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How to make performance reviews relevant

By Jennie Wong
Jennie Wong
Jennie Wong, Ph.D., is a nationally syndicated columnist, executive coach, and the creator of the product quiz website

“Performance reviews are next month.” Does that phrase fill you with dread? Most employees would put performance review season on a par with a trip to the dentist and it is the rare business owner who relishes the annual ritual of sitting down with employees and having “the talk.”

Many just skip it all together, and brush off any vague feelings of guilt. But what if there was a better way?

Here are some key concepts for transforming your performance conversations.

Check in frequently

If your goal is to get the best possible work out of your people, it makes absolutely no sense to do reviews annually. At a minimum, you should be talking directly at least once a month. For most situations, recurring weekly conversations work well, creating a predictable rhythm that fosters trust and openness.

These regular talks can be as short at 15-30 minutes, but should cover the following:

•  Acknowledging and praising what the employee did well the previous week

•  Top priorities for the coming week, along with associated milestones or deadlines

•  What the employee needs to excel, e.g. training, documentation, schedule adjustments

This is also the time to broach any sensitive subjects, including constructive feedback.

Talk about specifics

For both positive and negative feedback, be specific. For example, instead of saying, “You did a great job on Client A last week,” say, “I was really impressed with the way you kept your calm in the meeting with Client A last week. They came in with a negative attitude, and I liked the way that you addressed each of their concerns.”

When giving negative feedback, be equally specific about the behavior you’d like to see in the future.

Make a plan and follow up

While it’s good to keep the lines of communication open with your team, the real value in performance conversations happens after the meeting. Hold yourself accountable to deliver on anything that you verbally commit to during the meeting.

If you promised, “I’ll look into that,” make sure that you really do it. Then report back to your employee at your next meeting, if not before.

When I’m talking to my employees, I’ll often ask to pause for a few seconds in the middle of the meeting to send myself an email reminder right from my phone. It might look a little rude to a bystander, but my team members don’t mind the brief time-out. And the more that I build my track record as a boss who is good to her word, the more honesty and creativity my employees bring to these meetings.

Work with your employees to set specific action items and targets for the coming week, and follow up with them. If someone keeps forgetting a step in closing the cash register for the night, the best action is not “try harder to remember all the steps.” The best action probably looks more like, “make a checklist and tape it to the shelf under the register, then review it at closing time.”

Pay fairly and reward often

Given the goal of inspiring peak performance, how did we ever get on an annual cycle to being with? The answer, of course, is that performance reviews have traditionally been tied to raises, which are usually given once a year.

The old way of thinking supposes that employees will be “good,” all year so that they’ll get a 5 percent raise instead of a 3 percent raise. I’m not sure this model ever really worked, but certainly our current understanding of human behavior and motivation indicates that we all tend to perform best when we feel that our pay is fair and that our efforts are appreciated. This should happen more often than once a year.

So give yourself and your employees a break from traditional performance reviews and use anniversary dates for celebrating successes instead.

Jennie Wong, Ph.D. is a Charlotte-based executive coach, author of “Ask the Mompreneur,” and founder of the social shopping site Follow her on Twitter @DrJennieWong.
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