Performance Review Meetings: Dreaded by some, feared by others, loved by the greatest, and misunderstood by almost all.
The scene seems to come straight out of a sitcom. A team member and his manager awkwardly enter into an empty conference room booked for an hour several months ago for the dreaded end of the year performance review. The manager dreads the conversation, but she is confident that the notes collected throughout the year in her notepad will help her get through the meeting. The fear that now consumes the employee starts to make him tremble. The blood pressure is dropping, and the throat is dry, but it doesn’t look like water alone will be able to quench that feeling. He is hopeful that his self-evaluation and notes are going to help him through this meeting. Should I sit next to or right across from her? The awkwardness appears to have no end, and after a brief forced small talk about the weather, the manager calls for the start of the meeting. Soon, they both realize how utterly unprepared they went into that conference room. Notes that appeared logical don’t seem to connect. Facts that happened months ago fell out of context, or details were forgotten. Unspoken expectations finally find their way out of the manager’s mouth and into the employee’s ears. This causes so much surprise that it renders him deaf for a few seconds while his brain tries to regain its focus. In the end, the career improvement discussion devolved into the creation of a list of discombobulated objectives for the employee to work on and for the manager to track throughout the following year. And to top it all, the manager announces the tiny salary increase and the pity bonus for the end-of-the-year celebrations.
What a disaster! So much cortisol for no progress at all. After this meeting, the employee sneaks out to check open positions on other companies. The manager goes to the restroom to cry while thinking about her life choices.
What is the point in performing review meetings every year? Why don’t we skip the whole experience and go straight to the end by sending the non-raise plus the pity bonus announcement by email? Is anyone getting any better after those meetings? Is the manager really tracking, or will she just come back with more unspoken expectations that I failed to meet for obvious reasons at the end of next year?
Now you’re starting to wonder: if performance review meetings are such a pain when they happen once every 365 days, why is Adriano advocating one of these every 30 to 45 days?
Well, it turns out that annual PRMs are a pain for several reasons, the main one being the word before PRM: annual. The frequency is so low that it renders the whole meeting useless. It is like trying to become a better soccer player by practicing once a year for 1 hour. When the game starts, you’re trying to remember how to kick for the first 20 minutes, then will be trying to score a goal in the next 20 minutes, and will find yourself out of breath for the last 20 minutes. Then you lose the game, stay sore for about a week, and hope for a better experience next year. And this analogy is accurate for both the employee and the manager, except that the manager has the slight advantage of playing 10 of these games one after the other every 365 days. It helps in scoring more goals, but she ends up just as sore and out of touch in the end.
The only way to get better a PRMs and taking anything good out of them is by increasing the frequency and creating a solid short-cycled feedback loop in which the employee is never surprised by unspoken expectations that he or she didn’t meet and the manager can give her full support in helping the employee develop his career inside the company. That is the ultimate goal, after all.
Finding the time to meet with every team member in the company with that frequency is a challenge, but we created a system that makes it easier for both the manager and the team member to prepare for the meeting. This is still a work-in-progress, but we’ve been executing it with great success for a while now.
Suggestions for the Team Member
Use The Performance Review Template
Never get into a PRM with notes you collected over time scattered in a notebook with hopes that you’ll be able to pick them all up during the meeting. It is not going to work, and you’ll look unprepared while frantically flipping through pages with an odd silence in the background. Instead, take some time ahead of the meeting to fish out all of those notes and organize them in a template made for the PRM.
Drive the Meeting
Performance Review Meetings are meant to help an individual grow professionally with the support of their leadership.
Follow the Performance Review Document
Now that you used the template to gather your thoughts follow it during the meeting. Don’t try to jump around or pick on the fly the topics that you’ll cover. If you follow all topics in order, you’ll always cover everything before the meeting ends, and you’ll always know where to go back to after coming back from a tangent.
Send the Performance Review Document ahead of time
Give your manager the benefit of reviewing your self-assessment ahead of time. This will give her the ability to come better prepared to help you with achieving your goals.
Think of your career first
It is undoubtedly essential to identify your strengths and shortcomings for the past period. Still, above all, you must have a clear picture of where you want to drive your career. Without that focus, you’ll never know where to spend your energy to get to your goals sooner. Know what you like about the path you’re currently in as much as you know what you don’t like about it, and spend some time thinking of the next logical (and desirable) step you should take from here.
Propose small objective goals
Now that you figured where you want to take your career, think about what needs to be done to get there. Ask mentors for help or use LinkedIn to find people already in the position you’re looking to get to and see what kinds of credentials or experience they acquired over time. Whatever you do, try to be as precise as possible with your goals. Instead of gunning for getting an MBA, set out to first list all the MBA programs available. Narrow down the ones with the courses you’re interested in and learn what it would take for you to apply and go through these programs. That is enough work for a month, and next time you meet with your manager, you’ll have achieved a solid objetive goal and will have a clearer vision of whether this is really what you wanted for you and what the next step will be before the next PRM.
You should not be surprised
If you have a great manager, you should not be surprised by anything said during this meeting. Great managers won’t wait until PRMs to let you know about your shortcomings or recognize your performance. By the same token, you should avoid surprising your manager during this feedback: great employees are engaged with managers and are not afraid of speaking their mind when needed. Surprises during PRMs are one of the key reasons why people dread these meetings, to begin with. The unpredictability detracts from the focus on professional improvement and breaks the trust chain that you’re trying to build with your leaders.
Suggestions for the Manager
Read the Performance Review Document ahead of time
You should have at least a full day to read and review the document ahead of the meeting. Carefully read the review, make notes, and take the time to assess how the team member can use the company resources and benefits in their favor to achieve their career goals. Use your network and superiors to ask for help when relevant.
Let the Team Member Drive the Meeting
This is the one time that you need to tame your inner leader’s urge to take charge of the meeting. This meeting is about your team member, his or her needs, and the direction they want to give to their career. If you take charge, you’ll never allow them to grow with the opportunity, and they’ll probably not fully open up to you the way they should.
One of the intended consequences of letting the team member lead the meeting is giving you more opportunities to listen. But beware that the goal here is not to end the session with a lower word count than the other side; the goal is to actively listen and choose the right opportunities to chime in with comments and answer their concerns. It may be that in the process of commenting and answering, you’ll end up with a higher word count. Still, if the commenting and answering were prompted by their leadership, they’ll know that you’re listening. They’ll continue to open up in future meetings.
Help Establish Objective Goals
Most people have trouble breaking down goals into smaller actionable and objective steps. This is where you need to help them. Instead of passively accepting an ambitious goal, work with the team member on how that goal can be broken down into smaller steps, and try to make them at least small enough that you’d have some progress to share when you meet again in a few weeks.
Ask for Feedback
Don’t waste the opportunity to learn about your blind spots and how you can do better. Ask for feedback, and don’t be defensive about it. Even if you find a specific feedback unfair, take a step back and think of ways that you can at least improve your behavior to avoid creating future unfair perceptions in your teammates. If they’re fair, recognize them, and set yourself objective goals that will help you get better.
You should not Surprise
The worst thing you can do in this meeting is surprising your team member with a complaint they hear for the first time. Surprises like these make for a very uncomfortable discussion, but most importantly, it reflects very poorly in your abilities as a manager. Give feedback promptly upon noticing issues instead of leaving them for Performance Reviews. If you do that the right way, the whole team will perform better and overcome problems faster.
Each company has a different culture, and each culture will bloom under different rules. As I mentioned before, despite its success, this playbook is still a work in progress for us at Exponential Ventures, and these suggestions may require some tweaking to work for your company’s culture. Just don’t be afraid to try… practice makes perfect!