Performance reviews which make a real difference

Performance reviews which make a real difference

Daniel walks confidently down the corridor towards the meeting room booked out for the latest round of bi-annual performance reviews. He is dressed for success, notes in hand and undoubtedly prepared to showcase his achievements over the last six months. In contrast, Joshua looks uninterested, unprepared and ready to leave before he arrives. In both these vastly different review scenarios, there is a lot of preparation needed by a manager and employee in order to get the most out of performance reviews.

Let’s take a step back. It’s 2019 – why are we even bothering with bi-annual performance reviews? Many argue that bi-annual performance reviews are outdated, and we should rather focus on the holy grail of performance reviews: the ongoing informal feedback loop. I agree wholeheartedly. The hard reality is that people just don’t know how to give valuable, honest and constructive feedback, continuously, or just don’t have the time to do it.

Bi-annual performance reviews take dedicated time to prepare, discuss, review and plan; recognising an individual’s successes and providing the all-important career direction. Bi-annual performance reviews form part of the continuous feedback loop.

For Daniel, his motivator is success and status, and the performance review is all about measuring his progress towards his goals and highlighting achievements. His review period has been stellar, filled with successful project deployments, value-adding features that he initiated, and customer reviews beaming with commendations. Joshua has had an even better review period, but what motivates him isn’t success – it’s mastery and the depth of the technical challenges he has faced and come out on top of.

In these scenarios, both Daniel and Joshua have done amazing work. If we as managers just highlight the achievements and don’t offer a way forward or don’t understand their motivators/career aspirations, we are doing a disservice to the excellent individual that stands before us. For someone that hasn’t had a good review period, if we focus only on the faults without explaining the implications and providing actionable feedback, guidance or opportunities, we are not doing our jobs of cultivating talent.

It’s important to focus on the positives and the negatives, regardless of the performance of the individual. That is how you guide people to grow.

Before we can discuss how to prepare for a review, we need to understand what the outcomes of a review should be:

Part of our responsibility as managers is to cultivate talent, grow the people we work with and provide a clear, actionable path for people to go down on in their careers. We’re focused on the perspective of the reviewer and not the reviewee in this article, but it is important to note that it is the responsibility of both the reviewer and the reviewee to make sure that a review is beneficial.

The following list of outcomes should be a focus of any performance review:

  • Get a sense of individual achievements. People want to be recognised for the great work they do. Give them the recognition they deserve.
  • Understand the challenges the person may have or has overcome. If someone is still experiencing the challenges, identifying what they are is a great way to become an enabler for them. Knowing the challenges they have overcome helps to remind them of the growth they experienced over the review period.
  • Identify the strong skills the individual has and help to leverage those. By highlighting the strengths people have and explaining how important those are in one’s career, reinforces great behaviour and shows an understanding of what the individual has to offer.
  • Identify the skills that need refinement. Nobody is great at everything, so there will always be skills that need refinement or growth as one moves down their career path.
  • Setting and tracking goals set out by the person. Setting goals is multifaceted. You could use a goal as an opportunity to grow a skill identified earlier, or help the individual do something that they are passionate about that is outside of their work. Goal setting helps put together something actionable to achieve but helps for accountability too.
  • Gauge sentiment. This one is simple, find out if the person is happy in the role they are in, the work they are doing or the interactions they have with their team. Action something if the person isn’t happy.
  • Deepen a relationship with the individual. This going without saying, building strong relationships with your team is a must. It helps to be honest, to understand the people on the team, what inspires them, how to communicate with them, where they come from, and what is important to them. It shows that you care. It also improves your credibility as a manager.

How to deliver the feedback, career guidance and support in the review:

When one leaves a review, they should feel as though they have been able to speak their mind, talk about what is important to them, have a clear understanding of the next steps and feel excited about the challenges ahead. Effective performance feedback looks both backward and forward, speaks to behaviours and skills as attributes, not the person, and explains the impact and consequences of those attributes.

The following guidelines should be exercised when providing feedback:

  • Listen first and ask questions to clarify understanding. Most people crave the opportunity to talk and share their views; to feel as though they are listened to. It is a discussion, not a lecture. Be clear in your understanding of what the reviewee is saying and don’t make assumptions.
  • Be constructive by reviewing a skill and not the person. Feedback should be seen as an opportunity to learn more about yourself professionally, not be personal.
  • Give specific and concrete examples where performance was good or poor. Saying things like “you are a very good communicator” vs “you are great at explaining very technical terms to non-technical people and ensuring that everyone in the room understands the way forward while making people feel part of the team” is very different.
  • Explain the impact of good and poor behaviour. You don’t know what you don’t know. Talk about the reasons why something impacts the team or the project so that the reviewee gains experience and develops insight.
  • Provide opportunities or ways to stretch and improve skills. If you don’t give an opportunity or a clear way to achieve a goal, most people get stuck and say that the opportunities don’t exist in the current work environment. There is always an opportunity, one simply needs to explain what it is and the measurables from it.
  • Provide the appropriate support. Support comes in many formats. Providing training, having face time to soundboard ideas, removing blockers or introducing the right people at the right time. Be available and offer support to achieve goals.
  • Exercise EQ. This one is tricky, but the gist of it is that in a review, your feedback and tone need to be adjusted to each person you are reviewing. Feedback often comes with emotions, but when the intent is to be constructive, honest and to grow the person, delivery of the feedback becomes much easier.
  • Exercise accountability. Often review feedback requires tough conversations. Accountability is only effectively achieved when there is an agreement in place, a clear understanding of the boundaries and knowing how to measure success. Don’t be afraid to hold people accountable.

Let’s explore how this strategy played out with Daniel and Joshua.

Daniel is a rock star engineer, and a natural leader in the team, even though he is relatively early in his career. His review started out as a highlights reel where we discussed all his achievements and the impact that he has made to the project and client (listen first, recognise achievements). We spoke about his strong technical skills, such as estimations in his own work and his ability to problem-solve (identify strong skills), but also identified that he doesn’t know how to estimate other people’s throughput (identify skills to refine). This resulted in him setting deadlines he couldn’t meet and then pouring his heart and soul into the project to make sure it got delivered on time (explain the impact).

Although admirable in his desire to get things done and see things through, it meant that Daniel wasn’t dedicating time to his other passion, rock climbing, and he would ultimately suffer burnout (understanding his challenges). We put together a dedicated meeting slot to review every estimation made on his own work and that of the others on the team to see how he would improve over time and adjust accordingly (provide the appropriate support). We also agreed that he should do the things he is passionate about and that I would call him out if he didn’t do at least one trip to the nearest indoor rock climbing gym once a month (agreeing to a goal and shared accountability).

Joshua, our technically-minded defender of quality and champion of best practices entered the room and didn’t say much. Highlighting all the achievements and technical brilliance he brought to the team from my point of view is how the review started (recognise achievements). We proceeded to talk about the solutions he was delivering on the project and if he still felt as though the work was challenging (gauging sentiment). He was very happy and felt as though he was still adding huge value. The next thing we spoke about was his career path. He wants to go down the path of being a Solutions Architect; so we chatted about the need to grow the skills of influencing change and being able to address non-technical people (identifying skills to grow). These skills would be grown by running project planning workshops, and joining the analysis meetings with the business analysts (provide the right opportunities to improve skills). His strengths in holding people accountable would provide the legitimacy in a room of non-technical people as being the trusted advisor on the team (leveraging strong skills).

Preparation and clear feedback are key. Think of the outcomes you want to achieve from a performance review before it starts. Providing great tactile feedback gives clear direction and makes a review meaningful. To take it a step further, share your intent, and get the reviewee to prepare for the review following the same guidelines.

At Entelect, we are all about staying true to our core values through our performance reviews. Through being open & honest and building meaningful relationships during reviews means that relationships set us apart. By providing clear actionable feedback, we ensure that for those within our organisation, growth isn’t optional.

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