How to Review a Human Part 2 of 4: Leaders Go First

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In part one of the series, we explored the possibilities around how your mindset and self-reflection can help set up impactful performance review conversations. By expanding your awareness to bigger picture themes — theirs and yours — you’ve taken an important step to make sure the review stays positive. Here’s the key for today: There’s no reason for a review conversation to be or feel negative, even if what you need to discuss includes performance misses.

Framing a review conversation as an opportunity for growth is part of a larger mindset shift required to grow as a people leader. It’s about learning to see accountability and personal growth as a positive component of your team and company culture. Said another way, while the conversation may not always feel comfortable it can always feel productive.

The key to establishing that reframe is to go first. Meaning, given that you have the choice between talking about their performance issues or yours, as the leader, why not go first?

Here’s a conversation opener:

Hi, so we’re here to walk through your mid-year performance review.. As you can imagine, some of it is great, other areas there’s room for improvement. Before we dive in, I want talk about my role in how the year has gone so far. What I mean is, before I share the details of your review, I want to share a few things that are my responsibility — ways that I’ve made it more difficult for you to be your best.”

Can you imagine if your boss started with this conversation in your next meeting? If they owned their part in things before pointing out yours. If they proactively owned that they hadn’t been clear on certain expectations? If they owned that they have been stepping on your toes without realizing it? If they owned that they allowed you to put out too many fires that took you away from your core work, even though they knew better?

Isn’t that the transparency and candor that you’re looking for from your manager?

The transparency we want from our leaders isn’t informational transparency — it’s not more visibility to data and numbers, though that is helpful. The transparency you want, and your team wants from you, is relational transparency. They want to hear you talk from the heart about your role in things and what you plan to do to change.

Here’s the bottom line: If you own your role, you’ll have an inspired and engaged team. If you exempt yourself from the relationship and make it about their misses and their issues, you will certainly get disengagement.

The first step in an effective review conversation, one that leads to positive behavioral change, is naming the ways that you made things more difficult. This won’t come as a surprise, but your team already knows those things. Thinking psychologically, it’s worth noting that one of the best ways to undermine defensiveness is to take away the reasons for getting defensive.

A helpful guideline to follow is: If your review is scheduled to last 45 minutes, spend the first 15 minutes on this part of the conversation before transitioning to reviewing the document and communicating specific, tactical feedback. You could even schedule this as a separate pre-meeting, to create some separation between the two conversations. Use your judgment and base your decision on your relationship with this individual, the magnitude of your contribution and the level of constructive feedback in the performance review data.

During “your” portion of the meeting, take notes. Ask whether their experience of working with or for you matches the things you’re talking about. Here are some questions to guide you:

  • “Is there a specific project where you felt expectations weren’t clear enough which made things unnecessarily challenging for you?”

  • “Is there something about how you’ve experienced your work and the organization’s culture over the past six months that you would like to explore before we go into the specifics of your review?”

  • “Can you share anything I’ve left out or point to a behavior that you’d like me to work on for the rest of the year?”

Don’t expect that you’ll get answers right away, or even the real ones right away. Instead use this portion of the review to set the stage for later conversations.

Have you picked on up the pattern? Everything you’ve done so far is in service of two specific goals. First is to create the conditions for psychological safety, which is the ability to have a real and honest conversation without defensiveness or blaming. The secondary purpose is to use every review conversation as an opportunity to get clues about what you need to work on for your leadership growth journey.

Set a new standard for yourself: For every review conversation that you lead, don’t walk out of the room until you’ve learned something about your leadership style that you can improve.

Now you’re ready to go into the content of the review. There’s a ton of variation in what you might be doing in this particular review. Depending on how your review system is structured, you may be the sole source of the feedback in the report. It might be coming from others as well. If you’re in a large organization, your report may have gone to a calibration committee or some other internal process. At the level of content, it might be about compensation, a certain area of performance, or even a key project.

It’s not the content of the review that matters. What matters is the context. What matters is that you take the time to walk through each area of the review in a spirit of learning and open dialogue.

It’s safe to assume that two things are true about every section or item in the communication:

  1. Something about that piece of the review is accurate.

  2. There is another side to the story.

Since you have the authority in the relationship, giving the information can be relatively easy. Acknowledging and working with the power dynamic? That’s the hard part. That’s leadership.

Stay tuned for part three, where we’ll talk about how to make reviews meaningful for your top performers.

*Good Authority is now available in paperback. Pick up your copy here.

Jonathan Raymond