Performance reviews: this is how to make the most of them!

Depending on circumstances, employee reviews can be either pleasant, or downright uncomfortable. In a performance review, employees and their bosses meet to discuss goals, their own points of view, and the successes and failures of (usually) the last year. The latter topic in particular can make many people – on both sides of the table – sweat. Most employees are extremely reluctant to hear that their own performance does not meet the expectations of their boss – but it is often anything but pleasant for management and team leaders to draw employees' attention to any underperformance. However, even if things haven’t been the best, an employee review doesn't have to be a cause for anxiety. If you are well prepared for a performance review, and follow a few simple rules, you can have a constructive meeting, rather than an unpleasant experience for both parties.

What is the purpose of a performance review?

Employee reviews should take place at least every twelve months, in this case in the form of annual reviews. In principle, though, they can take place at any time if one of the two sides – team leaders or employees – needs to discuss something. As a rule, the reviews must be completed by a specified deadline. But it is precisely this pressure that ensures that many participants see the feedback discussion as something to get through, rather than an opportunity.

The purpose of the performance review is usually to assess the employee's performance – but the employee usually also has the opportunity to express their needs and future plans with regard to the company. A face-to-face meeting for feedback may be an exception, but it is also usually intended to give employees a chance to address problems and disagreements. Questions such as the following are common in performance reviews: What is stopping the team from doing a better job? What problems are there in the operational process that a supervisor does not know about? How does the employee see their future in the company?

Fact

As an employee, it is not really an option to refuse to partake in an employee review. It is possible, however, not to sign your performance review if you disagree with it.

As a boss, you should certainly give criticism if it is justified – but also give positive feedback (and point out potential in your employee). What went well, what could have been better? During a performance review, managers and department heads have the chance to respond to the wishes of an employee. Whether the employees' goals are realistic and which measures they have to take in order to achieve them can also be discussed in an employee review.

Tip

If you do not conduct reviews correctly, conflicts can quickly arise. So that such problems do not get out of hand, you should resort to proven methods of conflict management instead of hoping that the conflict resolves itself.

Performance review examples

There are many different occasions for discussions between employees and boss. The contents mentioned so far play a role above all in the annual meeting or in general feedback meetings. However, even in meetings with employees on specific occasions, it is not necessary to discuss just a single topic. Employees and bosses can certainly use the discussion situation to address further issues. There are several occasions for performance reviews, here are some examples:

  • Annual meeting: An annual meeting gives bosses and employees the opportunity to talk about goals, successes, and problems.
  • Feedback: A feedback meeting may be more general, but still has room to review plans and ideas for the future.
  • Problems: If a boss notices that an employee has problems in certain areas, a discussion can help uncover the causes and find solutions.
  • Conflicts: If you notice that there are conflicts between colleagues, a discussion is the first step to defuse the situation.
  • Success: Special triumphs can also be the occasion for a discussion in which you then analyze what made this outstanding performance possible.
  • Return: An employee who has not been in the company for a long time due to illness, pregnancy, or a sabbatical can be brought up to date during an employee meeting.
  • Advancement: If an employee has ambitions to advance in the hierarchy of the company, the corresponding possibilities can be explored in dialogue.
  • Termination: If an employee has to be fired, it is a must that the boss and the employee talk about the reasons for this.
  • Resignation: No matter whether voluntarily or not ­– a final discussion helps both parties to achieve better in the future.
  • Wages: Both in the case of salary cuts or bonuses, or increases, a discussion is necessary in which the reasons for the change are discussed.

The purpose of a performance review

The conversation between employees and supervisors has many positive effects:

Opens communication

Ideally, an employee review should not only be an event that takes place once a year, but also to open or keep open the communication channel across hierarchical levels. This gives employees the feeling that they can make unscheduled contact with the supervisor should there be a need.

Increases trust and a connection

If both sides engage, a performance review can strengthen working relations. The prerequisite for this is that both approach the matter with sincerity and are prepared to talk openly.

Improved working environment

If you feel taken seriously, this also improves the mood in the company. For this effect to occur, however, it is necessary that the conversation does not only run in one direction. If the supervisor signals to their employee that the criticism of the employee is important to them, this improves the working atmosphere.

Motivates co-workers

During the performance review, supervisors also have the opportunity to provide motivating impulses. If you praise your employees for their success and show them prospects for improvement, this can have a positive effect on motivation. The willingness to perform should always be higher after an interview than before.

Connection between workers improved

A performance review ensures that you meet each other openly. The other person is perceived less in his or her position and more strongly as a person. The differences that exist with regard to responsibility and salary lose their significance for social interaction and the bond is strengthened.

Information source

It is often not clear to both sides what exactly characterizes the work of the other and which scenarios take place in the background. In conversations, the employee sometimes learns reasons for management decisions and on the other hand the boss learns what challenges the employees have to contend with.

Gives perspective

It makes sense to deal with one's own goals even before a performance review – this applies to both sides. However, an open discussion also makes it possible to identify new goals and open up new perspectives.

Enables participation

During the interview, the employee has the opportunity to contribute his or her ideas. This can either ensure that the points mentioned are implemented directly, or that the employee is given more responsibility so that they can implement the ideas themselves.

Reveals conflicts

Supervisors often do not even notice that conflicts arise among their employees. In a one-on-one interview, however, things are openly discussed that otherwise can only be noticed subliminally (if at all). By talking to different employees, the supervisor can get a comprehensive picture of the situation.

Typical examples of performance review phrasing and content

In particular, the regular annual meetings more or less follow a predefined pattern. This can be roughly divided into three phases: First, the current situation is discussed in an analysis. The next step is to plan for the future. In this phase, clear tasks for the coming months are named. Finally, in the third phase, the long-term perspectives are discussed. These are not yet planned in concrete terms, but the goals and development opportunities discussed are already recorded in writing.

In practice, one should try to navigate the conversation fluently from one discussion point to the next and dispense with a rigid division. Although there is usually a corresponding script or a questionnaire (usually prepared by the HR department) as a guideline, the most important thing is to be able to talk openly. Therefore, it can happen that you skip points at first, only to address them at the end. The following topics normally occur in every performance review.

  • Conversation goals: What is on the agenda? Before the actual discussion begins, it is advantageous if both sides agree on goals.
  • Retrospective: What has happened in recent months? Employees and bosses look back on the challenges of the past. Both also build a mental bridge from the previous interview to the current one.
  • Praise & criticism: What went well and what didn't? Supervisors must also praise successes in order to increase employee loyalty. Negative aspects, however, must not be concealed under any circumstances.
  • Development potential: How can it continue? The supervisor shows the employee in which areas they can develop further.
  • New tasks: What responsibilities does the employee assume? The employee applies for new tasks or gets them suggested by their boss. The new obligations can be written down in a target agreement.
  • Planning: What are the concrete steps? So that the employee can do justice to the new tasks, employees and bosses agree on the necessary intermediate steps.
  • Summary: What was discussed? So that both sides are on the same level at the end and no misunderstandings arise, it makes sense to summarize everything discussed and planned again at the end.

General conditions for a good performance review

In order for a performance review to be constructive and successful, it is not only important what you discuss, but also when, how, and where. For the meeting between employee and supervisor to be positive for both sides, having enough time is the most important thing. It does not make sense to postpone the performance review briefly and spontaneously between two appointments. You should take at least 30 minutes and maybe even a whole hour off if the interview should last longer. Appointment and duration are announced to both sides with sufficient advance notice so that no other meetings come in between.

A performance review is confidential and, although it takes place in a professional environment, it may also reveal emotions and an employee’s private life to a certain extent. For this reason, picking a space where both employees and bosses can be assured that they are in confidence is ideal.

As a rule, a performance review takes place between two people. However, it is quite possible for the employee to call in a trusted representative from the works council. This can be particularly useful if it is not a regular annual meeting, but rather a negative occasion. An impartial third party can then later judge more objectively what was actually said and what was the subject of the discussion in the event of discrepancies.

Mutual appreciation is a core element of a good performance review. This should also be reflected concretely in the content and choice of words. The beginning of the interview is a good time to show respect for others. This also facilitates constructive communication. If critical topics are addressed, it makes sense to express your appreciation again at the end of the conversation so that both sides can leave the conversation with a good feeling.

A sign of respect is also sufficient preparation: the employee should think in advance about what goals they want to pursue in the future and what support they need from the employer to achieve them. But it is even more important that the supervisor prepares - most bosses and team leaders have several employees under them and can therefore not remember all the details of each one. So that a search in the personnel file does not start during the conversation, it is absolutely necessary that the boss has collected all important information early on and also has some ideas as to how future cooperation with the employee could look like.

Constructive employee discussion – guidelines for bosses

Every performance review is shaped by the personalities of the participants. You have to react appropriately to the employee's history, wishes, and requirements in order for the interview to be satisfactory. To not forget important points, however, it can make sense to stick to a template during the performance review. A checklist of this kind provides structure and at the same time serves as support for thought.

Preparation

A good preparation ensures that you as the employer can concentrate fully on the employee during the interview and have all important information ready.

Make an appointment: Set the date for the performance review in good time. Schedule at least one hour for the interview.

Reserve a room: A quiet room is required so that open communication can take place during the feedback meeting.

Inform employees: Not only should you inform the employee about the time and place of the meeting, you should also ask them to prepare for the meeting as much as possible.

Gathering information: The discussion is specifically about the employee and their performance goals. Therefore it is necessary that you have all information about the employee at hand. Some information can be found in the personnel file, some has to be collected specifically. If you take notes on certain milestones of the employee during operation, this will help you with the preparation. Important information in advance is:

  • Contract details
  • Term of employment
  • Current remit
  • Performance
  • Target agreements
  • Particular successes
  • Particular failures
  • Feedback from other colleagues

Rethink development: Think in advance about what potential your employees can tap and what new responsibilities they can assume in the future. This allows you to address these topics in a targeted manner during the meeting and you do not have to plan a follow-up appointment.

Course of conversation

A script can help you not to lose the thread in a conversation. However, you should keep in mind that the script is only a kind of memory aid and does not provide a rigid structure. Certain points should be worked through, but not necessarily in the order of the script. They should give the employee the opportunity to help shape the course of the conversation – this is the only way constructive communication can work.

Introduction: Be friendly to the employee and talk to them respectfully, and this will create a constructive environment. Your introduction can include:

  • A greeting
  • Creating a positive atmosphere
  • Name time frame

Reason for the conversation: It is important that you and the employee are at the same level. So, at the beginning, decide again what you want to do next and how the interview will proceed.

  • Repeat reason for call (e.g. annual call)
  • Agree on meeting goals
  • Explain the procedure

Exchange: Both you and your employee should discuss the current situation together. In this way, (potential) problems can also be identified.

  • Work situation
  • Leadership
  • Teamwork

Balance: A review of the last interview and what has changed in the employee's day-to-day work as a result is a good transition from the preliminary interview to the actual feedback.

  • Back reference to past performance reviews
  • Changes since the last conversation
  • Recent special incidents
  • Special challenges in the recent past
  • Achievements
  • Failures

Perceptions: You and your employee may have different perspectives on the facts. It is particularly important for both sides to describe their views when dealing with controversial issues.

  • The employee's point of view
  • Assessment of current performance

Frustrations: An open and clear discussion, in which negative aspects are also addressed, can raise emotions. Give your employees the opportunity to express their frustration. Take each other's feelings seriously, but don't get carried away into an emotional discussion.

Development perspectives: Once the current situation has been discussed, planning for the future can begin. Discuss the employee's ambitions and the possible options.

  • The employee's wishes
  • Development potentials
  • Possible new tasks (areas)
  • Career opportunities

Agreements: On the basis of the discussion about possible perspectives, you can work with the employee to make concrete plans for the coming weeks and months. Together, you decide on the period in which transformations are to be completed.

  • Timeframe
  • Trainings
  • New assignments
  • Necessary steps, which are required for further development

Conclusion: Ensure that the meeting comes to a positive conclusion. An employee should not leave the meeting feeling disappointed.

  • Summary
  • Prospect of succession talks
  • Thanks for the interview

Follow-up

Since important goals and tasks are also discussed during the interview, action must follow after the appointment. This is how the transformation can start.

Phrasing: During the conversation, you will have taken notes. Type them up as soon as possible so that you still understand what was discussed in a year's time. Make the document available to your employee as well.

Forwarding: If there are special forms, such as an review sheet, forward them to the right people in the HR department.

Motivation: New tasks or training courses that have been agreed upon must now be implemented.

Learning: Every employee review brings you new insights for the future. Think about what you want to do differently in the next performance review and which strategies worked well.

Using feedback discussions correctly – tips for employees

Even as an employee, there are some points that you should bear in mind during a performance review. If you are well prepared, and want a constructive end result, the feedback interview can help you get ahead. A good preparation will help you enormously during the interview.

Preparation

Although you do not have to prepare as much as your supervisor, you probably do not have all the important moments of the past year in mind either. Go through your documents and your memory: What was special in the past months? What successes have you achieved? What problems did you have to put up with? Intensive preparation also prevents you from being surprised or even taken by surprise in the conversation – for example, you can think of the right words to be able to react to criticism. But also consider how best to present your successes to your boss.

Be proactive: Set goals for the future. What do you want to achieve in the short and long term? Don't expect your boss or team leader to assign you new tasks and more responsibility. You can choose ambitious goals, but also stay realistic and think about what you can actually achieve in the coming months. Figure out how you’ll justify why you are suitable for the additional areas of responsibility. If you have already considered which measures you can qualify for new areas of responsibility, you can quickly provide a suitable answer to this question in the feedback discussion.

Stay calm and collected

Don't go too defensively, or even aggressively, into your review. Your supervisor would also like to have a positive discussion and would like to leave the meeting with constructive ideas. So keep calm even in critical moments. Be friendly and show willingness to improve in case of criticism.

Take criticism with grace

Nobody's perfect – you will certainly hear criticism from your supervisor. However, this is rarely a cause for concern, instead, it is a chance for improvement. Take the feedback seriously, signal interest, and show that you want to improve on the points mentioned.

Give feedback

For some it is even harder to express criticism than to accept it – especially to a boss. Some bosses don't want this mutual feedback, others will ask you to do so. Be prepared for this as well. Make your points of criticism, but remain objective and diplomatic. In addition, you should not forget to be positive! Supervisors also like to hear praise.

Make it happen

In the best case scenario, you have several new goals in mind after the performance review that you should tackle as quickly as possible. These include

  • Implement feedback
  • Approach new tasks
  • Planning further training
Summary

The performance review is always a chance to develop further. Ideally, both sides go into the future with new ideas and goals.

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