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10 Expert Tips for Stellar Performance Reviews

Best practices from leaders at Webflow, Shopify, Fellow (and more!) on how to prepare and share feedback during your performance reviews.

By Fellow.app  •   November 26, 2020  •   11 min read

When conducted properly, performance reviews can be a valuable tool to drive growth and continuous improvement across your team. If you’re looking for tips to make the most out of these important meetings, this #ManagerChats recap is for you.

We asked a panel of management and leadership experts to share their advice for the upcoming performance review season. Here are our top 10 takeaways:

Tips for effective performance reviews

1 Explain the benefits of performance reviews to your direct reports

The first step to run an effective performance review is to have a conversation with your team about the benefits and purpose of this process.

Whether it is through an email or at your weekly team meeting, make sure to let your team know that the purpose of performance reviews is to reflect on the past year, celebrate what went well, and think about potential areas of improvement.

As Jason Wong, Founder at JWong Works mentioned during our chat, the two main benefits of performance reviews are reflection and future alignment for both the manager and the direct report:

“It’s not uncommon to get bogged down in the day to day, and it’s always hard to recognize something when you’re in it. Taking some time to reflect on the journey can help refill our buckets and satisfy our core need to feel a sense of progress.”

Before scheduling your performance conversations, make sure to tell your team that this process is meant to help them grow and develop. As Kameron Jenkins, Content and SEO Lead at Shopify Retail said, it’s important to emphasize that this is an opportunity to talk about challenges, concerns, and goals for the future.

“Emphasize that it’s *for them.* For their professional growth and can also be the catalyst for promotions/raises in some cases. It’s also a two-way conversation, so it can serve as a time where they can get performance-related concerns off their chest as well.”

2 Prepare in advance

The words you say during a performance review can carry a lot of weight, and impact your teammate’s overall career. That’s why you should always book a specific time to prepare for these conversations ahead of time, and spend (at least) a couple of hours thinking about each person’s review.

If you feel that you haven’t had enough time to prepare, David Hoang, Director of Design at Webflow, recommends pushing back the meeting and letting your direct report know that you want to give this conversation the full attention it deserves:

“There is no worst feeling than your manager not spending time on your reviews. It’s the number one way to lose trust. Make sure you invest in the appropriate time to review all notes (including previous reviews) and synthesize it.”

One of the most common mistakes managers make is not spending enough time preparing for their team’s performance reviews. When asked about this topic, Matthew J. Yazzie, Director of Diversity and Inclusion Programs at Women 2.0, shared the following 4-step preparation framework:

1. Review objectives from previous performance review.

2. Reflect on past accomplishments and growth opportunities.

3. Familiarize myself with team / department goals. Make notes on how this relates to direct report.

4. Create “mad libs” format as opposed to Q&A structure.

3 Make it a two-way conversation

In order to have an effective and impactful performance review, your direct report should also come prepared with talking points and specific goals that they’d like to discuss. Some things you can ask employees to prepare in advance include:

  • Wins and accomplishments they feel proud of
  • Areas of improvement and things they’d like to work on
  • Goals for the upcoming year

According to Melissa Hui, founder at Context Leap, self-reflection and collaboration are key components of stellar performance reviews:

“Preparing for reviews, I encourage time to reflect and review what’s happened since the last cycle, understand what a direct report would like to accomplish (e.g. promotion), work together to gather feedback and wins, co-design a strategy to build a case.”

Jada Balster, VP of Marketing at Workfront, emphasized the importance of asking employees to come prepared with specific items and areas of improvement that they’d like to discuss at the performance review:

“I find it really important to have the employee do a self-review first. Rather than sitting & waiting for feedback, the conversation is richer if they have done some self-reflection in advance. After that focus in on growth & development”

4 Track your direct report’s accomplishments

Recency bias is a common problem in performance reviews. This occurs when managers share feedback based on the employee’s most recent performance, instead of thinking about projects and accomplishments that took place throughout the year.

As Jason Wong argued during our chat, waiting until the end of the year to try to remember all the things your team did is usually a bad idea!

“I like to keep a live document for each report where I record their achievements when they happen. So when I see that they shipped a big project or helped a co-worker, I write it down,” said Jason. “So, when the end of the year comes, my work is already done for me.”

Alexandra Sunderland, Engineering Manager at Fellow.app, suggests creating a shared stream or document to write all the great things that your team does over the course of the year (from demos, to great code reviews, to major launches):

“They write the things they’re proud of that I might not have noticed. It can be easier to write your accomplishments for me to see than it is to outright bring them up, and this way I don’t miss out on anything amazing they’re doing! This makes performance feedback more fair, because I’m not forgetting everything they’ve done.”

Tracking your direct reports’ accomplishments, as well as the constructive feedback you share with them throughout the year will save you a lot of time, while making your performance reviews much more effective.

Never forget what was discussed

Show your direct reports that you care by remembering what they said during past meetings. With Fellow, you can see a history of every 1-on-1 conversation you’ve had and ensure that you’re staying focused on important decisions and action items.

One on One Meeting Tool

5 Be specific with your feedback

As a manager, performance reviews are an excellent opportunity to talk about areas for improvement. But what can you do to ensure that the feedback you share with your teammates is helpful and beneficial in the long-term? According to Kameron Jenkins, it’s essential to provide your direct reports with specific examples of the behaviour and processes you want to improve.

“Be specific. Nothing worse than vague-negative feedback,” said Kameron. “I also try to tie this to a strength (if they’re pacing slow, it could be because they’re very thorough, so I can acknowledge that while still calling out the need to speed up).”

Apart from making your feedback specific, it’s important to focus on one or two key areas for growth (instead of trying to address several things at a time). As Mariah Driver, Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Webflow said during our chat, it’s important to avoid overwhelming the other person with a lot of constructive criticism:

“Constructive feedback is crucial in performance reviews, but remember that the goal of performance reviews is not to unload *every* piece of feedback on your report. The goal is to improve their performance and chances of success.”

6 Schedule dedicated follow-ups

What happens after the performance review is just as important as the conversation that takes place that day, but most managers fail to have a follow-up plan. If you want your performance reviews to be effective, our management experts recommend following up on your direct report’s goals during your one-on-one meetings.

How often should you follow-up on the goals and takeaways that come out of your performance review? David Hoang recommends checking in monthly, during a “development one-on-one meeting”:

“We often follow up in our next development 1:1 (monthly) in order to give them time to propose a roadmap. Career development is the direct report’s responsibility and manager’s responsibility to enable opportunities.”

One important thing to note is that you shouldn’t wait for performance reviews to share feedback with your employees. As Suzi Archer, Head of People & Talent at My Clever Group mentioned during the chat, this should happen weekly or biweekly (depending on your one-on-one meeting frequency):

“If you use performance reviews as the sole opportunity to give feedback/praise from a year gone by, it’s too late. Recognise, celebrate & give feedback in the moment and then reflect on these in your reviews. Keeping notes & recording actions in your 1-on-1s will help!”

Last but not least, remember to congratulate and praise your direct report as soon as you see an improvement in their performance or behaviour!

“If there was constructive feedback, I follow up as soon as there’s noticeable improvement to encourage people to keep going,” said Alexandra Sunderland. “Otherwise, we check in on goals at a cadence that makes sense for the size of the goal.

7 Check your own biases

One common challenge with annual evaluations is that they tend to be subjective, which opens the door to gender bias. This is an important topic that Lisa Magill, Co-founder & CEO at Aleria, brought up during our conversation:

“Several studies point to performance reviews being riddled with gender bias. So before delivering feedback, check your own biases. Also consider, is this personality-based feedback? One study analyzed over 200 performance reviews and found that, compared to men, women received feedback that was less likely to be tied to business outcomes and was also more vague and challenging to implement.”

If you want to mitigate bias in your performance reviews, Mariah Driver recommends the following best practices:

“- Learn about how unconscious bias impacts performance reviews.

– Ground feedback in observable (objective) actions/behaviors, not (subjective) perceptions.

Underrepresented groups have to prove their competence more than others. In your reviews, play “devil’s advocate” to mitigate bias.”

8 Use this as an opportunity to understand your team’s strengths

As a manager, performance reviews can be a powerful tool to understand what motivates each one of your direct reports. Every person on your team is going to have different goals and areas of improvement, which means you’ll have to adapt your management and communication style in each case. However, this also means that you can leverage your team’s strengths to make sure that they are complementing each other.

“This is where you as a manager and leader can look at the team’s collective strength. Someone’s Delegate [an area they’re not very interested in] might be someone else’s area to amplify. Career development is a team sport,” said David Hoang.

If you’d like to learn more about your team’s strengths and get a clear understanding of how people are collaborating with each other, it might be a good idea to collect 360-degree feedback from your direct reports’ close collaborators.

“Communication is the heartbeat of any successful team,” said América Turner, Operations Manager at DoubleUp. “360’s in a startup could have a huge impact on your company goals. Keep it candid, simple process, and remind your team what the real goal is GROWTH.”

9 Focus on growth, not critiques

Instead of spending most of the time talking what went wrong, it’s important to use performance reviews as an opportunity to create an employee development plan. As Lisa Magill said during our chat:

“Focusing on growth rather than just past performance can drive a healthier, more sustainable culture.”

One best practice you can adopt when talking about your direct report’s growth is celebrating the processes that took place in order for them to get there. According to Scott Dust, Chief Research Officer at Cloverleaf, focusing on the process (instead of solely the results) will encourage your direct reports to repeat this positive behaviour:

“Don’t celebrate the wins or accomplishments. Celebrate the *process* that allowed those accomplishments to happen. Sometimes the end result is truly out of their hands. Focus on the process, not results.”

10 Get help from your fellow managers

Last but not least, remember you’re not going through the performance review process alone. There are many managers and leaders preparing for this important season, and it’s important for you to rely on them to get advice and feedback on how you plan to hold these conversations.

“Don’t do it in a vacuum,” said Jason Wong. “If there isn’t any scaffolding around getting managers together to help each other with performance reviews, I highly recommend you create it. If not, reach out to your friends in your network to help out. Whether it’s editing the written review or role playing the conversation, there’s a lot to be gained by collaborating with someone else.”

If you’d like to join a community of managers and leaders who are constantly learning and working on their craft, the Manager TL;DR newsletter might be a good place to start!

Thanks for taking the time to give this a read and don’t forget to share with a friend or a colleague who could benefit! 

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