Performance Reviews

June 12, 2021

Rejoice, performance review season is upon us again. Is there anything less fun than carving out time to reflect on six months of your reports as your mind goes completely blank on all of your thoughts and conversations. I’ve made it through many of these seasons and my team hasn't revolted yet (as far as I know) so I figured I’d share my own process.

First of all (said in Charles Barkley voice), if you haven’t been taking notes since the last performance review, what are you doing? This shouldn’t be a deep strategic exercise. It should be a summary and reflection on months of 1:1s.

Second, it should be extremely rare to share something in a performance review that you haven’t already talked about at length at a 1:1. You may not consider performance reviews that serious, but your report knows this is written down and shared with your company. Don’t use performance reviews to tell your report about that time three months ago that they talked over someone in a meeting. Doing that hurts and they won’t forget it.

The only time this is ok is when you’re gathering feedback and you learn something new from multiple sources. If you hear something new from a single individual, you’ll want to go ask others (tactfully and privately) whether they’ve seen something similar. Performance reviews should include peer feedback and should absolutely include feedback from your report’s own reports if they have them. This is one of the few times people really sit down to think about it seriously. I often ask for feedback on my reports in 1:1s but performance reviews are usually when I get the most honest and thoughtful answers.

So you have your feedback. Now what? Look over your notes and take stock of all your conversations. You need to figure out what kind of performance review this is. Is this a person who has been crushing it and now you’re discussing ways to advance? Are you promoting them and sharing new expectations for their next role? Or are you reflecting on them falling short of the goals you’ve set out for them and regrouping to do better for this coming period?

I want to focus on the positive case first because I actually find that much harder. This is especially true when you have someone amazing and you’re really searching for feedback. Peer feedback is invaluable for this case. Some helpful questions are:

  • What is the next progression for this person?
  • Why can't they get that promotion / be in that role today?
  • For each blocker, what will help them make up that ground?

I’ve made this list for myself but it’s useful to run through and check off which points make the most sense to advise or set as a goal:

  • Acquire new soft skills (writing, presenting, running a meeting, planning, etc)
  • Learn a new technology
  • Take on a new role
  • Take on leadership responsibilities
  • Work on or lead a more challenging project
  • Work on or with a different team
  • Learn a different part of the stack
  • Mentorship
  • Coaching
  • Owning cultural or organizational initiatives
  • Run or participate in trainings or classes

If you’re managing managers then their own performance very much depends on their reports’ performance and you can use the above questions to frame success.

I want to emphasize that with a high-performer the most important question to ask is “what’s next?” and “what’s preventing them from getting there?”. You should always be thinking about these questions but this is the time to actually set a roadmap.

Next you have the report who is doing fine but not amazing. They are mostly content with the status quo and they are here for a modest bump in comp but mostly to just keep chugging along. I generally set myself a challenge here to see if I can help them grow in a few small ways. I take pride in trying to grow every person who comes into my sphere of management. Sometimes I’m not successful but I’m always trying.

For this case, I’m picking something small and focusing on it. I’m giving very concrete advice and some tactical actions I want them to take. Most people in this bucket do what I ask verbatim and I check it off. It’s not always satisfying but at the very least I feel like I’ve accomplished something.

The last bucket is the poor performer. If you wait until the performance review you’ve failed them. Then again, sometimes they won’t hear what you’re telling them until they have a hard “didn’t meet expectations”. I always have someone else read my feedback first (usually my manager) and role-play my feedback (again usually with my manager). I want to make sure my feedback is direct, actionable and I give plenty of examples. Bad feedback is usually something like “you’re not working hard enough”. Good feedback is closer to “while working on project Foo, you weren’t able to unblock yourself or ask for help in a timely manner. When your PM checked, you didn’t share any blockers until much later”. And then the advice would be something like “you should be communicating blockers as soon as you run out of threads to pull on or after X amount of time”. This is a contrived example but it’s just trying to outline that you need to be very very specific.

When I give constructive feedback, I will start the conversation by sharing that this is going to be a little tough but that I still believe in them and their ability to improve (and I actually do believe that or I wouldn't be bothering). I tell them I want them to listen, absorb, ask clarifying questions but then sleep on it before responding. Don’t let them respond when they are emotional or upset. It’ll be much more productive if you can schedule a followup regardless of whether they think they want that at the moment.

Once you’re done with your performance reviews, you need to make sure you’re holding yourself and them accountable for what you’ve talked about. This is much harder than it seems. Wok and life get in the way and suddenly months have gone by and they haven’t progressed and you haven’t pushed them on it. This is on you as much as it is on them. Part of your role is to push and make sure they understand you are keeping them accountable. So many performance issues stem from a perception of a lack of accountability. If you’re not talking to them about something, they probably think you don’t care and won't act on it.

If you forgot to take notes last time, you damn well better start taking notes now. It makes your life a lot easier.

If you’re reading this as someone who gets a performance review but doesn’t give them, remember that your manager is human just like you. If you completely disagree with their feedback, try to think about why they think it. Maybe they are projecting their bias onto you. Maybe they want you to be more like them? But maybe you're actually weak in the areas they point out. Sometimes all of the above. It takes a lot of strength to recognize your weaknesses, accept them and strive to be better. It also takes a lot for one human to give honest feedback to another so try to value all of it.

You might not be getting good feedback at all but that’s not an excuse to not seek it out. And if your sole motivation going into a performance review is to get through it or to get more comp, you’re really missing out. Feedback is a gift and performance reviews are the giving season. Good luck!