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The Key to Better Performance Reviews

It’s that time of year again. Virtually nobody likes them:

Performance reviews.

Managers dislike reviews because they force difficult conversations. Employees don’t like reviews because they rarely seem to accurately capture their annual contributions. Companies don’t like them because they take tons of time.

And of course, there’s often money (or lack thereof) thrown into the mix, complicating it even further.

Every year, I get a few emails (mostly from managers) asking a version of this question:

"What can I do to make this conversation go easier?"

I do my best to help, but by the time that question is being asked, it’s often too late. On the contrary, actions taken six months prior could have resulted in a much better outcome.

Regardless of what you’ve done before, if you’re walking into a challenging review this year (either one you’re giving or receiving) here are seven steps to ensure you position others — and yourself — for the best performance going forward:

1. Identify Opportunities

Opportunities for improvement come from five different sources:

  • You identify an opportunity for another person

  • You identify an opportunity for yourself

  • A customer, vendor, or outsider identifies an opportunity

  • You identify new skills needed within your team

  • A situation creates an opportunity

Whether you’re giving or receiving the review, you want to come to the table with opportunities to enhance your skills. Top contributors are always growing and demonstrating how to get better for the organization, the customer, and their own careers.

2. Picture the Desired Outcome

Once the opportunity is identified, pinpoint what the situation will look like when the gap is filled. This is the step that many people skip or don’t develop fully, which can lead to confusion, misunderstanding, and frustration.

The number one source of all conflict (including review time) is unclear expectations. You can greatly reduce unnecessary conflict by getting very clear on exactly what the outcome should be.

People with a clear vision of the end result tend to move in that direction more quickly than those without.

If you’re receiving a review and a successful outcome for the future isn’t apparent, create the first version of it yourself and get it back into the hands of your manager. Get buy-in by asking, “Is this an accurate picture of the outcome we’re looking for?”

3. Establish the Right Attitude

We often hear that people resist change. It isn’t true. People resist being changed when they either don’t see the need, don’t want to do it, or believe that the change is not possible for them. Whenever people are asked to change without their buy-in, it creates resistance.

One of the best ways you can get buy-in is through using Dale Carnegie’s human relations principles consistently in your communications (get the full list here). Find 1-2 principles that resonate with you and start using them more consistently.

4. Provide the Resources

In order for performance to improve, the appropriate resources must be available. This includes time and, most importantly, a personal commitment to succeed by all involved.

Other resources may include money, equipment, training, information, and management buy-in and support. Ensure that the appropriate resources are in place and available. Nothing is as frustrating as being promised something and then not getting it.

If you’re challenging someone to improve a skill, ask yourself if you’re providing the resources they need, or at least explaining why you can’t provide something. If you’re being asked to perform in a new area, assess the resources you think you’ll need and, if it’s not clear you’ll have access to them, be sure to ask.

5. Practice & Skill Development

Once the resources are in place and the correct skill set has been identified, explained, and demonstrated, it is now time for the person to practice and apply what has been learned. In order for knowledge to evolve into a skill we practice it and perfect the skill with the help of a coach, ensuring that we are practicing the new skill and not the old habit.

This is the time when regular conversation should be happening about initial performance and whether you’re on the right track. Failure to engage with someone when they are not on track leaves the incorrect assumption that things are fine.

I worked for a company early in my career that had this guiding rule about performance reviews:

No surprises at review time.

If performance didn’t meet expectations, it was assumed that conversation was happening regularly to resolve the issue. If not, it was the manager who was frowned upon, not the employee.

6. Reinforce Progress

Making progress is one thing, but without a way to reinforce it and keep it in place people may quickly go back to the way they did things before. One of the biggest fallacies leaders hold to is the assumption that if people know something, they will do it. People don’t do what they know; they do what they have always done.

Dale Carnegie said, “Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.”

If your own development is the focus, come back to the original outcomes document discussed in step two and seek feedback on alignment with the established goals. If you can’t get it, ask for input from a trusted colleagues or mentor on where they see your performance relative to the stated outcomes.

7. Reward

One of the best ways to cement growth and progress is to reward it. What we reward gets repeated. What gets repeated becomes habit.

Change can be uncomfortable. That is why people often revert back to their former ways quickly if reinforcement and reward are not there. Habit is stronger than knowledge.

Rewards aren’t just financial. They can also include:

  • Praise and recognition

  • Positive feedback techniques

  • Recognizing people’s strengths as well as accomplishments

  • Need more? Here’s five ways to recognize people and how to motivate beyond the pocketbook.

Your Turn

If you’ll make a consistent effort to follow these steps in performance management and coaching, you’ll see vastly better results in the reviews you provide for others — and also in your own review.

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