I worry when opening my browser on the evaluations’ website to see how many reviews I need to fill in. I blocked out Friday for this while working from home, but we know how planning “work-free” days often works. Everywhere around me I see people going through the official adjectives list, googling some of them, figuring out what the best term is to define someone who does really well 90 % of the way but then is never able to finish. I appreciate the commitment to do it, but inevitably we all complain.
Very timely, I put myself on a management course on providing feedback and supporting career development this week. Although more focused on the actual discussion, for me it was important to go over a few techniques and I am certain it will set us all in the mindset to write better reviews.
What is in a valuable performance review?
No dancing around the issue nor vague compliments. How? “You did a great job. Well done!” vs “You did a great job in establishing great relationships in the cross-functional project you have just done and people‘s feedback is that you are very good to work with and they value your methodical approach in solving problems”. It allows the person to know what and when they have done well (or badly), what key attributes were valued and that there are actually comments regarding this. If you can pull out a quote even better. For next year, this will focus the mind of the employee on what they can do more of.
This is especially important for development feedback, where we try and contextualize the area of negative feedback. It is not just ‘your tone can be aggressive sometimes’, but rather ‘when you say things like xyz that may be perceived negatively in some environments’ or ‘in meeting A you made a few arguments like xx and that could be interpreted as zz’.
For good or bad feedback, it is important to provide the person with an impact on themselves. This is easy to do for positive feedback: ‘job well done, project complete, happy client’, but much more challenging to explain when it is a subjective piece of feedback. In our training, the practical case was about an analyst that was seen as overstepping the mark on her views about how a project should be run, which the project manager was not pleased about.
I was an F for failure at my mock practice but I learnt something valuable. If you explain the impact, it makes the person understand why it matters. When some of us went through the facts of what she was doing wrong (with some dancing around the issue), she was frustrated that doing a good job for the project was deemed wrong. Only when we explained the impact on her career of coming across as arrogant and non-collaborative did she realized how that was not at all her original intention. It was powerful.
This applies naturally to the actual discussion rather than the write-up but also means we keep an open mind. Questions allow the person to process the information just received and, in an ideal scenario, come up with a few alternative solutions to address it, especially the development feedback piece. For someone to be invested you need them to not only understand why the feedback exists, how it impacts the business but also what can be done to address it. It also allows them ways to express their doubts on the potential areas that are less clear. Don’t make it a monologue.
The key thing about reviews is that they need to be focused on the future. When problems exist, you need to help the employee come up with potential solutions. Don’t feel like you need to have all the answers. There is plenty of research to show that we learn better if we conclude things ourselves. In fact, Harvard teaches all their case method on that basis. It also reduces dependency since people are not exclusively relying on you to solve the problems but they slowly develop autonomy to do it themselves. They need to be able to work through problems and identify courses of action. But goals can also be positive — areas you want to focus on, skills you need to develop, where you will press your advantage. By setting goals, people have a clear sense of direction which can be key to allow prioritization at busy times.
Weird, right? But this has been a key learning for me through multiple training sessions this year. Silence is an essential feature of a difficult conversation. It gives people room to process, address, think. It may be the case that what you are saying is not new, but it may be. And it can be a hit that people need space to work on.
But why do we do performance reviews and why do they matter so much?
Are they not just a tick-the-box exercise we need to do? Arguably, people that you work with should know what you think of them. The end of year process should be just structuring all the feedback people receive to allow better consumption and planning. However, it is many times the case that this is the first time people get feedback.
Ideally, reviews are not a once-a-year thing. If that is the case and you are keeping open conversations with your team, then the above becomes much more natural. There are steps in between that can really develop a culture of feedback that goes way beyond the HR process.
Recently, I asked the team to do a Q3 review of their top 3 achievements and goals for the next quarter. They were surprised (my bad, it was the first time I asked), but also keen. They all prepared well-thought achievements with examples, making my job much easier when I get to write their reviews. At the same time, they all had forward-looking goals and some of them gave me a really good space to address development points. It was a win-win in a non-formal 360 environment and I am committed to doing it every quarter. They also understand the importance of it, and hopefully will grow to be good managers too. Good feedback is timely feedback.
You may think reviews are a large corporate kind of thing, but I am ready to challenge that.
Reviews are important in any work environment where you value professional and personal development and where you want to allow space for feedback. A few years back, I implemented them in my small charity in Portugal. Unusual and unexpected, they turned out to be valuable for me as a manager but I believe also for the employees as it forces them to stop and think out of the frenzy of the day-to-day. We also do our annual Christmas lunch around a yearly review by checking what we can do better and setting goals for us individually for the next year. That is part of the culture I want to create. OK, I admit that I am late in kicking them off this year, but they are featuring on my October list!
A final point I wanted to make concerns women
Also timely, this week’s episode of Women at Work, the HBR podcast, addresses the topic of feedback to women and how different it is to men’s. The title reads ‘We deserve more than Attagirl’ and it is undoubtedly controversial but I highly recommend it. My view on it would require a whole new post, which may come at some point, but I was struck by the ‘positive sexism’ where we are protecting women by giving them positive feedback or very little development feedback. How can they grow and develop then? ’Attagirl’ helps no one. Men or women.