Managers should carefully prepare performance reviews, as they represent key milestones in the employee development journey. Moreover, employees often eagerly anticipate these opportunities to get formal input on their performance over the past month, quarter, or year.
With that being said, one key rule all managers should take to heart is that there should be no surprises in employee reviews.
The ‘No Surprises’ Review
When we say “no surprises,” what we mean is that employees should go into a performance review with a solid understanding of how their work is measuring up against the expectations of the job role.
If an employee is caught off guard by performance review feedback, the manager has not been doing a good enough job of managing that employee.
Avoiding surprises in performance reviews essentially comes down to two key elements: setting clear expectations and providing regular feedback on performance relative to those expectations.
Setting Clear Expectations
The first step in ensuring there are no surprises when evaluating performance on meeting expectations is setting clear expectations. Often, employees are caught off guard by evaluations because they didn’t fully understand what was expected of them. This could come in the form of specific job responsibilities or expectations around timeliness or quality.
It’s a manager’s responsibility to ensure there is no ambiguity around job role expectations, and this shouldn’t be a one-off conversation at the time an employee is onboarded. It often requires regular reinforcement throughout the employment life cycle.
Providing Regular Feedback
A significant mistake so many employers and managers make is giving feedback too infrequently. Regardless of the timing of formal performance reviews—annually, quarterly, etc.—employers and managers should be regularly and frequently providing feedback, both positive and negative, on employee performance. An employee who is underperforming should be well aware of that far in advance of any formal performance appraisal meeting.
Although formal touch points like employee performance reviews are important components of the employee training and development process, they should be relatively uneventful in the sense that employees already have a handle on how they have been performing.
When an employee gets a surprise at one of these evaluations, the manager has failed in his or her duties. Work with your supervisors and managers to coach and support them in delivering “no surprises” reviews.
The Best Question to Ask Employees During a Review
When conducting employee reviews, one challenge managers often face is pushback or defensiveness due to their judgment on how effectively an employee is satisfying the essential requirements of the job.
There should be no surprises for employees in formal review periods because feedback should be provided regularly and frequently. Still, even if the message has been delivered consistently, delivering negative feedback should be done carefully to prevent the employee from becoming defensive or resentful.
Strategies for Delivering Negative Feedback
There are many strategies for delivering negative feedback, such as speaking in terms of actions rather than personal traits; using objective language and, if possible, objective metrics; putting performance in the context of the position’s importance within the organization; etc.
Beyond these manager-centered strategies for delivering negative feedback, there’s also a simple question that can go a long way toward ensuring a constructive dialogue: “How do you feel you are performing?”
This question can be extremely effective because it puts the employee in the position of delivering the critiques. The employee’s ideal answer would include a frank, objective, and honest evaluation of his or her performance, including areas in need of improvement.
When Employee Perspective Misses the Mark
There is always the risk that an employee will respond with glowing, albeit undeserved, praise regarding his or her performance. This creates a situation wherein the manager may need to disagree and could create a potential argument.
This risk can be significantly mitigated, however, by providing consistent and regular feedback outside of formal performance appraisals. For example, employees can’t say they believe they are performing well if they have been consistently reminded that their lack of timeliness in completing assignments is inconsistent with the job expectations.
Delivering negative feedback to an employee is never enjoyable, but it has to be done for the benefit of both the employee and the organization.
There are many manager-centric methods for delivering bad news, but managers should consider how they can put the onus on employees themselves to provide honest evaluations of their work.
Creating a culture that seeks and responds effectively to constructive feedback and providing regular and consistent feedback outside of formal reviews can help ensure that employees have an accurate perception of their contributions and value to the organization.