A Practical Guide to Performance Reviews

Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, Alaska; photo by the author

In my last post, I stated that many managers struggle to write and give good performance reviews. I also shared that, in my opinion, the purpose of performance reviews is to help employees to recognize their best behaviors, as well as those behaviors that would benefit from refinement. No one needs a performance review to know whether or not they’re achieving quota, but gaining insight into which behaviors may be influencing quota achievement (for better and for worse) can be incredibly valuable.

Over the years I’ve developed a preferred approach to writing and giving performance reviews, which I’m sharing in this post. This isn’t meant to be a checklist — critical thinking absolutely is required — but hopefully it will help to make this often-challenging task a bit easier.

Frequency of Reviews

At some companies, annual performance reviews are mandated, and frustratingly for every manager that works at such a company, the policy usually is to do them all at the same time of the year (“it’s performance review season”). Quarterly performance reviews are less common, and often conflated with goal-setting. Probably the most common policy regarding the frequency of performance reviews is the lack of any policy at all.

I do performance reviews on an as-needed basis but no less than once every 18 months. I’ve found three advantages to this approach:

  • Because there’s no set schedule, you aren’t overwhelmed by having to do every performance review in a single month or quarter.
  • You aren’t obligated to do a performance review just because the calendar says so; equally, you can do one whenever necessary or helpful. And, you can set your direct reports’ expectations accordingly.
  • The approach offers built-in protection against too much time passing in between performance reviews; realistically speaking, everyone benefits from receiving formal feedback at least every 18 months.

Writing Reviews

I like to keep performance reviews to one double-sided page. I start with a one-paragraph summary of the review (the purpose of which is to orient the reader, not to serve as a TLDR version), followed by three strengths and three areas for improvement. I rarely find it necessary to write more than two pages. Occasionally I include only two strengths or areas for improvement, but always at least as many strengths as areas for improvement.

Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when writing reviews. When reviewing my own first drafts, I invariably find that I’ve failed to follow at least one of them. Become your own best editor!

  • Common advice is that nothing in the review (positive or not) should come as a surprise to the person being reviewed. For example, a direct report shouldn’t learn that you think he or she has an attitude problem by reading it in a review. At the same time, I strive to give reviews to which people respond, “I’ve never thought about X in way Y before.” Look for opportunities to challenge your direct reports like this.
  • Describe skills and behaviors you want, not ones you don’t want. As a simple example, consider timeliness. If the person being reviewed struggles with joining meetings or completing assignments on time, write about the importance of “being on time” rather than “not being late.” In addition to this being a more positive message, the behavioral changes that are required are more easily recognized.
  • Be specific; don’t say things like “work smarter” or “be more strategic,” which can mean anything and are almost never actionable. An easy way to accomplish this is to describe what success looks like. If you find that this isn’t easy, you may want to reconsider whether or not your expectations are as clear as you think they are.
  • No one is all-knowing, so don’t write as if you are. Don’t profess to know why someone is or isn’t behaving in a certain way. As a manager, it’s your prerogative to make connections and draw conclusions, but it’s important to acknowledge that you may be wrong and that other explanations may exist. For example, there’s a big difference between “your aversion to conflict is responsible for this situation” and “your aversion to conflict may be partially responsible for this situation.”
  • Don’t compare the person being reviewed to other members of the team. This is a discussion of an individual’s strengths and areas for improvement, not a stack ranking. Making such comparisons or engaging in conversations about them encourages zero-sum thinking and a kind of competitiveness that’s detrimental to culture.
  • While you may view this as just one of many reviews you have to write, the person being reviewed isn’t going to see it that way. This is their life. Yes, it’s professional, but it’s also personal. So, be sure your writing clearly communicates how much you care about them personally—especially if the review isn’t a positive one.

Delivering Reviews

I always give performance reviews in person. I bring two printed copies of the review to the meeting—one for the person being reviewed and one for me. This is how I manage the meeting:

  • I suggest that we read the entire review separately, after which we can go through it together point by point.
  • I encourage the person being reviewed to circle or underline anything that stands out or is confusing. Similarly, I annotate my copy with talking points or details that I want to further emphasize.
  • After both of us have finished reading the review, I paraphrase the summary. If it’s a positive review, I emphasize that fact; if it’s a less positive review, I use the opportunity to express optimism that we can work together to address the areas for improvement.
  • I step through each strength, talking about how and why I feel the skill or behavior is helping to deliver good results. I share ideas for how the person being reviewed can do more of this good thing. I’ve often observed that people tend to want to skip straight to the areas for improvement; don’t do that or rush through the strengths!
  • After discussing the strengths, I step through each area for improvement. I ask the person being reviewed questions about his or her interpretation of what I’ve written, both to ensure it’s understood as intended but also as a jumping-off point for collaborating on an improvement plan.
  • Once we’ve reached the end of the review, I ask the person being reviewed if he or she feels that anything was missed, or over- or under-emphasized. If I’ve made a mistake, I want to correct it.

Performance reviews are a serious and important undertaking, so remember to treat them accordingly. Close your laptop and silence your phone. Make eye contact, practice active listening, and ask open-ended questions. This is a fantastic opportunity to help push your direct report’s career forward—be sure to make the most of it.

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Chief Customer Officer at Brightflag. I write about issues relevant to and situations faced by SaaS companies as they scale.

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Kevin Cohn

Kevin Cohn

Chief Customer Officer at Brightflag. I write about issues relevant to and situations faced by SaaS companies as they scale.

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