regular performance discussions with your direct reports, allowing you to wrap-up at the end of the year with a simple, mutually-acknowledged review that actually reflects the individual’s developmental goals and achievements? Much better, right?
Performance reviews don’t have to be a source of frustration and anxiety. The key to creating a better experience—or relationship to—performance reviews is to create a better experience to performance management itself. When, as a leader, you are committed to the support and development of your team, performance management becomes a natural part of your efforts. Evaluating performance, and then working to develop around areas of need, becomes your operating philosophy as a leader. This means performance discussions become routine. And routines aren’t nearly so scary.
Acknowledge that Performance Feedback Is Core to Leading
Hopefully, this is not coming as a surprise to you: supporting the success of your people and working to develop them is your job as a leader. That’s what leading is all about. When you value leading in this way, you increase the capacity of work that can be done; you improve the quality of work that can get done; and you support employee engagement by laying out a regular strategy for their professional development. If you have a sincere interest in helping your employees to succeed and working toward their development, you have the right values to be a successful leader.
Beyond valuing your role as a leader, there are two key areas of focus for creating improved performance reviews:
Step One: Regular Coaching Conversations with Your Employees
You can’t develop anyone if you never meet with them. Tackling the daily tasks and connecting on basic functional issues is normal and should form a large portion of your ongoing interaction with your team members. But, if this is the only feedback you are routinely providing, you are doing a disservice to your employees and failing to meet a necessary leadership role: the role of the coach.
Coaching is a leadership activity, and, specifically, a developmental activity. Performance management is intrinsic to coaching, because coaching seeks to help identify and address impediments to employee success. Coaching is, in fact, one of the most significant developmental tools in your arsenal, and when employed consistently and correctly, can really transform both an employee’s performance and performance potential.
Coaching is different from mentoring, or other forms of developmental work—like team alignment or goal setting—because it is one-on-one and intended to focus expressly on helping individuals to address their own current challenges and areas for professional growth. To do this, coaching prods the individual to seek their own answers, to find their own solutions to important challenges, through the use of good, open-ended questions. This places the burden of problem solving on the individual. Instead of handing them the answer, or simply sharing common best practices, the coach challenges the individual to think critically about their problems and to ultimately generate their own answers.
When this practice is performed routinely, a coach can build tremendous positive momentum with their coachee. Sustained coaching work is necessary to address long-standing behaviors and re-wire activities that are either ineffective or inhibit growth. It’s not enough to point out behavioral issues a single time; persistent work is required to shift how we behave, as anyone who has ever dieted or signed-up for a workout routine can attest.
Meeting regularly reinforces developmental goals and can help to map out and then acknowledge real change is taking place, especially when it can feel that these changes are moving painfully slow or not at all. But in addition to taking the time to coach employees, leaders need to ensure there is alignment between the skills or behaviors they’re trying to develop in their employees and the performance criteria used to actually evaluate employees.
Step Two: Aligning Performance Standards with Performance Reviews
When performance criteria doesn’t line up with the skills or behaviors you’re trying to develop in your team members, this can create a problem. Imagine the mixed message this is sending to your employees? What does the organization really value? What gets rewarded? And what happens when a lot of time has been spent—and progress made!—on performance issues that the organization neither recognizes, evaluates or rewards?
We should acknowledge that sometimes you do work to develop skills or competencies that are not formally part of your organization’s talent development focus, perhaps because there are very basic, or very critical, gaps in an individual’s skillset that simply need to be addressed. But when the organization has defined key competencies—and especially when you have this at the team or even role level—they provide an easy roadmap for a coach to follow in determining the right areas of focus. These are skills the organization has determined are important, and are typically very well defined. This can help to shape a developmental approach when the employee is perhaps unclear on where exactly they need to start their journey.
By contrast, when there is alignment between the needs in the role and the focus of the coaching effort, then it becomes easy to finalize performance evaluations and ensure that any developmental work you’re performing has a natural alignment to the interests and focus of the organization. Now, you’re regularly working on well-defined developmental areas, able to map progress and to reward that progress through the existing performance management system of the organization. This is the situation you want to be in!
If you’re stuck never having had any performance conversations over the entirety of the year, you’re in for a tough conversation! And, similarly, if you have been working on skills or competencies that don’t seem to be recognized and rewarded within your organization (i.e., they’re not part of the formal performance review process), this can present some real challenges. But when you have routinely worked to develop your team member, and that activity has been guided by well-defined and well-recognized needs in the role, then the process gets much, much easier.
Performance reviews may never be your favorite part of being a “people leader”, but if you do lead people it’s essential that you are evaluating performance and working to develop your team members. Not to do so is unfair to them, and their potential for growth in the organization, as well as failing to meet your most basic responsibility as a leader. But when you ensure that you are regularly meeting with each of your people; and that those meetings are designed expressly to help them develop, through a good coaching practice and a clear roadmap of acknowledged skills, then not only do your formal performance reviews carry more significance, but they become easier to have and more enjoyable for both you and your employee to navigate.