A Better Way to Conduct a Performance Review

Doug Staneart  |  October 3, 2020
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Is Your Performance Review System Outdated?Is your performance review system for your employees and team members outdated? Are you and your team members still using the same type of annual employee assessment that your parents used? One common complaint that comes up in job satisfaction surveys is, “I never get useful feedback about my areas of improvement.” On the other side, managers will sometimes become frustrated because their team has to constantly be directed. Managers will often say (or at least think,) “Why can’t I find more team members who do good work like me?” The answer, unsurprisingly, is in learning how to conduct a performance review the right way.

If you are experiencing these symptoms, there is a good chance that your performance review system doesn’t work. In this session, I want to give you a few tips that will help you use these tools better. For instance, I’ll cover a few employee appraisal systems that fail almost every time. In addition, I’ll give you tools that not only help you with these employee reviews but also improve productivity. Finally, I will give you a few clear examples of performance review phrases that you can use with your team.

Old Timey Performance Review Systems that Are a Chore for the Manager and the Employee.

A Good Employee Review Is Like a GPS for Your CarMost companies today solve the issue of how to conduct a performance review by using the same performance review meeting system that was invented decades ago, in a much slower business economy. These traditional performance reviews are often given to employees in annual, semi-annual, or even quarterly reviews. As a result, the information tends to be outdated by the time it is received by the person who could benefit most from the information — the employee. Improving an employee’s work performance needs to be understood as an ongoing process.

Let’s say you are taking a vacation, and you are driving from Atlanta to Pensacola, FL. This is about a five-hour trip. Almost the entire drive is interstate highways so just outside of Atlanta, you turn off your GPS. About an hour into your drive though, you get to a city where the interstate forks. One way is I-85 and the other is I-185. They look identical. You sort of recall that years ago when you last made the trip, that you were supposed to take the fork to the right. So you do.

You continue to drive for another hour or so before you start to see the signs to Tallahassee — not Pensacola. After enough time, you finally turn on your GPS again. When you do, you realize that you are way off course. So, your five-hour drive has now turned into a seven-hour drive.

This is exactly what can happen when we coach our team members. If we wait three months, six months, or a year to coach them, they may have veered away from the right direction.

Mistake #1: Performance Evaluations Based on Vague and Subjective Soft-Skills.

Avoid Opinion-Based AssessmentsTell me if this sounds familiar…

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] – Assertive Communications Skills
[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] – Leadership Skills
[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] – Ability to Motive Others

The big problem here is that the employee feedback now becomes based entirely on opinion. I know. We all like to think we are objective and fair. However, our memories don’t really work that way. For instance, the direct report may have had an awesome year. If something really negative happened last week, though, that single incident can affect our subjective opinion.

The opposite is true as well. If an employee’s past performance was stellar for a long time, we will often overlook huge deficiencies at present. The matter of how to conduct a performance review can become muddied by our subjectivity.

I’ll give you an example totally unrelated to employee appraisals to show you how this works. My family went to a favorite restaurant for years. On one occasion, we stood at the hostess stand for 10 minutes even though the place was pretty empty. We sat at the table for about 15 minutes before the waiter came to take our drink order. It seemed like forever before we got our drinks. I looked at my watch. We had arrived almost 45 minutes ago, and we hadn’t even placed our food order yet. It actually got worse from there.

We assumed that the crew just had a bad night. A few weeks later, we tried again. We had a similar experience. The point is that we returned to the restaurant because our past experiences clouded our judgment on the current performance. Opinion-based employee assessments have a similar challenge.

Mistake #2: Providing Blunt Criticism from Many Sources.

Performance Appraisal Mistake to Get Criticism from OthersOne of the fixes for mistake #1 is to make mistake #2. Since we know that a single person’s opinion can be skewed, to fix it, we get a lot of opinions. This is the Amazon or Yelp approach. If you get enough “peer reviews,” or opinions, you get a better view than a single opinion. The problem, though, is that you are still measuring something that is subjective. The answer to how to conduct a performance review is not going to be solved simply by getting more opinions.

I’ll give you an example from early in my career. When I was in college, I had an internship at a major Fortune 500 company. I spent the summer working for six-department heads — each for about two weeks. At the end of summer, my big-boss had to complete an assessment of my work. Since he had not worked directly with me, he had each of the six department heads do the assessment. Then, he averaged their numbers. I was excited because this technique seemed really fair.

Each of the managers thought that I was a great intern. However, they had to judge my performance based on the same five-point scale used for themselves. I still remember the ache in the pit of my stomach when I saw all of the threes and fours on the job evaluation.

My boss explained to me that very few people ever received fives on their evaluations. That would leave little room for improvement. Afterward, I was left with the same question that many employees today ask, “Did I do my job well or not?”

Mistake #3: Making the Performance Assessments a Chore for All Involved.

Making the Performance Review a Chore is a MistakeThe absolute biggest mistake that companies make is to make employee performance reviews a chore. You really want the system to help your team grow. If they hate performance conversations, this will not happen.

A good test for how effective your employee review process is to just randomly say this in your next meeting. “It’s time for the annual reviews again.” Then, just watch the reaction. If you see negative visual feedback, guess what? Your employee performance review process suck, and it’s time to learn how to conduct a performance review they can look forward to.

When you institute a system that tracks an employee’s performance in an objective way, the results are more fair. You get this by measuring results, not opinions. For instance, we could determine the winner of a football game by who has the prettier uniforms. Or, we could measure their teamwork, enthusiasm, or communication. Do you see the problem, though?

All of those items are valid, but they don’t account for performance issues. A good team has to communicate well and work well together. They have to have enthusiasm. However, they can have all of those things and still never score a point. So, instead of measuring teamwork, you might focus on something more tangible like yards-per-carry. On defense, you might measure things like tackles by two or more players. When you measure and praise those things, teamwork improves.

Update Your Performance Review System to Increase Productivity and Employee Satisfaction

Use a New Type of Performance Assessment to Improve Employee SatisfactionIn today’s fast-paced economy, these traditional systems just don’t work. (By the way, I’m not sure they ever did.)

A successful performance review should be short — no more than ten minutes. They should also focus on the results expected from the employee’s current position and how well they’re meeting organizational goals. We should also be measuring how effectively the employee’s goals are being met. Finally, and above all, the reviews should be easy to write!

For example, we may expect a number of different results from a project manager. For instance, is the project on schedule? Is it under budget? Are the company quality standards being met? Is the customer satisfied? Are employee expenses in line?

All of these results can and should be measured consistently on a project. So if I am this Project Manager’s boss, she and I can meet for just a couple of minutes at the beginning of each week for frequent feedback. We can look at the tangible measurements to determine if the goals are being met. If I do this every week and each meeting is documented, I can see a trend as time goes by. I can also judge this PM’s work compared to other PMs.

So, now, if I meet with this employee once a year to go over the trends, there are no surprises. Both I and the employee know exactly what those trends are.

The answer for a better way on how to conduct a performance review is explained in just a few steps:

Clarify Expectations Between Manager and EmployeeI’m sad to have to admit that I spent years struggling as a manager and leader because I skipped this step. We can’t assume that the people that work for us and around us understand our expectations. For instance, in my office, we don’t have time-clocks. My team has the freedom to come and go when they need to. Some days are really busy, so team members may come in really early to get a head start. Others may end up staying a little later.

For me, though, I love to work. When I am on an exciting project, I will often start early in the morning, work until 2 AM, and be back up at the crack of dawn. To me, this is a fun part of what we do.

By the way, I don’t expect any of my direct reports to do this. However, when I see a team member showing up at 10 AM and leaving at 2:30 PM, it bothers me. I expect each team member to put in a full day of work if I’m paying them a salary to do the work.

Years ago, I had a video director who never understood this expectation. By the way, he did excellent work. However, he would sometimes go days without coming into the office or reaching out to coworkers about project statuses. From his perspective, he was likely working on projects until late in the evening. He expected to be judged based entirely on the finished work provided.

Personally, I love this. This falls in line with what I’m covering here. However, our other team members would see this behavior and wonder why they had to come in every day. Eventually, I had to end the relationship because I hadn’t properly set expectations upfront.

I’d suggest typing up a simple document that outlines what you expect from each of your team members. You may even have them type a document of what they expect from you as well. Without clear expectations, the matter of how to conduct a performance review will always remain vague and unguided.

Clarify the Results Expected from the JobInstead of outlining intangibles to judge people on, identify the performance goals you require from each position. Let each team member know the specific criteria for their success. I’d suggest starting with the three most important results and maybe adding a fourth or fifth if necessary.

I’ll give you a couple of examples. One example is a really easy one to measure. The second is more difficult. Your team members will likely be somewhere in between.

The easy example is a sales representative. The main result we expect from a sales rep is… well… more sales. All we have to do is put a number on it. “I’d like you to generate at least $200,000 in revenue this year.” We can add to those results based on past experience. For instance, “Your goal is to make sure that at least 50% of your revenue comes from repeat business.” Notice that we are focusing on the results — not activities. We are not demanding that the sales rep make 200 cold calls, etc. Instead, we are relying on the rep’s expertise to make adjustments to get the result. Clear goals will allow your top performers to develop their own methods of meeting it.

A harder example would be for a position like an administrative assistant. A position like this may have hundreds of different activities in many different areas. So the results you are looking for may need to be a little broader. For instance, the admin may be responsible for the accuracy of company reports or customer satisfaction surveys. The key is to make the results tangible and measurable.

Measure the ResultsStep #1 and Step #2 typically only take a short time to create. This step takes a little longer, though. Now that you have the results identified, we now have to figure out how to measure the results. Again with the sales rep example, this is easier. All you have to do is track new contracts and identify if they are new customers or not.

With the administrative assistant, you might measure the timeliness of the reports or accuracy. You may institute a continuous random customer satisfaction survey. Regardless of how you measure the results, you do absolutely have to measure the results. Otherwise, you only have subjective opinions to rely on for judging success at each position.

I’d suggest identifying at least five and as many as 10 areas of measurement for each result that you are expecting.

Do Employee Reviews More FrequentlyWith this system, a manager can schedule weekly or monthly “mini-interviews” taking just minutes. These sessions are valuable because they open lines of communication to create an ongoing conversation. They also give the manager a chance to update the progress of the employee in different result areas.

If the employee is performing above expectations, then this is an opportunity to shine and set new goals. Alternatively, if the employee is performing below expectations, then you can offer support with corrective actions and a new development plan.

After each meeting, just take a couple of minutes to write the results.

These “mini interviews” make annual appraisals a piece of cake. The employee and the manager now have as many as 52 separate (written) measured checkpoints along the way that show how the employee has performed over the last year. This annual review now has documented facts to base an appraisal on.

The employee sees that he or she was on budget 95% of the time versus receiving a four out of five. With the former, if she gets 96% next year, she has actually improved. With the later, she’d just get a four next year too.

Although this system is not foolproof, it can greatly reduce the stress and tension associated with Performance Appraisals.

Sample Employee Comments for a Performance Review.

Let me show you the beauty of a system like this. If you are doing a subjective (opinion) performance appraisal, giving comments to the team member is tough. We have to delicately balance between praising and offering constructive criticism. We also have to explain why the person got a three instead of a five.

I don’t care how great of a people-person you are, you will be walking on egg-shells. If you don’t, your team members will likely walk out feeling pretty low. That is the exact opposite of what we were wanting.

Bad Performance Review Comment Examples.

If you use an outdated performance review system, you will likely have to say something like…

Bob, as you know, I’m required to do this employee review each year. Just like last year, you scored really high in… [Followed by five or six subjective scores.] The areas that you scored average in are… [Followed by a list of a few more subjective scores.] I think that the areas that you can stand to improve in are… [Followed by just a single (or maybe two) area(s) for improvement.

Your team member will likely walk out of your office mumbling under his or her breath about how unfair you are.

Example of Comments During This New Type of Employee Review Process.

If you are using this new system on a weekly basis, your meeting will likely sound like this.

“Bob, how did you do in [first result area] last week?”

Bob then responds with his tangible number from the five measurements that he makes each week.

“Is that higher or lower than previous weeks? Why?”

Bob responds.

“What adjustments are you going to make this week to improve even more?

Bob responds again.

Both you and Bob leave the meeting with a clear understanding of what Bob is doing well, what he needs to improve in, and a plan to make the improvements.

If you use the system for the annual performance review, you might say something like the following.

“Bob, let’s look at the weekly reports for the last year. Tell me what you see?”

Then you let him explain his accomplishments (or deficiencies) over the past year.

And if Bob deserves an advancement or promotion, the conclusion will be obvious.

If You Need to UpdateYour Employee Review System, Let Us Help.

This performance appraisal system is fast and easy to implement. It also gets fantastic results. If you’d like help on how to conduct a performance review, contact us using the form below!

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author Doug Staneart
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Doug Staneart is president of The Leader's Institute ®. He is based in the Dallas, Texas Region. He is a specialist in corporate team building activities and custom presentation skills seminars.
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