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5 ways to make performance reviews productive

(February 12, 2024 Newsletter)

It seems like it’s performance review season for many of you. As I find myself in conversation with clients about giving feedback and conducting reviews effectively, I figured I’d share some of the best practices I’ve learned over the years.

Why it matters: You have two choices as a manager, when it comes to review season – you can treat it as a formality (“paperwork,” as I’ve heard it called) or you can use each conversation as an opportunity to reflect and plan, together.

Here are five tips to improve your performance review performance (get it?):

  1. Review past reviews. Assuming the previous year’s review was documented, you should both review it when preparing for this year’s. Refresh your memories and use last year’s goals and ratings/comments as benchmarks.

  2. NO SURPRISES. I cannot emphasize this enough. There should be no criticism offered in an evaluation that you have not pointed out already. If there’s a problematic pattern or a notable incident, it’s your obligation as a manager to address it in a timely manner - do not keep a list for a formal review and dump it on the person all at once.

  3. Use the time to plan. A performance review should be the time to look ahead in two ways: personal development (skills, competencies, etc. they want to improve on), and major accomplishments they’re working towards. The former should roll up to the company’s goals and if the person suggests a direction that isn’t realistic, say so clearly (yes, even if it feels like you’re “shutting the person down”). Even constructive feedback should be framed within the “looking ahead” category, rather than the “looking back” one.

  4. Set mid-point check-ins. If you work for an organization that only does annual reviews, be the maverick manager who informally schedules periodic check-ins to make sure all goals are on track. I have clients who have made it a semi-annual, quarterly, monthly, and even a weekly habit. The choice is yours – there’s no right answer, but setting up calendar invites and attaching or linking the doc with the goals as an agenda is a great place to start.

  5. Take it outside. If you don’t have to be at your desk together or on Zoom in your usual setting, switch it up. If you live or work in the same area, have the conversation at a nearby coffeeshop. If you communicate remotely, decide that you’re both going to make the effort to sit in a different space, change your virtual backgrounds, or otherwise mark the occasion as something other than business-as-usual.

Bottom line: Ultimately, performance reviews can be a meaningless exercise or meaningful opportunity. Even without receiving instructions from HR to do so, you have the ability to initiate conversations that can help your team members grow in the months ahead.

If you think these tips will be helpful to your colleagues, not just to you, forward this email and start a conversation about implementing them together, for an extra boost across the organization.


The Coaching Corner

Some people watch the Super Bowl for the game; others for the ads. You might not be surprised that I’m fascinated by the coaches.

So this week’s Coaching Corner is a mini-tribute to Andy Reid, Head Coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. As you can see in his post-game interview with ESPN, he speaks highly of other coaches and their teams, doesn’t diss the 49ers’ strategy when it’s different from his, and reframes Travis Kelce’s mid-game hissy fit as enthusiasm.

May we all channel a little Andy Reid this week when faced with pressure and high stakes. We could all share concise insights, be gracious to our competitors, and see the best in each team member.



“Raising the resilience of your organization” by Dana Maor, Michael Park, and Brooke Waddle (McKinsey & Co). This article is a brilliant summary of four main characteristics of resilient organizations: agility, self-sufficient teams, adaptable leaders, and investments in talent and culture.


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