A Guide to Stress-Free Performance Reviews

Performance reviews don’t have to give you anxiety. Here’s how to make them easier.

Written by Sunny Betz
Published on Jul. 22, 2021
A Guide to Stress-Free Performance Reviews

For managers, reviews are a key tool for measuring how your team has grown. It’s also an opportunity for employees to discover how to improve their performance. However, it can also be scary. Getting feedback about yourself is intimidating, and it’s easy to spiral beforehand thinking about worst-case scenarios. But reviews can be anxiety-inducing for managers, too.

“I’ve definitely experienced stress associated with performance reviews in my career,” said Sarah Sheehan. As the president and co-founder of Bravely, a New York-based digital workplace coaching platform, Sheehan has conducted many performance reviews across her entire company. But like many other managers, she’s found that providing employees with constructive feedback while also pushing them to grow can be a huge challenge. 

A big part of being a good manager is making your employees feel comfortable and supported. Some might worry that feedback could be interpreted the wrong way, taken too personally or sound too harsh. This pressure can make the review process overwhelming.

How To Have Performance Reviews

  • Provide regular feedback
  • Celebrate successes
  • Set up a meeting structure
  • Figure out new goals
  • Remove roadblocks

Saving feedback for formal performance reviews won’t set your team up for success. According to a recent Deloitte survey, companies that regularly recognize the achievement and work of their employees will be 14 percent more productive than companies that don’t. The most effective way to make the reviews process less stressful is to simply be consistently transparent, according to Sheehan.

“What I have found is that the more transparent you are about the process and the more frequent and consistent you are in holding performance conversations, the easier it is for everyone,” she said. “To conduct a successful [reviews] process, commitment to transparency, clear steps and clarity around what is expected are the only ingredients you need.”

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Provide Feedback Consistently

Don’t leave your direct reports in the dark — surprising someone with unexpected feedback can feel like an ambush. The best move is to recognize and discuss how each person is performing throughout the year.

“Performance should be an ongoing conversation, instead of a twice or yearly event,” said Ed Wesley, VP of People at Los Angeles-based web hosting company DreamHost. “Team members should never have to wait six or even 12 months to learn where they stand.” 

Maintaining a regular schedule to go over feedback and expectations will result in more effective reviews. If you work through issues in real-time when they arise, they won’t pile up and cause bigger problems down the road. Then you’ll have more time to talk about their future growth and help your direct reports set goals for themselves.

“Team members should never have to wait six or even 12 months to learn where they stand.” 

“Creating a culture of growth helps employees develop a desire to learn and cultivate skills, focusing on the characteristics that will help them be successful,” said Kweli Washington, COO at Philadelphia-based analytics and brand activation platform Piano. “This growth must be understood in real time with daily coaching, weekly one-on-one meetings and in more formalized discussions around employees’ strengths and weaknesses.”

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Develop a Structure

The major difference between a casual check-in and a performance review is that the latter, by nature, is more structured and formal. When you prepare for a performance review, plan an outline for the conversation. There are a variety of performance review templates that incorporate professional goals, self-assessments and peer reviews into their structures. Templates are a great starting point which you can adapt to more accurately reflect your team. 

“We encourage looking back only to gain what can be learned to enhance future performance, not to give a grade.”

“Much like at the beginning of a class, a professor gives a syllabus that lays out how to succeed in class, we do the same,” said Wesley. At DreamHost, performance reviews follow a three-step process: First it assesses how employees execute their essential role functions, then how their goals and performance align with the company’s goals. At the end, Wesley turns the focus towards the future and maps out a path forward with his employees. 

All of this information is stored in a shared document, which his teammates can refer back to — this ensures that performance can be an ongoing conversation, not a one-time discussion, Wesley said. 

“We encourage looking back only to gain what can be learned to enhance future performance, not to give a grade,” he said.

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Highlight Impact

It’s rewarding to see that your work has an impact on the company. So bring those metrics to the review and celebrate those wins. Plus, it’ll signal what your direct reports should continue to do. 

“Tying individual performance to organizational results and outcomes can be a great motivator,” said Washington. “This is easiest to illustrate when it comes to direct revenue-driving functions, like the impact of sales and business development teams on revenue.” 

If you run an engineering or software development team, make sure you can bring examples of successful code or market impact measurements to illustrate the ways their work has added value to the tech industry. 

“Tying individual performance to organizational results and outcomes can be a great motivator.”

Quotas, revenue statements and site rankings are benchmarks for different teams to measure their successes or shortcomings, but hard data isn’t the only way to evaluate your employees’ progress. Make sure there’s space to talk about time management, team engagement, creative growth and other attributes that can’t be measured with dollar signs.

“The majority of the conversation should focus on results that can be quantified while also allowing for discussion about progress of soft and leadership skills,” Sheehan said.

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Set Goals

“The part of feedback that often gets missed is the conversation about what comes next,” said Sheehan. “Performance reviews provide the opportunity to help individuals reflect back on their accomplishments and also think about areas that they want to focus on and improve to get to the next level in their careers.” 

If you’re clear about expectations moving forward, you can transform performance reviews into an opportunity for professional development. Take time during your reviews to help employees set personal goals that are informed by their past progress and centered around their long-term career aspirations. 

“Using future development as the lens through which feedback is delivered is a great way to help employees get comfortable with hearing where they still need to improve,” Sheehan said.

 

Ask Your Employees for Feedback

Your employee’s performance should be the focus of the review process, but it’s also important to regularly ask for feedback from your team. Your performance is linked to theirs, and as a manager you play a big role in coaching their growth and productivity. 

“[It] comes down to the culture a leader has created at their organization and within their specific team,” said Washington. He said that company leaders are responsible for fostering a supportive and productive work environment — if they aren’t doing their best, they can’t expect their employees to either.

“These conversations require a lot of vulnerability on the part of the manager.”

If possible, dedicate space in your performance reviews to ask what you should continue doing, and what you should stop doing. It’s a learning experience that will help you understand your team’s different communication and work styles, as well as your own areas for improvement.

“These conversations require a lot of vulnerability on the part of the manager,” said Sheehan. “They should be willing to hear feedback about where they may have fallen short in supporting an employee and hold themselves accountable.” 

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Practice Empathy

The fear around making a mistake can often make it difficult to receive feedback. It’s crucial to give constructive criticism at an appropriate time and never let it veer into harsh criticism. That won’t help your employees learn. Think about what could be going wrong: Is there just too much on their plate? Was there poor planning? Maybe miscommunication? Don’t jump to discipline or solve the problem for them. Find out what the obstacles are and figure out the answer together. 

When the pandemic began, Washington from Piano said it opened his eyes — it taught him that personal and professional can’t be fully separate. Staying productive meant recognizing the humanity of his teammates and learning how to support them in ways that go beyond the office. 

“Lead with empathy, and [approach performance reviews] with openness and honesty."

“In our performance reviews, we work hard to empower managers to see their employees as whole people and support them in their growth, while realizing that the challenges of the past year may have impacted their work,” he said.

Remember where you once started. Start your performance reviews from a place of empathy and understanding. You’ll show your employees they can trust you, and they’ll be able to process feedback knowing you have their best interests at heart.

“Lead with empathy, and [approach performance reviews] with openness and honesty,” said Sheehan. “We can’t help people figure out the path forward without a deep understanding of what is getting in the way or holding them back from reaching their goals.”

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