Ask Debrett's: How can I make performance reviews less painful for all concerned?

 
Debrett's: Ask the Expert
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It's always hard to give feedback, whether positive or negative (Source: Getty)

Q: I lead a team of account managers and we are heading towards the annual performance review. I really struggle with this process – it seems to be just a paperwork exercise. The reports take an age to complete but make little difference so far as I can tell. How can I make the process more useful for all concerned?

Most people hate giving performance reviews because they are uncomfortable actually having to provide feedback, be it positive or negative, let alone committing it to paper. The fact that you struggle with the process suggests this may be the case for you.

Many reporting processes are of course lengthy, and their complexity can mask the simplicity of the requirement. Whatever the system in your organisation, if you don’t have the influence to change it, you owe it to your team to work with it as best you can.

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Leading and managing your team is probably the most important job you do, and you cannot do it without providing feedback. Many people make the mistake of seeing the APR as the only element of the feedback process, whereas in reality it is merely the administrative side of a much wider management and leadership process which includes guidance, direction, reward, recognition, development, promotion and of course discipline.

As a good leader, you should ensure that your team know what is expected of them day to day and year to year. They should also know how you as the leader think that they are performing. An annual report is not the best tool for doing this. Feedback should be given primarily through regular conversations. The APR should merely be a summation of these conversations and should contain no surprises for either party. If it does, you are not doing your job properly.

Every conversation you have with your team members is potentially an opportunity to provide feedback. It is vital to let people know how they are doing, and of course the positive feedback and recognition will help oil the wheels of everyday team life.

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There is a school of thought that says that, for a stable relationship, we all need five elements of positive feedback for every one negative element. While this idea may be difficult to prove empirically, it is a great approach for all leaders.

It is a sad truth that too many leaders believe their role is to highlight their subordinates’ failings. Good leaders will devote a great deal of time and energy trying to catch people in the act of doing the right thing and commenting on it. Taking this approach makes it much easier to provide constructive criticism when it is required and means that it is more likely to be listened to and acted upon.

A lot of people find the prospect of filling in a huge stack of review forms all too depressing and that grades or numerical ratings are a clumsy tool for reporting on people’s achievements. They are. On that basis, first focus on the words you use. Many managers start with the grades and then try and find the words to support their instincts. Reports should be evidence-based first, with commentary added to this, and only then should the grades that reflect the commentary be added.

Your reports should draw upon the feedback conversations you have already been having with your team and you should use these as their skeleton. If you take this approach, they will be quicker and simpler to write, and more importantly they will stand up to scrutiny.

In other words, your team will be able to recognise themselves in your reports, and your observations and guidance will be of real value to them and the wider business.

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