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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

4 Steps to Creating a Performance Review Process That Your Employees Won’t Hate

Utter the words “performance review”, and you’ll likely hear a collective groan echo from office wall to office wall.

Let’s face it—most employees dread the annual review process. Some view it as a fear-inducing, one-sided opportunity to be scored, corrected, and reprimanded. Others see it as nothing more than yet another conversation from which they’ll walk away with a half-hearted “Good job!” and no real information they can use to grow.

And, perhaps the greatest number of employees have a fear of the unknown—they enter their review with the gut-wrenching feeling that they’ll be tossed some sort of detrimental curveball they never saw coming.

Needless to say, this threatening perception isn’t helpful for anyone—and neuroleadership research confirms this. To break this complex concept down in super simple terms, when a “threat response” is activated in the brain, more blood is supplied to the amygdala to handle the perceived threat, which means fewer resources are available in the prefrontal cortex. In turn, this impairs analytical thinking, creative insight, and problem solving—which isn’t exactly the type of mental state you want for a review.

The good news is, there are things you can do to create an environment where the threat response isn’t activated. In fact, it’s up to you to ensure that your review process engages and motivates your employees—instead of inspiring sweaty palms, nausea, and tears.

Does that sound impossible? I promise, it’s not. I’m breaking down a few different tips and strategies we implement right here at The Muse to make our review process at least a little less cringe-worthy—and, most importantly, actually valuable.

1. Get Employee Feedback

Yes, the purpose of reviews is to pass feedback along to your team members. However, before even getting started with the process, it’s a smart idea to flip the script and gather thoughts and opinions from them about your existing reviews. What do they like about your current process? What areas do they think could use some improvement or changing?

Then, take that employee feedback and find ways to incorporate it into your review structure. For example, before our last review process at The Muse, we learned that some felt like reviews were too top-down. We took that feedback and added a self-review component, so that people had the opportunity to reflect on their own performance and contribute equally to the discussion. Being open to making changes like these will ultimately lead to an improved process for everyone, as well as drive the point home that your reviews are a collaborative effort between employees and management.

It’s also important to remember that the review process should be iterative—it’s not something you just plan to set and forget. So, post-review, make sure to check in with employees about worked well and what didn’t. If you make it evident that this process is something you’re always working to improve (with help and insights from everyone, no less), reviews will instantly become inherently less terrifying and threatening. The entire system becomes that much more approachable.

2. Foster an Open and Honest Culture

Those curveballs I mentioned above? They’re every employee’s worst nightmare. So, while a review is your opportunity to provide frank feedback, you definitely shouldn’t use it as your chance to bombard a team member with all sorts of unpleasant surprises.

A surefire way to avoid that scenario is by encouraging an open and honest culture at all times—not just review time. Reviews will always be less painful when they serve as a summary of previous conversations and one-on-one meetings. They should be an opportunity to set goals, make tweaks, and suggest improvements based on things that have already been discussed.

This isn’t your chance to pile on all of your complaints and grievances from the past six months or year—after all, nobody will respond well to that sort of approach. Think of this as your new golden rule: Employees should always know where they stand.

3. Encourage a Conversation

When most people picture a review, they likely imagine sitting across a large table from a manager, being read a long laundry list of things they need to work on immediately if they don’t want to risk being shown the door. But, you and I both know that’s not how we want things to play out. Instead, a review should be an engaging and productive conversation that leads to improved results for everyone involved.

The best way to encourage this dynamic is by turning the tables a little bit and putting yourself in the hot seat. Ask the employee what you as a manager can do better. What further things can you do to help support his or her growth? What might you do to make your employee’s life easier?

Doing this accomplishes a couple of productive things. First, it illustrates that you’re aiming to have a beneficial back-and-forth—not a one-sided conversation. Secondly, it shows that you’re truly invested in this employee’s success. His or her performance reflects directly back on you as a manager, and you want to do everything you can to help him perform at his highest level—even if that means making improvements on your end.

Another tactic to initiate a collaborative discussion is to have the employee set out his or her own goals during the review. Rather than just dishing out objectives and success metrics for the coming months, you both can work together to come up with these targets. (Bonus: Research shows that when employees participate in creating their own goals, they’re more likely to achieve them.)

Making sure that you involve your team members in the process makes it clear that you’re both working toward the very same end goal: Continued growth and success for that employee and the business.

4. Use Solutions-Focused Feedback

Despite what employees might initially imagine, you know that reviews are not your window of opportunity to completely pick apart someone’s performance. On the contrary—they’re actually your chance to reinforce someone’s strengths and help them grow for the future. In fact, research by Gallup shows that performance is greatest when you focus on employee strengths, not on weaknesses.

This means you need to keep all review feedback focused on strengths and solutions, rather than problems and weaknesses. It’s not enough to simply point out areas that he or she needs to work on. Instead, that piece of critique should serve as the launchpad for a continued discussion about actual methods and tactics that employee can use to take steps forward.

Here at The Muse, each employee has a unique form with dimensions and competencies specific for his or her role. For each dimension, we expand on two areas: "What you do well" and "Where we want to see you grow in the coming months". Those areas for growth might be improving on a weakness, or it may even be making a strength even stronger. Either way, we always start with recognizing and highlighting the positive and then facilitating growth through a solutions-focused mindset.

Performance review time is usually enough to inspire an overwhelming sense of dread among your employees. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. Implement these tips and strategies, and you’ll make your review process a little less painful for everyone. No, people might never whip out the confetti and their happy dances when review time rolls around. But, at least they won’t cower under their desks in fear either.

Photo courtesy of Westend61/Getty Images.