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66% ‘strongly dissatisfied’ by annual performance reviews – insider tips to ace them (part 2 of 3)

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

This second part of the series covers my insider insights for the feedback provider, e.g. team leaders. But I promise it's an equally interesting read for team members! 😉 The first part covered tips for the feedback receiver. Should you have missed it, you can find it back here. The final part will cover alternatives for the traditional performance review.

It's that time of the year again... Shivers start rolling down the spine of many engineers and team leaders alike... It's the time of the often dreaded 'annual performance review'. 😨

Strongly disliked by 66% [1], yet still used by 80% of companies [2] ... What a great way to kick off a new year, isn't it!? 😏

But anyway, things are what they are, so let's discuss how to deal with performance reviews properly!

In the last decade, I've been both on the 'receiving end' and on the 'giving end' during the annual performance review. I failed more than a few times in absorbing the feedback from my team leader, and in giving appropriate feedback to my team members. Luckily, over the years I gained several pragmatic insights to turn annual performance reviews from TRUST DESTROYERS into TRUST ENABLERS. In this 3-part series, I will forward these insider insights to you. 💡

Alright, with that being settled, let's move on to what you can do as a feedback provider! 🏃‍♀️

Make sure the performance result is not a negative surprise for your team member

Seems like a no brainer, right? Yet many team leaders fail (or have failed) at this point, myself included! And if you do, trust is annihilated. Read on to make sure you get this right!

✅ Provide continuous feedback to your team members throughout the year, on whatever strikes you in positive or negative way.

Pro tip 💪 : during the year, keep a log with positive and negative surprises for every team member, and when feedback was given. This log will be of great help while preparing the performance review documents of your team members! Don't count on your memory, because you will definitely not remember everything that should be included.

✅ Always give negative feedback during a 1-to-1, and first listen to the perspective of your team member to validate the feedback you are about to give. Quite often, there is another side to the medal you did not yet know about!

✅ Some (OK… many!) companies are still in 'dinosaur mode', and insist that ratings should stick to a gauss curve centered around a so called 'meet' rating. So for every 'exceed', there should be an 'improve'. CrAzY, I know...!! 🤡 In case you work in such a company, make sure to enter the calibration rounds with a positive rating bias. If you don't do this, you will likely end up in a situation where some of your team members received a lower rating than they actually deserve. You really don't want to go into a feedback talk like that. It puts you to shame and it's the ultimate TRUST DESTROYER.

Be factual

✅ Do your research and make sure that whatever you are telling is based on facts, and not on things you might have overheard in the hallway or at the coffee machine. If needed, give a call to some stakeholders to collect information.

✅ Besides the WHAT, also consider the HOW. We engineers sometimes tend to overlook the HOW even though it is equally important to the WHAT. You know that one team member who generates excellent output while upsetting half the organization along the way? Don't let her or him get away with this. Output is not everything! Following matrix might come in handy to orient your thoughts on this:

✅ It helps to identify quantifiable objectives at the beginning of the year. But never assume that performance can be judged as black-and-white. There is a lot of grey in between and as a leader you need to consider the complete picture. ⚠️

Be human

Let's be honest here: engineers and empathy... not always a good match! That being said, empathy is an absolute must in modern leadership, and definitely also in building trust during performance reviews. The good news is you can get better at it over time. Following tips will help you be your better empathic self.

✅ When you schedule the conversation, call it something like '20yy feedback talk'. Avoid harsh terms like 'assessment' or 'evaluation'.

✅ Make sure to schedule sufficient time. This is one major-impact conversation that should not be rushed. One hour is often not enough, two hours will do.

✅ Sit next to each other, not opposite to each other. If you are leading a global team, or if the corona pandemic is forcing a virtual talk, at least make sure to use the camera. This allows everyone involved to capture visual communication clues.

✅ Give your team members plenty of time to talk. Listen with genuine interest. You can learn a lot from your team members, and great ideas are often just around the corner.

✅ Explicitly appreciate and encourage your team members for their achievements. 🙏


One more thing: should things still go south after applying the above tips, push the pause button during the conversation, and continue at a later moment. This buys time to reflect and gives emotions a chance to settle down. Only give the 'tough love' when all other options are depleted, and when an exit might be the best solution for all.

That concludes the second part of this series, I hope something resonated with you! If it did, please let me know in the comments below. 👇

Please also share your own insights to inspire your fellow colleagues, and to make the annual performance review more pleasant and useful for all involved! ☀️

Sources: [1] Harvard Business Review, [2] BBC

Keywords: performance review, performance appraisal, performance evaluation, performance feedback, performance assessment

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