Delivering the Performance Review

Learn how to effectively deliver the performance review by scheduling 1:1s and preparing notes with important discussion points and concrete examples beforehand.

First, as tempting as it may be sometimes, a formal performance review should never be delivered in any format that isn’t some kind of face-to-face discussion. If possible, opt for an in-person meeting, but if you’re in charge of a remote team, then a video-conference face-to-face (cameras on, on both sides) is the minimum level required. You want, and need, to be able to see your employee’s reaction during the entirety of the review. And, similarly, they need to be able to feel like you are focused entirely on them during this discussion—close your office door, set your online status to “Busy,” put your phone on silent (and in the desk drawer), whatever else you need to do to ensure as best you can that you will not be distracted during this conversation.

The Emailed Review: Sending a performance review through email is, in my opinion, simply cowardice on the part of the manager. It’s almost guaranteed to wreck any sort of psychological safety between that manager and the team. Yes, delivering a less-than-positive review is awkward and difficult, but this is part of the job—if you’re not comfortable telling somebody to their face that they aren’t meeting your expectations, then you really need to rethink whether you are cut out to be a manager. (Conversely, if you’re looking forward to delivering that less-than-positive review, you may want to rethink the job, but for different reasons.) Note that sending the review in email during the meeting, or after the meeting, as a form of record-keeping, is entirely acceptable and necessary—but the email should never replace the meeting.

Knowing that it must be a face-to-face, next comes the calendar invite. Find a time that’s convenient for both of you—make sure you are recognizing the importance of their schedule as being equal to your own. Set aside an hour, even if you won’t need all of it. Set aside an hour-and-a-half if the company’s policies require an hour; you want to have plenty of time, so that everybody can walk out of this meeting with all their questions and/or concerns met. Make sure it’s at a time that is least likely to be “overrun” by other meetings. If your peer-level team meeting has a tendency to run long, don’t schedule any formal performance review to start right after the team meeting—give yourself a half-hour buffer. Give yourself a half-hour buffer after the review meeting, too, so that you can take care of any administrative tasks that follow the performance review.

Logistically, if this is an in-person meeting, find a place where you can close a door or otherwise be removed from the hustle and bustle of others around you. If you have an office, that’s an ideal spot; if not, book a conference room or 1:1 room (a small two-person room that’s often established just for these kinds of confidental two-person meetings). Even if it’s a video-conference meeting, make sure you (and your employee) are each able to take the meeting in a quiet space—this is exactly the kind of meeting that needs to be confidential, so don’t take the meeting at your desk in the middle of an open-office floor plan, and strongly suggest that your employee follow the same advice.

Second, don’t just extemporaneously “wing” your way through that meeting, particularly if the review is going to be a hard one—careless remarks can have deep ripples down the road. Take some notes about what points you want to make, and make sure your notes leave room for your employees’ reaction/response to those points. Remember, this is a conversation, and you want to have room in your notes for your employee’s conversation points as well as your own.

While making notes, be clear to yourself which points you want to spend significant time on, and which ones are less important to you. If, for example, you have an employee who is constantly late delivering stories and also irritates their teammates with their Star Wars references, decide to yourself which of these merits twenty minutes’ worth of discussion, and which should only require five. Rushing through the “critical, must-discuss” point because you got hung up for forty-five minutes on the relevancy of Star Wars quips to software development is not going to leave your direct with a clear focus on what’s important. Personally, I like to arrange the topics in priority order (with caveats): The most important thing you need to discuss should be right there near the start of the meeting so we have plenty of time to discuss it, and the least-important thing should be the first to be discarded in the event we disagree on something else along the way.

When choosing your points of discussion, include in your prep solid and concrete examples, so that your employee can (try to) call up the example in their memory and be able to relate back to it. If the point, for example, is the number of bugs that come out of their stories, come loaded with examples (which you should already have in your written review). If the issue is communication, again, come loaded with examples: “Joshua, I want you to look at this email sent to the infrastructure team when you were talking to them about provisioning a new cluster for our microservice. Here and here your tone is one that comes off as imperative and demanding. We regard that team as our partners, not people we can boss around, and this kind of communication damages our relationship to that team.” And so on. If you can, provide multiple examples for each point, so the employee doesn’t feel like the behavior or decision in question is a one-off, but a repeated pattern. (The more often it comes up, the more likely you should devote time to it, and the more examples you should have.)

It may seem at this point that the formal performance review is an exercise in pointing out all the flaws of the employee, and that most certainly should not be the case—in fact, as we discuss in the “Feedback” chapter, your goal should generally be to identify the things that the employee is doing well and elevate those. Follow the same template here: find places where the employee is “doing it right,” find some examples of that behavior, and point it out. Spend a few moments exploring it with them. Make sure you spend time and energy on the “reinforcing” comments, so your employee can feel like they have an example of what to do more of. If there’s a “doing it wrong” that is likely to be a hard pill for the employee to swallow, follow it up with the employee’s “biggest win” to help them get their emotional feet back, and use their second-most “biggest win” as the final point in the review.

Lastly, plan to finish at only half or three-quarters of the scheduled time; you want plenty of room for discussion along the way, as well as any residual questions from the employee at the end of the review. (You may want to ask them to hold questions until you’ve finished delivering the formal review, but then you absolutely have to get through your formal review in less than half the scheduled time.) If they are receiving a great review, they may have questions about next challenges or future plans; if they are receiving a poor review, they may have challenges to your points or concerns about next steps that will need exploring and explaining. Even if it’s a mediocre review, they may have questions about how to improve that you’ll want to go over with them. Performance reviews rarely finish early, even if you’ve only planned enough content to go half the time—and if you do get done early, you can either release your employee from the meeting, or spend the time doing a more informal conversation about other relevant topics.

Remember, we’re still in the prep stage: You’re planning what you’re going to say. The real rubber-meets-road moment is when the the meeting itself comes.

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