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A few years back, I stepped into a management position where, for the first time, I was responsible for supervising a team of six. With my MBA in hand and thorough analysis of my Myers-Briggs type, I thought it would be a breeze to manage and motivate the people I worked with.

But, while those tools did prove helpful, they didn’t totally prepare me for one of the hardest parts of being a manager: giving annual performance reviews. Turns out, managers dread them as much as employees do! Yet, despite our natural aversion, reviews are an inevitable (and important) part of the job, and a critical part of your team’s growth. So, if you’re aiming to be a superstar manager, it’s time to become as good at reviews as you possibly can.

In that spirit, here’s how to get started.

The Basics

You might be tempted to throw together your top-of-mind feedback for your employees the week before a review, but you probably already know you shouldn’t. You should treat the process as a year-long activity and put thought into it well ahead of time. Planning will help you deliver more comprehensive feedback and, when review season rolls around, there will be no surprises for you or your employees—and that’s what you should be striving for.

Start by identifying the best time of year to conduct your reviews. Find out whether your organization has a preferred schedule or process (most large companies do) and consider when your budgeting process takes place or when you have the option to hand out bonuses. If you have flexibility, you want to avoid high-volume work seasons, because the preparation and feedback process can be demanding and intense, and no one wants to do reviews during busy season.

Next, build out your yearly timeline accordingly, and communicate the timing to your employees. Nothing about a review—from the content to the timing—should ever come as a surprise.

Now, for the sake of ease, let’s say your review season will be at the end of the year, in December. Here’s what your annual schedule should look like:

January (Start of Year)

Set Goals & Expectations

At the beginning of the year, have a meeting with your employees to share your annual goals and expectations for the team. Then, meet with them individually to set their own performance goals. This not only ensures that everyone is clear on their expectations for the year, it also gives you both a clear outline to follow each time you discuss performance over the coming months.

The best way to set goals is to use the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-oriented, Time-bound) framework. (Need a primer? Get briefed on the basics here.) And remember that while goals should be specific to each person’s role, they should also be clearly aligned with the organizational goals so that employees can see how their performance affects the whole team.

After the meetings, type up the company’s goals and each employee’s goals, and put them in an email. Your employees will appreciate knowing they’re working from the same copy you are and they’ll have a clear roadmap to follow throughout the year.

March, June, and September (Every 3 Months or Monthly)

Hold Touch-Base Meetings

Managers often panic about summarizing and commenting on people’s performance during reviews, but the truth is, nothing you cover in that annual meeting should be new information. Rather, you should be tracking your employees’ goals and giving them feedback all throughout the year. Whether you’d prefer to have monthly or quarterly check-ins, pre-schedule these meetings at the beginning of the year so that they don’t get pushed to the back burner.

Before each meeting, prepare a brief agenda. You should review the employee’s annual goals, discuss the expectations you’ve outlined, and address any questions or additional assignments you have. If there are quarterly metrics or long-term project updates to review, now’s the time to do so.

You’ll also want to spend time giving each person informal feedback on his or her performance, including offering praise where due and addressing any ongoing or potential issues. (Yes, this is the tough part.) One thing I’ve found helpful is to frame comments in terms of behaviors someone should startstop, or continue: Perhaps you’d like an employee to start cc’ing you on emails to other managers, stop taking long lunch breaks, or continue to turn in projects ahead of the deadline. Make this a conversation, too, and ask each employee to share his or her own thoughts and questions.

After each of these meetings, make notes for yourself about what you discussed. Trust me—when the end of the year rolls around, you’ll be glad to have these notes to help you summarize the year and remember what you’d discussed with people in the first couple quarters.

October/November (Two Months Before Review)

Ask Your Employees to Prep

A couple of months before the actual reviews, schedule dates for official meetings with each team member. At this point, you should also ask them to begin pulling together a compilation of their annual results. Start with any official forms your company wants you to use, or create your own, asking each employee to craft a summary of his or her key job responsibilities, current project work, and a recap of goals and achievements.

It can also be helpful to have each employee complete a written self-evaluation. This not only helps employees feel like they have a say in the process, but it challenges them to take an honest look at their own work behavior, which is helpful when talking about their performance. The best self-evaluations include 6-10 open-ended questions, such as: What accomplishments are you most proud of this year? Where have you fallen short of the expectations and goals of the team or yourself? What are your areas for growth and how are you addressing them? Are there things your manager can do to further support your progress and success?

  

November (Six Weeks Before Review)

Prep Yourself as a Manager

In the meantime, you should spend the months before reviews compiling your own notes and results for each employee. Begin to gather both quantitative measures of employee performance, like sales reports, call records, and deadline reports, as well as qualitative measures, which could include feedback from clients and customers or your personal observation. Pull out those notes you took during the year in your touch-base meetings, too.

One common tool is the 360-degree review, which is based on an employee self-assessment and peer reviews, as well as superior and subordinate feedback. You can find a very simple version at HowsMyWork.com or a more extensive version at Inc.com. Don’t hesitate to adapt these templates to meet your own needs.

As you’re reviewing the results, ask yourself the following: Is this person meeting his or her goals, your expectations, and the company’s success indicators? If not, why—and can you change this? If yes—are there rewards, acknowledgements, or larger projects that you can assign to reinforce your star performers? This is where bonuses come in!

December (1 Month Before Review)

Prepare Your Documentation

Once you’ve done all of your research, it’s time to compile each employee’s self-assessment, all external feedback, and any relevant data—use this information to prepare evaluation forms, written letters explaining your feedback, and talking points for your face-to-face discussion.

First, figure out the format or structure you want to use. You have some flexibility here, but choose a structure that both feels comprehensive and will help your employee follow along. You could, for example, structure the review around the goals you set together, talking through them one at a time, or around the employee’s major projects, going project-by-project and discussing relevant goals as you go.

Then, no matter what format you decide on, you’ll want to identify both areas for affirmation and encouragement as well as any areas of concern (or, areas in which an employee can continue to grow). For each category, pick 2-3 major areas to focus on, so that your conversation will feel substantive, yet focused. Develop talking points that are supported by the data you’ve collected, then, for each point, include a summary of your future expectations and the action items related to this goal. (Employees—especially well-performing employees—hate coming out of a review feeling like they got nothing out of it, or like they’re not sure what to do next. So even in the areas where someone is doing well, you should think about next steps and future or “stretch” goals.)

With all of these resources in hand, you’ll be ready to have a meaningful conversation with each member of your team.

End of December

Hold the In-Person Review Meeting

Now, it’s time to sit down with your employees for the official review. This is the most challenging part of the process, but it’s also the most important. So, stay tuned for the next part of our series, where you’ll learn how to conduct a review—including insight about dealing with different personality types and effectively soliciting feedback.

Updated 6/19/2020