Leadership Matters: Writing Reviews That Actually Improve Performance

businessman in tie holding pen and gesturing to a report while colleague reviews
Dale S. Rose, Ph.D. Photo
Leadership Coach/Co-Founder
3D Group

4 minutes

Focus on clear, personalized feedback and more appropriate timing during the review process.

Virtually every leader dreads giving (and receiving) performance reviews. There are always too many to complete, they take too long, and assuming there is software involved, the software is always too clunky or over-simplified. Worst of all, when employees receive the feedback, they are often unhappy with the result—possibly to the point of completely ignoring the details. So, why bother?

That kind of thinking got about 6% of companies to experiment with abandoning performance reviews altogether around 2014. There was a burst of press about the idea that made it sound cool and smart, because many of these firms were well-known and no one in management particularly liked doing reviews in the first place. However, even those of us who are math-challenged will notice that 94% of companies continue to give annual reviews to employees. Why? Simply put, the traditional performance review process is alive and well because such reviews provide: 1) documentation of poor performance for legal defense, 2) a simple way to allocate rewards based on performance, and 3) a regular time for managers to provide guidance to employees on how to improve.

The first two of these reasons exclusively benefit the company, but feedback for improvement is quite valuable for employees and managers alike. Unfortunately, helping employees is where performance management falls most flat. 3D Group’s research suggests less than half of employees agree with the statement, “My last performance evaluation helped me improve.”

Making Performance Feedback More Valuable

The trendy idea of eliminating performance ratings did not change the face of performance reviews, but it did do a great job of highlighting the need to make the process more useful. So, how can performance feedback be made more valuable to employees and managers?

There are two areas most ripe for making feedback more valuable. First, the message can be made more clear, more relevant and more personalized. Virtually all feedback systems allow managers to write open-ended comments. Unfortunately, these comments often leave a lot to be desired. 3D Group’s research has shown only about 25% of open-ended feedback is of high quality.

To be most useful, written feedback should be specific and timely and include examples. For instance, instead of writing “Communication could be much better,” a manager should give the feedback specificity, such as “Emails tend to be too long, and response time on emails is often two days when it should be fewer than 24 hours.” Additionally, it helps to provide an example. Add to the feedback a statement like “For example, last month I asked for an update on our most important account on a Monday morning and I didn’t get a response from you until lunchtime on Wednesday.”  This kind of detail allows an employee to understand the problem well senough to correct it.

The second area ready for improvement is the process and timing for giving and receiving feedback. Too often, performance reviews are completed as a moment in time with no follow up. Effective feedback allows managers to follow up with employees when they repeat the behavior. In the above example, you can imagine a future email reply to the effect of “Thanks for the update, but as I mentioned in our review, this information took too long to receive—I need these kinds of replies in under 24 hours.” Notice a critical feature of this example is the feedback lives beyond a single annual event. Good feedback sets the stage for a productive ongoing manager-employee dialogue to align performance with expectations.

Probably the most overlooked opportunity for improving performance reviews is to provide positive feedback when employees are doing well in some aspect of their job. A good review provides a balanced reflection of an employee’s performance—letting them know what they are doing well is arguably even more important than corrective feedback. It is quite difficult to get someone to succeed only by telling them what they did wrong; they also need to know what behaviors to continue or to build on.

The same principles of specificity, timeliness examples apply when giving encouraging feedback. For instance, a manager might say “You have excelled at building a talent pipeline on your team of motivated high-potential employees, such as Jamahl, Dani and Helen. This will be extremely valuable as our organization expands.” Even this feedback can be followed by a related comment for improvement that opens the door to ongoing dialogue. The manager might add something like: “I worry some of the incredible talent may be stagnant with nowhere to go in your department—let’s discuss opportunities for them in other parts of the company, so we can leverage the talent you’ve built.” Again, this example illustrates how good feedback creates dialogue around performance and expectations well into the future.

If you do it right, the performance management process prompts ongoing conversations and further informal feedback that help employees know where they stand, where they contribute value and how they can modify their behavior and actions to be even more effective. Smart organizations realize they need to evaluate performance regularly, and for that reason, performance management is here to stay. So, rather than putting in a half effort on your next set of reviews just to get them done, take it upon yourself to make the feedback valuable for you and your employees.

Dale Rose, Ph.D., co-founded 3D Group in 1994 in Chicago. He is an expert in leadership development and organizational effectiveness and has authored over a dozen commercial assessments for identifying and developing talent. As an advisor to senior leaders for over 20 years, Rose brings a deep expertise in organizational and individual effectiveness to his coaching.

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