Performance reviews: The art of feedback

In a period of uncertainty, timing is critical. The middle of a lockdown, for example, might not be the best time to assess performance.

Performance reviews, difficult at the best of times, pose a distinct challenge for organisations adapting to the "new normal" of a pandemic. Two workplace experts offer advice about how to navigate performance reviews in a time of change.

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Despite its reputation as a “necessary evil”, the performance appraisal is a valuable tool for organisations seeking to boost productivity and embed culture and values. “Employees want feedback. People want to know what’s working and what’s not working,” says workplace expert Michelle Gibbings, author of Career Leap: How to Reinvent and Liberate Your Career.

Feedback that is relevant, meaningful and delivered well increases employee engagement, she says. On the flip side, a mismanaged performance review process can be “incredibly demotivating”.

In a period of uncertainty, timing is critical. The middle of a lockdown, for example, might not be the best time to assess performance, Gibbings observes. “At the same time, that doesn’t remove the need for accountability,” she says. Don’t deny feedback. Instead, approach feedback conversations with sensitivity in an atmosphere of trust and psychological safety.

Shifting goalposts

The economic landscape changed drastically in 2020. Many people may find it impossible to meet employment targets and goals established in a pre-pandemic setting. Before the performance review process begins, says Gibbings, ask, “are KPIs still relevant and meaningful – and fair – at this point in time?” Agree on any changes to assessment criteria, and allow both parties time to prepare for the conversation’s new scope. 

Be clear about purpose. Ascertain what it is the organisation wants to achieve from the performance evaluation process. “Is the performance review tied to bonuses and remuneration? Or is it purely a feedback session?”, asks Gibbings. “Different organisations have different objectives.”

Consider the logistics of a virtual performance appraisal – until now, unfamiliar territory for many organisations.  Addressing logistical issues ahead of time will foster the frank and open exchange required to facilitate a “focused, healthy and robust conversation”, says Gibbings.

Well before the review, ensure both parties are able to find a space that is quiet and distraction-free for the conversation’s duration. Troubleshoot technology well in advance, too.

“There’s nothing harder than trying to have a conversation when the person on the other end has poor bandwidth,” says Gibbings. If a dodgy connection precludes the use of Zoom or Skype, “a phone call might be better”, she says. “Work out which options work best for both parties.”

How to deliver negative feedback

There are several factors to consider in cases of poor performance. How critical is the person’s role? What is the risk if things go wrong? Has the problem arisen recently – during the pandemic – or is it a pre-existing issue?

Then “get curious”, says Gibbings. Seek to understand the reasons behind shifts in an individual’s behaviour and offer support to help address any problems.

No one should hear bad news for the first time in a performance review. “If you have a long-standing performance issue, my question is, why have you waited until now to raise it?”, says Gibbings, who recommends delivering critical feedback in the moment. “It’s incumbent on the leader to give constant feedback. The more you do that, the easier it becomes to do performance reviews.”

Management expert Mark LeBusque says feedback should be honest and timely. “I’ve heard horror stories where an employee gets to a performance review and a manager brings up an issue that happened three months ago,” he says.

Schedule regular formal check-ins – LeBusque suggests monthly – interspersed with informal feedback conversations throughout the year. “You collect and create evidence as you go, so you’re not scrambling at the end,” he says.

Dos and don'ts of performance reviews

DO
Approach the performance evaluation process with empathy. Acknowledge that the pandemic and subsequent recession are major sources of stress that will have an inevitable impact on performance. “Let people know that there is a level of leniency here,” says Mark LeBusque.

DON’T
Cancel. When a manager cancels a performance review at the last minute, “all it says to the employee is ‘you don’t matter’,” says Michelle Gibbings. If cancellation is unavoidable, don’t delegate the task of rescheduling to an assistant – “call yourself and explain why”, she says.

DO
Be specific. Leaders often come to the conversation unprepared and offer general observations, says Gibbings. It’s vital to provide concrete examples to clearly illustrate what the employee is doing right or how they can improve. “The employee wants clarity,” she says.

DON’T
Be distracted – often a challenge when we’re working from home, especially when children and pets are in the picture. Be present, says LeBusque. “Don’t scroll through messages while you’re talking to someone on Zoom.”

DO
Give an employee time to process difficult feedback. “Have a couple of conversations,” says Gibbings. After an initial discussion, allow an employee time to reflect before reconvening later for another conversation. “The intent should be to motivate and encourage the employee to either keep doing really well… or to understand that there are concrete ways for them to improve and that you, as their leader, are there to support them.”

DON’T
End the conversation with “keep up the good work”, says LeBusque. Finish on a positive note of understanding – ask, “Are you clear about what we spoke about?”, he says. “A good manager will say, ‘I’ll give you 24 hours to process, and then come back to me with any questions’.”

Read next: 5 steps to a better performance review


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