How good are you at performance reviews?

The reality is that in many cases the evidence used during performance reviews is weak and lacks substance, writes Keith McCarthy.

“Susan has delivered on all of the competencies expected of her to a high standard.” Well done and keep it up for next year!

This feedback is, in some cases, more detailed than what a lot of staff members get as part of their performance reviews. The intended positive reinforcement is lacking detail, integrity and any indication that the manager has engaged in a proactive reflection on the performance of this staff member. This may seem harsh, but the reality is that in many cases the evidence used during performance reviews is weak and lacks substance.

Keith McCarthy
Keith McCarthy

Performance management is now a way of life and is becoming an even more increasing part of the organisation psyche. The argument always is that performance management is a process, not an event. It operates as a continuous cycle throughout the year. The formal pit stop in many cases is the annual review or performance appraisal; the dedicated time to stop, reflect, converse, review and plan. The quality of these reviews can vary, depending on the engagement of the staff member and line manager in the process.

Without casting stones at all managers, some can find performance appraisals or reviews time consuming and challenging. The benefits, however, can be rewarding, engaging and motivating for both the staff member and the manager. Those organisations who engage in performance reviews will all too often get a varied and mixed response to the question of value. I for one, will argue in favour of these processes, but they must be delivered in an effective and coherent way that stimulates both parties, and not forgetting the organisation either.

The reality is that many managers enter performance reviews ill-prepared and without the evidence required to concretely help with the dissemination of feedback

Line managers exercise strong influence over the level of discretion that an individual has over how they do their job. This encourages the kind of discretionary behaviour from employees that is associated with higher performance. To effect this line managers need to:

  • build a good working relationship with their staff – they need to lead, listen, ask, communicate, be fair, respond to suggestions and deal with problems
  • help and support employees to take more responsibility for how they do their jobs through providing coaching and guidance
  • build effective teams.

Many of the qualities and skills associated with higher quality line management are pivotal on the behaviours of the line managers during the performance review. Line managers have a distinguished opportunity to develop the three areas listed above. The challenge for managers is to convey quality feedback, both positive and constructive, in a way that protects and builds the relationship with the staff member and at the same time is supportive.

The feedback being given must always be based on evidence i.e. what evidence is required to show that this person has a strength in a particular area or a development need in another. If you were being challenged to stand over the feedback being given about a staff member could you do it? This might seem quite simple but the reality is that many managers enter performance reviews ill-prepared and without the evidence required to concretely help with the dissemination of feedback. The result is weak statements like that at the beginning of the article.

The evidence should be easily gathered and quantified if a manager has visibility of the staff member. Some examples of key areas to look at might be:

  • Project delivery
  • Delivery of agreed goals
  • Team work
  • Service user feedback
  • Proactivity
  • Communication
  • Leadership
  • Initiative
  • Reliability
  • Flexibility

This may seem like a short list of competencies and perhaps it is. Some will be lucky enough to have competency profiles and structures readily available in their organisation. Even without competency profiles, managers should know what competencies or qualities are required in order for a staff member at that grade/profession to be able to carry out their job adequately.

Even without competency profiles, managers should know what competencies or qualities are required in order for a staff member at that grade/profession to be able to carry out their job adequately

Taking one competency or area listed above, follow these simple steps to transform evidence into quality feedback:

  1. List one or two examples where the staff member has done well over the last 12 months under that heading.
  2. Describe what they delivered and how you knew it was done well (feedback).
  3. Outline what additional strengths/qualities helped them to deliver it.
  4. Identify how this could be beneficial going forward.

Think of the value this would bring if you were getting three or four examples delivered to you in this way at a performance review. Positive reinforcement of positive outcomes.

On the other hand perhaps, the evidence suggests that the person has a development need in a particular area and you need to give examples where the person has not delivered. The process is very similar:

  1. List one or two examples where the staff member has not done so well over the last 12 months under that heading.
  2. Describe where the gap is and how you knew it was not done well (feedback/experience).
  3. Outline how an improvement in these strengths/qualities would help with delivery in the future and discuss how this might be achieved.
  4. Identify how this could be beneficial going forward.

The examples given must be as specific as possible, relevant to the individual and critical to the role. This overall process is not complex, but does take time and a little effort.

Some other points to remember about performance reviews:

  1. Appropriate time should be allocated by the manager and staff member to the process.
  2. One hour for the 12 month review/planning discussions and 30 minutes for the 6 month discussion is often recommended.
  3. Preparation is important prior to both discussions, gather the evidence by thinking of examples under each of the relevant headings.
  4. Forms are only support documents, don’t let them get in the way of quality discussions.

Working with client organisations gives me the opportunity to observe and hear the feedback on performance management practices. The majority of staff members engaged in performance reviews want evidence. They want to be told what they are doing well and not doing well. Managers need to step up to the plate and provide this with evidence. Will it be challenging, absolutely, but the benefits, I believe, will pay multiple dividends.

Keith McCarthy
Management Consultant
shrc limited