Ah, the annual performance review. This time of year, it's the only thing more dreaded than hordes of holiday shoppers or expanding waistlines.
But it doesn't have to be so painful. Here are some quick ways to ease the anxiety and make your year-end performance conversations way more productive.
Match your tone and environment to the feedback you're delivering
One of the biggest mistakes managers make is to offset their anxiety by conducting the review in a way that downplays their feedback or feels inappropriate to the employee—for example, using overly casual language or worse, delivering feedback by email or text message.
How, where and when you deliver your feedback should always be reflective of your relationship with the employee. Even if you consider your employee a friend, they still see you as their "boss." Delivering feedback outside the official confines of that relationship will cause your employee to spend more time focusing on the way you delivered the feedback, rather than the feedback itself. So take a deep breath and book that private meeting room. And of course, never answer your phone or check your email during a performance review. Even your best, most light-hearted reviews should be completely free of interruption.
Let there be no surprises (on either side)
In an ideal world, your employees would always know where they stand. But the reality is most business leaders are just too busy to deliver regular performance reviews to their teams. Instead of ambushing employees with a year's worth of feedback, set up a quick 15-minute pre-meeting to agree on a date for the review, ask the employee to look over their last review, and offer a quick reminder about why the review is important.
Like managers, most employees have been holding their breath (and tongues) in preparation for this meeting. Take some of the pressure out of the conversation by reminding them this is a two-way street—or rather, a two-lane street headed in the same direction. Remind them that they'll be expected to give their own feedback so that you can both drive better and faster toward the end goal.
Go ahead and give "bad" news
The data is clear: Your employees want negative feedback. And that's all well and good, but the idea of telling someone they "need to improve" is still a daunting task. But at its best, "negative" feedback is really just two people coming together to find a better way to do something. Start by taking the rote evaluatory language out of the equation and focus on a clear and specific solution.
Instead of vague suggestions, try opening with a statement that puts you on equal ground, and ask your employee if they want the feedback. So instead of "You need to work on your people skills", you could say "I've been studying ways to improve my interpersonal skills, and I noticed some things that might be helpful for you, too. I'd be interested in your thoughts." As organizational psychologist Adam Grant points out, "Once people take ownership over the decision to receive feedback, they're less defensive about it."
Know your next step
The whole point of the year-end performance conversation is to see a change in behavior and outcomes. A lack of follow up can make the whole process feel like a waste of time.
Know the goal you're aiming for and which points you're going to discuss before you enter the meeting. Come prepared with data to back up your points, and be ready to explain your reasons behind your feedback. But remember not to get sucked into over-analyzing past situations, stay firmly focused on the solution moving forward.
Finally, ask the employee for their ideas and make sure both reviewer and reviewee are completely clear on what's expected, and when. Document the next steps in your performance management system and set a reminder to follow up on them as soon as you get back to your desk. Following up on performance feedback is a great way to harness the momentum of the new year, and the only surefire way to beat the dread of the season.