How to Review a Human Part 1 of 4: The Pre-Flight Check-in
Organizations, big and small, are shifting to real-time performance management. The promise of a culture where employees know where they stand with their manager and where the difficult conversations are embraced instead of avoided is an ambitious goal.
In that context, it’s up to each organization to decide whether to keep or eliminate annual performance reviews. Some of our clients are, others aren’t. There are compelling arguments for and against each option. In the end, it has far more to do with what happens in those review conversations — what they feel like from the perspective of the employee — that really matters.
In short: How do you make a performance review humane? It starts and ends by remembering that you are talking to a vulnerable human being, who has chosen to put their trust in you, as their manager, and your organization as a whole. It’s incumbent upon people managers to get it right.
It’s that element of vulnerable leadership that we’ll start with today as we kick-off this four-part series by asking a question: How can you show up as a manager in those review conversations in a way that sets the right tone of personal care, directness and, most importantly, vulnerability?
For our clients who embrace the annual and, in many cases, mid-year review, that’s where we start. We advise people managers to start each of their reviews with a bit of self-reflection and self-assessment. By following these steps you’ll go a long way to create the conditions for a productive conversation where there’s no need for defensiveness, which is a significant obstacle to growth.
Step 1: Your review starts before the performance review meeting.
A good writer will tell you to spend as much time on the title of your blog post as you do on the content. The same guideline applies for each review conversation. If you expect to spend 45 minutes in a meeting reviewing a half-year’s worth of someone’s performance, you should spend at least that amount of time thinking about what you’re going to say and how you will say it. Block out time for yourself to step back, consider the last six months, using these questions as your guide:
The most important contribution they made to the team so far this year was that they _____________________. Specifically, they make our team better by ____________________.
The area where they’ve shown significant improvement over the past six months is in ____________________. That has impacted our growth as an organization by ________________.
Based on my observations and feedback from the team, the development theme I’m noticing is ________________________. Working on this this theme might look like _______________________________. Specifically, they’re making things more difficult, for their teammates, and themselves, by not putting enough attention on ___________________.
Zooming out from the line items we’re going to talk about in the upcoming meeting, if the second half of the year went roughly the same, I would say they had a __________ year and, as a result, I’d probably recommend __________________.
Step 2: Take stock of your contribution.
If you’re serious about developing as a leader, you have to accept that your development areas have an impact on the performance of your team. This doesn’t mean you should beat yourself up, simply that if you want to grow, the mature approach is to focus on what you missed and how you can be more aware of it in the future. When you step into the review meeting, it’s all about your employee or direct report and how you can help them grow.
Here are some thought-starters you can use to prompt self-reflection:
Knowing myself as I do, the thing I did that made it challenging for them to be at their best so far this year was __________________. Specifically, that makes it difficult for them day-to-day because it means they had to ________________________. As I think about the future, one thing I can do on a daily basis to to be more aware and change this behavior is to ________________________.
As I reflect on the feedback I’ve given so far about their performance, the truth is that I haven’t done enough in real-time to highlight when they ___________________. It doesn’t mean they’re off the hook for improving. Part of the reason they’re struggling with ______________ is because I haven’t set clear enough expectations about what I need that’s different than the way they’ve been approaching it.
Thinking about the team, and organization as a whole, the thing about the way we work that is making it challenging for them to consistently show up as the best version of themselves is _______________.
Do you notice how even reading these questions starts to expand your awareness? Your perspective shifts when you consider the larger factors at play, the ones that are difficult to notice in the middle of the fast-paced day.
The highest value of a formal periodic review is that it’s an opportunity for you to have a considerable and direct impact on how your employees hear the messages and move forward in their growth journey.
Next week in Part 2 of the series, we’ll go into the room together. We’ll walk you through, step-by-step, how to take the answers you came up with above and create an agenda for the review conversation that has one goal in mind: turning this person’s next review into a celebration.
PS — In Part 3, we’ll talk about how to have performance reviews with your top performers. And in Part 4, we’ll talk about how to hand the work of improvement over to the individual, so they become self-accountable for whatever it is they are working on changing.