Writing Performance Reviews 101
Performance reviews are some of the most high stakes moments in management. Done well, they communicate a ton to your report: feedback on how to improve, feedback on how to leverage strengths, and firm acknowledgement that you understand the value that they add. Done poorly, they can spiral into a tailspin of disappointment, sadness, lack of appreciation, lack of understanding, and inert or missing plans for growth. Read on for tips on how to make your performance reviews fall on the happy side of the dividing line.
Rule 1: Performance Reviews Are Reviews, Not Revelations
There shouldn’t be any surprises in a performance review. If you’re managing performance and growth properly, both should be active conversations, not things to talk about once every six months. To make sure you’re on the righteous path here, have a regular - aim for at least once per month - check-in on both performance and growth for your report.
Rule 2: Make Sure Your Review Gets A Review
You might be tempted to downplay the significance of a performance assessment by thinking of it as a review instead of a revelation, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be very, very careful in delivering the right message to your report. The written content and verbal delivery of a performance review are some of the most heavily scrutinized things in all of management.
You should have your own manager review the review you’re giving. Engineers review code for something as trivial as a copy update, but the YOLOing of performance reviews is endemic in industry. Your report’s feedback, growth, and performance review are all much higher stakes and more important than a large swath of much more heavily reviewed artifacts in a software company. If nothing else, try this out – the results can be dramatic.
Rule 3: Be Specific
Imagine you’re a junior engineer and you get a review that says “Angela is a great engineer and always up for a challenge.” Problems:
If Angela is a junior engineer and is already “great”, what does growth look like? Have they already peaked?
Feedback is to either tell someone what to change or what to keep doing. “Great engineer” does none of that.
People change. You’re describing them as having invariant properties vs. describing things they’ve done. This makes it harder for people to process feedback that’s counter to these claims in the future.
So, be very specific in what you’re calling out, and give feedback around actions, not attributes. Good examples:
“Anegla showed impressive persistence in delivering her feature through several requirements changes”
“Angela is a detail-oriented code reviewer, much to the benefit of our team”
Rule 4: You Might Be Wrong
Be ready to be wrong. You can do this in two ways.
First, deliver feedback as observations and impressions, not the word of God:
Bad: “Angela doesn’t like standup”
Good: “Angela has shown up late repeatedly which makes me think she’s not prioritizing our standup”
But remember, you should be talking about review, not revelations. So, the best is:
“As Angela and I have discussed, being late to stand up causes negative impact on the team, and she has taken steps to improve punctuality.”
Second, don’t argue in real time. If people think you’re wrong, listen to their point of view and circle back in the near future. One of the most common mistakes is to try and force a point of view upon someone during the review itself. There are multiple reasons for this:
You might be wrong. If you rebut things in real time you’re not leaving space to realize you might be wrong. And even worse, you’re signalling to your report that you don’t think there’s any way you’re wrong and you don’t value their point of view.*
Half the time disagreements in performance reviews are purely emotional reactions to feedback. Arguing and forcing the issue escalates and exacerbates the situation. Forcing your viewpoint in real time doesn’t leave space for your report to process the feedback.
No matter what happens, the act of taking a break, potentially getting more feedback and information, and circling back to discuss is almost always a healthier and more productive way to get agreement. Stated another way - forcing the issue almost always only forces submission, not agreement and understanding.
*Note: the one time you do need feedback to be final and agreed upon is in a performance improvement plan. By that point, many back and forths should have passed and it’s time to state clearly what needs to change, without compromise.
Rule 5: Follow Through
Common problem: you spend all this time crafting great feedback and aligning on growth plans and places to improve, but then you go back to business as usual next week.
Translate the feedback into TODOs in your recurring performance and growth meetings. You should be providing durable and important feedback, so make sure to use it.
Performance Reviews are reviews, not revelations.
Get feedback on the reviews you write!
Give specific and useful feedback.
Be ready to be wrong. Speak in observations instead of conclusions. Don’t argue in real time.