If you want happy, thriving and committed employees, you need to give good feedback. And, when we say "good", we don’t mean unfounded praise for the sake of it.
What we mean is that you, the manager, put in time, effort and intentional thought into what and how to make employee reviews a valuable exchange.
Because according to the Society for Human Resource Management, 95% of employees are unhappy with the management of their performance reviews and 90% don't believe the process is reflective of the truth. Ouch.
The harsh reality is that far too many managers think they can just turn up for a performance review unprepared and rely on their subjective memory to carry them through. But that's an approach that time and time again has proven to result in biased, inaccurate and ineffective performance reviews.
But writing a meaningful review doesn’t have to be nearly as daunting as the business headlines make it out to be. Read on for a quick cheatsheet to help managers write better reviews in less time.
Managers, it's time to change your mindset
Today, most managers are about as loved as the office fax machine.
Unless they absolutely have to, employees would rather not engage. And if they're really honest, they're not even totally sure why they're there.
But like employees, managers have gotten a raw deal. They have mountains of paperwork to fill out, bureaucracies to navigate and they get very little feedback about whether their actions are helping or hurting.
So it makes sense that most managers would be tempted to rush through the first stage of writing up the employee review. After all, they've got to tick that box so they can move swiftly on to the next one. Problem is, if you don’t put in the groundwork, the result will be generic and useless.
The question for managers is this: Do you want to simply go through the motions, or do you want real progress for the individuals on your team?
Admittedly, some people just aren’t great at giving feedback — there’s definitely a skill to doing it well. But like any new skill, it’s something you can practice and develop. Instead of thinking ‘I can’t be bothered’ or ‘I don’t have time for this’ — change your viewpoint. A much more productive way to look at the process is to view it as a reflective exercise. One where you gather information with the express purpose of generating a meaningful dialogue and clear follow-up steps.
Set aside an hour (you honestly don’t need more) and write down the key points you want to cover, using your company mission, values, personal and departmental goals, and previous reviews as a rough guide.
And remember, it’s better to have something short and relevant than a 10-page review filled with pointless platitudes or irrelevant ratings. Here are some practical tips to keep in mind.
The caring manager's cheatsheet for writing better reviews
Write with authenticity
Ask yourself, ‘How can I help this employee?’ Remember, your goal is to ensure that the employee walks away knowing what they did well and how they can improve. The more genuine you are, the more honestly and objectively the employee will view their own performance.
Cover things that went well and things that didn’t go so well. And don’t shy away from sensitive topics. Instead, tackle them in a way that encourages the employee's personal and professional growth.
Call out success
It's a fact: Employees who receive praise and recognition perform better. Research reported in the Harvard Business Review found high-performing teams are nearly 6X more likely to focus on positive feedback than the average team.
Take a minute to think about your employee's biggest wins and strengths and provide real examples of how they impacted the rest of the team or the business at large.
For instance, saying ‘You’re a great team player’ gives the employee zero practical insights into what behaviors they should keep demonstrating at work. But if you give them a concrete example like, ‘When the team was short-staffed, you didn't hesitate to pick up the slack to make sure we were able to ship on time,’ they can then relate to the memory of the event and tell you more about what happened.
That's how you get better insights into what drives an employee to do their best work. And as a major bonus, the employee will walk away from the review feeling awesome about what they've accomplished.
If there's one single rule for writing better reviews, it's this: Avoid vagueness like the plague.
Common statements like, 'You have poor communication skills’ are as lazy as they sound. What does that even mean? Is the employee a poor writer? Are their presentations confusing? Have other team members complained about their interpersonal skills? You need to exemplify each comment clearly.
In this instance, you could write: “In meetings when you disagree with another person, you appear emotional and it’s difficult to finish the discussion.” This gives the individual a real-life situation they can either recall or imagine and, hopefully, relate to.
Then you can identify a solution: “When you have a point to share that you think will help the team, try to point out how it will impact the work itself so that everyone can see the big picture impact of your suggestion.”
Keep it concise
Edit your review to remove any vague, verbose or played-out language.
That means avoiding overused terms like ‘good’ and ‘excellent’. Instead, see if you can bring in a few action words like: excels, exhibits, demonstrates, grasps, generates, possesses, communicates, directs and achieves.
Choosing better, more specific words is a powerful way to say more with less.
Talk to other stakeholders
It doesn't always make sense to approach the employee review as a solo project.
Even if you're not integrating peer or 360 reviews into your performance management process, it can help to get feedback from other people to either confirm or discredit your assumptions about an employee's performance.
Ask for examples of when the employee did something well or when they needed extra help or support. This will make sure the written review is fully focused on the individual being reviewed, not the manager reviewing them.