How to Review a Human

Led by Jonathan Raymond, author of Good Authority: How To Become The Leader Your Team is Waiting For, Refound is a people leadership coaching partner specializing in culture change within high-growth organizations.

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 leaders to get it right.

It’s that element of vulnerable leadership that we’ll start with: 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 leaders 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.

Part 1: The Pre-Flight Check-in

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.

Part 2: Leaders Go First

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?

Part 3: From Star to Supernova

Most organizations spend a majority of attention and energy in the review cycle on average or low performers. They’re easier to evaluate. You’ve heard complaints or seen obvious patterns in performance or behavior that need improvement and feedback can be pretty straightforward.

Given the high potential for bruised egos and defensiveness, it’s natural to spend more time preparing for those conversations. While this is going on, who is focusing on the needs of your top performers and high potentials? Are they hearing the messages and getting what they need from their mid-year review conversations?

It turns out that by skipping or under-investing in conversations with your top performers, you’re missing an opportunity for growth that can have a profound effect on those individuals and the organization as a whole. High performers often understand their value and will seek new opportunities if they feel they are not getting the right amount of care and investment from their managers and organization.

You may be thinking, a top performer doesn’t need as much from a review. All they are interested in, to put it bluntly, are raises and promotions that feel like they match the performance. Don’t be mistaken, that’s only part of the story, and less than half of the opportunity.

It’s only part of the story because while it’s true they are interested in the financial and career development elements of their review, they put a premium on seeing the impact of their contribution and hearing specific ways their contribution is valued. If you don’t get the conversation to that place, you’re missing out on tapping into one thing that star performers value even more: a path to becoming a better version of themselves. Isn’t that how they became a top performer in the first place?

If you assume they are already showing up as their best self, you’re missing an opportunity to see the potential in the human sitting in front of you; an ambitious, motivated learner who craves to be pushed through thoughtful coaching and mentoring. Top performers, by definition, don’t rest with or even strive for good enough. They want more. They need you, the leader of their team, to present an opportunity they haven’t noticed.

Here’s a step-by-step guide for transforming a review conversation for a top performer into an experience that leads to growth.

Part 4: Give the Review Away

One of the most important elements of any review conversation is what happens afterwards. Whether it was a conversation about compensation or caring, a difficult conversation or a celebratory one, most reviews die the moment they’re over. It’s partly because of the setup: an over-engineered process and a lack of preparation and compassion around the message delivery. And then there’s another reason.

The typical review lacks the most important step: moving the conversation to a place where the individual has taken personal ownership and accountability around the messages.

A review that doesn’t lead to positive behavioral change is a waste of time. Similar to any other goal — be it around fitness, finances, or relationships — positive behavioral change happens over time and through sustained effort. In the context of people leadership, even if your employee agrees with the performance messages, that change will only occur because of one factor: who owns the need for change?

Below is a list of questions you can ask to spark personal accountability. They focus on shifting the review conversation to a dialogue. Now additional clarity and new insights can emerge around what specifically needs to change and what that change will look like. The tactics for how they’re going to do it come last.

The most effective way to accomplish this, much like the  pre-flight check-in, is to break up the performance message delivery from the follow-up conversation. As you’re wrapping up the performance review conversation, start the process of handing it over, counterintuitively, by not ending the conversation. Here’s how.

Learn to give feedback that empowers your team through accountability and deep personal ownership.

Our self-guided online courses in the Refound Academy are designed for individuals or large groups to quickly build leadership, alignment, feedback and accountability skills.

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