The Right Way to Give a Year-End Review

By Steve Axelrod
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Up and down the chain of command, year-end performance reviews fill people with dread or with resentment, and very rarely with joy. Both the givers and the receivers spend a lot of time on the reviews, yet they generally see them as an empty exercise. After all the procedural T’s are crossed and the I’s dotted, it takes people skills to get a real return on investment from this important, labor-intensive process. Leaders need to set an example by turning a ritual into a productive effort.

This column addresses giving a review. In a subsequent article I’ll tackle how to get the most out of receiving a review. Both articles aim to challenge you to shift your focus to the emotional experience on both sides of the table, and to increase the payback from year-end reviews by developing some key psychological skills.

The organizational barriers to having productive year-end reviews can be formidable. The tight link between reviews and compensation discourages openness and honesty. Managers at all levels may think as much about their organization’s needs as about individual performance when they do the reviews. For example, interdepartmental rivalries can force a kind of uniformity on your reviews as you try to do the best you can for your people in terms of compensation. If your organization’s culture discourages open and honest feedback (“we don’t do warm and fuzzy”), you may feel constrained to just focus on the numbers. Anything else might make you feel like an outlier and make your direct report feel singled out and anxious.

But even in an unfavorable organizational environment there are things you can control to get more from the process. By better understanding the experience on a gut emotional level and working on some key psychological skills, you can create a more useful experience and become a better leader in the process.

Ideally, the year-end review is all about the employee’s development. As a leader committed to optimal performance, you understand the importance of the fit between an employee’s skills, talents, and career goals and his or her organizational role. When you know how best to connect the arc of individual development with the direction of your organization, you form a partnership for growth with the employee. This partnership depends on candid feedback on the individual’s performance, your identification of personal and organizational barriers to better performance and your ongoing availability to help remove those barriers.

Managers commonly get derailed from the ideal developmental focus in year-end reviews by their own personal psychological challenges. It happens in these ways:

–Conflict avoidance: A fear of conflict can lead you to avoid difficult–and also meaningful–performance discussions with your subordinates. That fear of conflict can arise from deep-seated personal issues, a lack of skills for managing conflict or both.

–Need for approval: A strong need for approval often goes hand in hand with conflict avoidance. Managers approach their roles as a vehicle for acceptance and admiration more often than is commonly acknowledged. If you seek affirmation from your employees, even unconsciously, you may be sacrificing longer-term development and performance in favor of short-term comfort and acceptance. At the same time, your inability to put your own needs aside makes it difficult to earn subordinates’ trust and respect.

–Mistrust: Your overall mistrust of people and their motives may make you think that employees don’t want to hear corrective feedback, can’t take it in and won’t use it constructively. If you have a high level of mistrust, you may be convinced that people in general are incapable of changing, are motivated by fear and learn only by being punished.

–Lack of self-awareness: An inability to acknowledge your own motives and goals for the year-end review can mean mixed messages for your employees, sabotaging the process. For example, by denying your own negative feelings toward a subordinate, you may force the review into a developmental framework that’s frustrating for both you and the employee, who really needs to be managed out of the organization. At the other extreme, you could be hijacked by your own feelings of disappointment or envy and end up attacking an employee.

Work on the following core psychological skills and you will increase the benefit you and your employees get from the reviews you must give this year:

–Empathy: I take empathy to mean an accurate understanding of another’s emotional experience. Empathy toward your employees starts with your reviewing your own experiences receiving feedback. It always pays to be able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Be guided by an understanding that people generally overestimate their own performance. We humans are hard-wired to maintain a positive self-image, and we tend to reject painful criticism. Your empathy increases when you deliberately seek to grasp what motivates people, what career goals are most important to them, what kind of standards they set for themselves and how they react to not living up to those standards. Empathy will enable you to craft each review message in a way that motivates each person to grow.

–Trustworthiness: Without trust, the year-end review is dead on arrival. The effective review depends on trust; it is also a prime opportunity to build trust. Work on your trustworthiness to make the review process more productive for all concerned. Do you consistently have your employees’ best interests in mind? Do you follow through on your commitments to facilitate their development? Will you act in ways that go beyond your self-interest? Take time to look in the mirror and consider whether others see you as trustworthy.

–Self-knowledge: It isn’t easy to keep your own personal likes and dislikes out of your objective assessment of someone else’s work, achievements or failures. You need to be scrupulously honest with yourself, confronting your own needs, motives and biases whenever you approach your employees. Take the time to reflect on your own experience receiving reviews to guide you to a better understanding of your strengths and weaknesses in the process. When you have strong personal feelings about an employee, you may want to consult trusted colleagues to get a different perspective.

Going at the year-end performance review ritual with a fresh psychological perspective is a quick way to increase your payback from all the hours you will spend writing, reviewing and delivering important information. This year, acknowledge the strong emotions reviews elicit in you, as the giver, and in each person who receives the formal feedback. Develop your own empathy, trustworthiness and self-knowledge to enable yourself to strike a better balance between the evaluative and developmental aspects of the review. Your skill in laying out a path for better performance, identifying the employee’s core barriers to achieving his or her performance goals and providing ongoing assistance will enable you to both get the most from year-end reviews and grow as an authentic leader.