Giving your team feedback, especially negative, can be daunting. You may want to skip employee performance reviews altogether, citing lack of time, or delay them until the last possible moment as the dread builds up.
Understandably so. It’s hard to maintain a balance between discussing what needs to be addressed, and not demoralizing your colleagues, while being mindful of the employer-employee power dynamic.
In the past, I shied away from giving my team constructive criticism. Instead of feedback, I would give them requests like, “Hey, can you do this instead?” without any context or reasoning why. Or, I would take the job they started and polish it off myself so they didn’t even know anything needed to be changed.
I’ve since learned the best results come from a place of understanding. Your team needs to know why they’re doing what they’re doing to be able to add their own unique insights and processes to their roles.
I’m a firm believer in hiring people who are smarter than you. As a manager, your only job then is to equip them with what they need to succeed.
In this article, I’ll go over the differences between casual feedback and structured performance reviews, the benefits of regular employee feedback, and provide a script and questions you can use to get started.
Casual feedback vs. structured performance reviews
I’m a fan of fast feedback. It helps you course-correct immediately instead of following a formal process while the problem or misunderstanding compounds.
Fast feedback is more casual and should be integrated into your everyday work process.
Some examples of fast feedback include:
- When a writer sends in a draft for review and you leave comments where needed in the Google Doc, then an overview (“Great work on this one, but I noticed…”) in the project management tool.
- When your development agency misunderstands your request and you send a message in Slack or Jira to explain further (“Here’s a Loom video of what I meant. Can you share what I said in the ticket request that caused the confusion?”).
- When you have a weekly sync where your design team presents their latest website wireframes and you give live feedback (“The purpose of this webpage is to…. Knowing that, I’m concerned this design is…”).
Although immediate feedback is important and has its place, it may not be enough to address larger issues.
The examples above could all be easily fixed within another work cycle however you choose to measure it — another draft, another sprint, another round of revisions, etc.
However, fast feedback isn’t enough.
Three main benefits of structured feedback
Structured feedback in the form or regular performance reviews can help in three big ways.
1) Surface and address large underlying issues
There are issues that are more pressing and will have an overarching effect on an individual’s quality of work as a whole, and likely the entire team performance.
For example, someone lacks a fundamental understanding of the company, product, or purpose and is unwilling to learn. Picture a product marketer who doesn’t understand their audience. This shortcoming will affect all of their work and lead to a trickle-down effect for everyone else whom their work impacts.
2) Optimize for compounding benefits
Alternatively, you could face issues that are the opposite — they’re minor enough to ignore day to day and project to project, but addressing them would have compounding effects. For example, you could save a few minutes each work cycle, documentation gets incrementally better, etc.
Say someone has a habit of leaving a Trello card in the wrong column despite repeated reminders. It hasn’t confused anyone to the point of mistakes yet, and it’s easy enough to fix yourself. This might be something you spend a few seconds adjusting daily, rather than half an hour discussing it with the team member responsible — but that half an hour of feedback (and possibly more training) could remove the task of fixing their Trello card placement from your busy to-do list.
Scheduled and structured employee performance reviews are useful to address larger issues that require a longer discussion, and to find opportunities to optimize your team and processes.
3) Recognize and reward your team
Finally, my favorite benefit of performance reviews is you can spotlight what your team is doing well. These are great opportunities to discuss promotions, raises, rewards, future career goals, and more.
Use your performance reviews to learn more about your employees and how you can help them get to where they want to be. Are they comfortable where they are as a cornerstone of your team? Do they want to be a star player that lands the big promotions? Are they interested in learning new skills or trying out different roles?
As a manager, you’re (hopefully) empowered to support your team in their goals. And I encourage you to take every opportunity to do so! It pays off — a happy and fulfilled team makes for a well-performing team.
Performance review and feedback cadence
I hate meetings.
A few years ago, I would have ended the article there. But I regretfully must admit, meetings do have merit, especially for managers.
A strong team has multiple communication touchpoints. I don’t advocate for daily standups, but I do find daily Slack updates useful. For example, I send a few clients a bullet list of updates in Slack a few times per week. They’re segmented into the following sections:
- Up next
- For your review
- Waiting on
Daily asynchronous communication is the answer to keeping a fast-moving startup on the same page and documenting all communications.
However, when it comes to virtual meetings, including longer employee performance reviews, I prefer the following cadence:
- Weekly syncs with individual core team members
- Bi-weekly syncs with contractors
- Monthly check-ins with team members and contractors who operate well independently*
- Monthly full-team check-ins
- Quarterly team goal-setting
- Quarterly team-building events
- Semesterly manager feedback
- Annual employee performance reviews
*I know someone is ready for this cadence when our regular syncs turn into updates from them, questions from me, answers from them, and no clarifications or adjustments are needed. Or, when our syncs don’t discuss anything new that we didn’t already cover in Slack.
To sum up, most companies conduct big performance reviews once a year.
I’ve also seen them occur at different intervals based on when someone joins a company (for example, at their three-month and one-year mark). The advantage of this is you don’t have to hold multiple reviews in the same month; you just have to keep track of when each team member’s review is coming up.
I’ve played with quarterly reviews for more recent feedback (although my quarterly client survey usually ends up being semesterly).
In the end, it comes down to what works for you and your team. The most important part is you do it regularly to keep the flywheel going.
Employee performance review best practices
Now let’s talk about the actual employee performance review and providing feedback. Here are some best practices that can facilitate smooth, successful, and stress-free reviews.
1) Give them the highlights beforehand
Write down your feedback, then give your employee a few days to sit with it and gather their responses and resources to bring to the review. At the very least, provide a bulleted list of what you’d like to discuss beforehand.
They shouldn’t be going into the meeting without knowing what to expect or how to prepare.
2) Kick off by setting expectations
In the review itself, set the stage and explain your motives, process, and desired results. This will help them relax at the beginning of the review, and ideally set them up to be more receptive to your subsequent feedback.
3) Clarify your motivation
Giving negative feedback isn’t meant to sabotage anyone’s career or give you an excuse to fire someone. It’s a tool to improve how you all work together as a team, which will help the individual as well.
Make this intent clear right from the start to put your team member at ease so they’ll listen more attentively instead of worrying about their job security. This also helps prevent them from becoming combative or defensive, because you clarify the benefits of feedback.
4) Set a time limit
Stick to one hour for your performance reviews. You get diminishing returns the longer you sit in a meeting going over the same things.
The concept of diminishing returns is that you get less ROI the longer sometime goes. For example, you can get 80% of your work done in the first 4 hours of work, and then slog through the remaining 20% in the last 4 hours of work.
If there’s more to discuss, or you weren’t able to finish your review, schedule another meeting after both parties have had some time to rest and process what was said.
5) End on a positive note
Although it’s important your negative feedback is heard and retained, your team members are more likely to remember their performance reviews positively if you close with encouragement, thanks to the peak-end rule in psychology.
I suggest sandwiching negative feedback between praise.
6) Track progress
Performance reviews are useless unless they actually contribute to improving performance. After each performance review, regularly check on the action items that came out of the meeting. At the beginning of your next review, open with highlights on how the items you discussed last time improved (or didn’t).
Performance review templates
I don’t want to give you a lot of advice without any idea of what execution looks like, so I’ve put together some templates and samples you can use to run more effective employee performance reviews.
Sample performance review script
Below, I’ve written a sample employee performance review script to kick off your reviews. Feel free to tweak this as you see fit. As you run more reviews with more employees, you’ll find your cadence and the wording you’re comfortable with.
Thanks again for your time today. First off, I want to set the scene for these feedback reviews and why we do them.
The purpose of this review is to improve our overall team performance, and to call out where any team member is struggling so we can figure out the best solution and course-correct.
The section on “misses” or things to improve will be more of a discussion, because it needs to be collaborative, not prescriptive, to be effective.
First, I’m going to share some things that concern me about your work and performance. Then, I’d like to hear your recap of what happened or is happening. I want to know who was involved, your thought process as things were happening, and the aftermath.
After that, we’ll brainstorm together about what I, you, and the rest of the team can do to better equip you for success so it doesn’t happen again.
Then, I’ll tell you what I plan to do moving forward, and you can let me know what you think. We’ll both come away from the conversation with action items and hopefully in our next review, this will be one of our success stories.
But first, I’m going to sandwich those harder discussions with some things you’ve been doing well. It’s good to start and end on a positive note to remind you how important your work is, and the impact you’re making.
Sample performance review feedback
Below, I’ve shared redacted quotes from a client performance review of mine. Instead of the full framework, I took a few examples of my strongest and weakest areas. This was shared prior to a virtual meeting where we went over each point.
Be Honest and Direct (10/10)
Rachel is great here as well. She is very honest and direct both internally with _____ and with our partners. She’s always willing to lend a helping hand (good example being _____) and is a true team player.
Be Curious (2/10)
This is currently the biggest challenge for Rachel, as she rarely dives into the “why”. A good example of this would be _____. She doesn’t often contribute new content ideas to the pipeline, and has not shown initiative to improve this. There are other areas where she has shown some curiosity, particularly in _____.
Content Marketing (10/10)
Rachel has excelled in content marketing. We have an excellent editorial calendar and a very scalable system in place. Our content is relevant and interesting to sellers, and we have been able to acquire quite a few merchants through our content efforts.
Product/Market Knowledge (5/10)
Rachel has struggled the most here. Occasionally, on content where we dive in depth into the product, there are some inaccuracies. A good example would be on the _____. Another example would be on an article we wrote on _____. I believe this has also affected her ability to pitch new content ideas. I’d like to see her learn more about the _____ product and how it interfaces with the different pieces of software involved, as well as learn more about sellers and what the experience is like selling _____.
Overall Metrics (19/20)
_____ has finished with well over 1,000 newsletter subscribers, and engagement remains strong. The bounce rate has increased a bit, which is why I deducted a point here.
Use this as inspiration for your own performance review metrics and framework.
Employee performance review tools
Ready to kick off your amazing employee review process? Here are a few tools that can help. I’ve personally used Lattice and 15five with my clients. The other tools in this list came from research and reviewing customer feedback.
Wrapping up — Invest in regular employee performance reviews for compounding benefits
Employee performance reviews are time-consuming, and when done well, they take up a lot of brain space. However, they’re absolutely a worthwhile investment for your team, your employees, and yourself.
Develop the managerial habit of giving good feedback both informally and in structured reviews, and you’ll see your teams improve with every check-in.