"The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism." ~Norman Peale

"How you measure the performance of your managers directly affects the way they act." ~Gustave Flaubert

Performance reviews are among the most nerve-racking and uncomfortable exchanges in most organizations. Even when they are all positive and “fluffy” they are still terribly awkward for both parties. And this is the crux of where mistakes get made.

Because performance reviews are uncomfortable and awkward, they are susceptible to mistakes that increase awkwardness and ineffectiveness from people who usually wouldn’t find themselves making those mistakes. Given enough mistakes it can render this vital exercise a liability to the performance of the employee instead of an asset. Below is the list of the 10 biggest mistakes leaders make when conducting performance review. Look to avoid these the next time you are due to give a review:

Not doing them – The first mistake organizations and leaders make is not having a performance review at all. Because performance reviews are uncomfortable, many organizations and leaders avoid them entirely. This misses one of the best opportunities to improve performance and develop employees. When considering this I always keep in mind that most things that really improve operations take a lot of effort, performance reviews are no different. They open the dialogue between employees and management and set a baseline for performance expectations. If you’re concerned about conducting them, just look at the remainder of this list and you’ll be warned against the worst mistakes.

Too vague – Have you ever received feedback from a boss like, “I need you to be better at _____?” Of course you have. Did you get better? Well it depends on what “better” meant, and that’s the problem. If you want to affect behavior and performance you need to get specific. You need to have specific things that employee did right, you need specific things that the employee did wrong, and you need hyper specific goals. If you get all of these things ready ahead of time it is much easier to discuss them.

Everything is great until it’s not – Too many times performance reviews are little “love fests” where everyone is told that they are doing great in all areas, and are rated “Meets Expectations” and “Exceeds Expectations” on all of the bubbles on the form. Yet two months later, all of a sudden the employee finds themselves midway through the progressive discipline process and facing being let go. The time to address these issues was two-months ago and the leader did their employee a horrible disservice by avoiding the topic and being forced to address it through another mechanism that uses the poorest forms of motivation.

“Recency” – Many performance reviews are biased towards things that happened most recently. If it’s a quarterly review, they are focused on what happened in the last month. If it’s a weekly one-on-one it might be biased towards what happened today or yesterday. This myopic point of view wastes all of the learning that could take place by looking at the past performance and reviewing it. Part of the reason this occurs is a lack of preparedness on the part of the leader, who doesn’t spend the extra time to look into issues that aren’t “off the top of their head” and requires them to look into past e-mails, projects, calendars, etc. If you do your homework and prepare, this phenomenon disappears.

Overly negative or positive – There needs to be balance for the message to get across, regardless of whether the employee is exceeding expectations or is falling short. Every employee has strengths and weaknesses that can be called out, only by addressing both will you get maximum productivity out of them. In an effort to make their point about negative matters, many leaders will focus on the negative and drive it home with more negative. On the flip side, the easiest thing to do is to talk solely about the positive, which lets the leader cruise through the review. Both tactics fail to properly leverage strengths to address weaknesses, which is one of the keys to moving performance forward.

No follow up – Your yearly performance review is done, so no need to worry about that for 12 months. Right? If there is no follow-up until well after the fact, then you’ve likely just wasted everyone’s time. When you hear about or see ineffective performance appraisal processes, this is likely one of the primary culprits. Even if the employee sets about to institute changes, they are likely to be somewhat ineffective given that they are not reinforced or constrained to what the leader requested.

No career development – One of the items chronically lacking from performance reviews is what the employee wants to do with their career. For the sake of the employee and the organization, one of the goals of a performance review should be to continue to develop their skills until they are ready to make greater and greater contributions to the organization. How will you know what those contributions are, and how to help get them there, if you don’t ask the employee?

No measurable goals – What does great performance look like? If there are no measurable and specifically quantifiable goals for the next review, how do you know they succeeded? And let me reiterate that we aren’t talking about goals of “better” we are talking about goals that are quantifiable in “black and white” that you can both review and both agree on next time. This is a common improvement that can be made to review programs.

Waiting for the performance review to give feedback – This is just lazy or fearful leadership. If you’re looking for excuses to not give feedback to your team, then you aren’t a remotely effective leader. Other than the obvious loss of time to improve, the other issue is that it undermines the power of the feedback. The employee will (rightfully) wonder, “If it was that important, why didn’t you mention it before.” This leaves the leader with lost performance because they didn’t address it until after the fact and undermined impact of the feedback to boot.

Not listening – Performance reviews should have a two-way street of dialogue. The employee should be allowed to explain their thought process behind their behavior and performance, as well as be able to ask clarifying questions. Great leaders foster this dialogue so that they can get the maximum amount of coaching into the session as possible. There is no reason that the dialogue shouldn’t be split 50/50 during the review as both parties look to learn and clarify.

Most people who have been in the workforce for more than a few years have run into the performance review process, and sadly, can relate to most of the mistakes listed above.

Make no mistake, conducting a performance review takes a lot of work on the part of the leader. But if you put in that work, prepare the right way, are mindful of the mistakes above, and put more work in after the fact, the performance review can be the crown jewel of your leadership skills. 

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