Following up from my last post on goal setting and lightweight performance reviews, I wanted to add some information on the importance of using these tools as a way to motivate your team.

I don’t know about you, but I typically dread reviews.  Why?  Well because mostly they are filled with all the critical or negative feedback on things that I could be going better. Yes, that stuff is important, but I work damn hard, and it is nice to hear some praise now and again.

My feelings toward reviews (dread, anger, frustration, fear, etc.) has made me change the way I do reviews, to make them more motivational and to make the conversations productive, but also inspirational and useful for the employee.

There are a couple of things that hit this home for me: (1) no one wants to do a bad job, and (2) critical feedback is best delivered right away to have the most impact.  So if you are doing (2), and you believe (1), then making the reviews focus on what the employee is doing well makes a whole lot of sense.

Here is a list of key things to consider the next time you do reviews (so hopefully your team doesn’t end up feeling the way I do about my reviews!):

More positive than negative.  There are definitely reasons to put constructive feedback in any review, just make sure you spend as much time and energy (if not more) on the things the employee did really well.  Try to focus on the things that they are best at and coach them to apply those skills and talents to other tasks.  This will empower your teammate and hopefully give them ideas on how to leverage their strengths better.

Make sure that all negative feedback is associated with specific constructive things to do to address it going forward.  To me, this is one of the most important things you can do as a manager.  Anyone can point out what is wrong in an organization, or a person’s results/performance, but where you can add value is suggesting alternatives to improve or address the feedback.  If the issue is communication on a project, have some ideas on ways the person could have done better – perhaps regular status mails, or more detailed updates in scrum/standup.  This will hopefully inspire the person to achieve more and give them some ideas on how to do it (since it is likely if they already knew how, they would have done it in the first place).

Is the info in the review/feedback accurate?  This is an important one.  Sometimes what you think happened, isn’t reality. Make sure you ask questions, or if you aren’t sure, cover this orally instead of in writing.  One thing you can always focus on is the results (since those should be apparent), but be open to having a dialogue as to why the results weren’t up to par instead of just assuming.  I like to create a list of questions to ask, and start with a sentence like “The outcome of this project wasn’t what we had hoped, as it was several weeks late and then had some bugs after launch.  What do you think we could have done better to ensure this didn’t happen?”. Ask the questions then listen.  This allows you to check your facts.  Then work with with the person to come up with things *they* could do to improve the outcomes.

Constructive feedback needs to happen outside of the review process.  As I mentioned above, make sure that you are giving feedback all the time.  Sometimes managers don’t have enough insight into what is happening to do this well.  In these cases, you can probably leverage your regular 1:1 meetings better by asking questions about people’s peers or what could be doing better or improved.  These sorts of questions can help you recognize problems quicker and then hopefully address them.  Feedback is much more effective the closer it is given to the event, and is even better if the person has time for rectify the behavior before it is an issue.  If you are doing this regularly, then when it comes time to do reviews you can focus on their improvements and accomplishments (which is more motivating and positive for everyone – yay!).

Set clear expectations.  Another big part of reviews is that people need to know, and understand, what is expected.  When I was first starting out in my career I wanted to get the top review score, like an A in class.  However my manager could never seem to articulate how to do that or what it meant.  This was always super frustrating to me, so I try and make sure that everyone has goals and that they are updated regularly.  By doing this it helps people understand what is expected of them day to day.

What does it take to move between different ratings?  How does someone do more than they did?  Therefore, I always try to tell people what it means to meet expectations (doing your job well, which is all the tasks assigned to you – essentially that is what you get paid to do), exceed (when you do more than your assigned tasks and it has an impact on the team, product, customer, revenue, etc), and outstanding (when you exceed and it has a very substantial business impact).  Also we sometimes talk about projects or accomplishments in the context and what could have been done differently to meet these goals.  Make sure you use specific examples, including those of people around you – it helps show others how to excel.   Admittedly, this is much harder to do when reviews are relative and people are graded on a bell curve like bigger companies tend to do.

Start and end on a positive note.  I like to always start the conversation with something really positive, and then end by saying thank you and reiterating what went well.  I think this sets the tone for the conversation and the rest of the employee’s day.

When in doubt round up.  I know this isn’t always possible in companies, but numbers/ratings are free and only motivate people when they are praised for good work.

Hope that helps!  Please leave a comment if you agree/disagree or have other tips; I know many people who think about reviews differently and I would love to keep improving my approach.