Top two rules of Performance Reviews – How to not make them a Candy Scramble

Just like everyone else I have had many great performance reviews and a couple of stinkers. I had a bit of an epiphany during an Empathy session at Protegra that clarified why some reviews go well and some go very badly.

First things first though. I’m finding these sessions at Protegra on “Empathy” and “Giving and Receiving Feedback” extremely helpful. I’ve been in the industry for over 25 years and this is the first time anybody has understood that Empathy and the process of giving and receiving feedback is an acquired skill. In many ways it is similar to estimating.

No Performance Reviews!

Many people are proposing that we should simply do away with performance reviews. I would propose that performance reviews are like estimates, they are not inherently evil. Could they be used for nefarious purposes? Sure, but almost anything can. I think if you follow the two rules of Performance Reviews you will find the reviews become much more useful and positive. When Performance Reviews are a negative experience it is usually due to what bad managers or leaders do with the review. Yea, kinda like estimates. 🙂

The two rules

The training provided a great hierarchy on feedback which I found really helpful. There are essentially three types of feedback:

Appreciation – Informal, personal feedback on how someone is doing or has done something recently, Focus is usually just on the past.

Coaching – More formal but still personal Feedback on how someone has done something recently. There also is the added focus of coaching for the future as well as acknowledging the past.

Evaluation – The most formal of the feedback types. This is the performance review. Like coaching the focus is both on the past and the future, but there is also an additional component of ranking or evaluation to some standards of the role or competencies.

Rule #1

The types of feedback need to be provided by the same person in the order listed. I can’t expect to evaluate someone if I don’t have a relationship that has already involved providing Appreciation and Coaching Feedback. But yet, this is exactly what a lot of large corporations do! The manager is expected to gather and provide feedback sometimes with limited direct experience with the individual. This can lead to misinterpretation and incorrect emphasis being placed on some feedback received from others. In many cases, anonymous feedback is also incorporated with no personal context to allow that  information to be used appropriately. This is the Performance Review equivalent of a Candy Scramble.

Many times this is done because the focus is not on helping the individual to grow and get better, but to do annual performance reviews because that is what Human Resources says we need to do.

But if we focus on providing Appreciation and Coaching before we can do any Evaluation, it places the emphasis back where it belongs.

Rule #2

We need to make all types of the feedback a conversation. Again this is where having Appreciation and Coaching feedback sessions will help to make the meetings more conversational. In many large companies you don’t have a discussion with your manager until your performance review. You have no idea what he or she thinks, you get blindsided with feedback, and you say nothing when he or she asks for your thoughts. If you aren’t providing Appreciation and Coaching to your people, you are essentially ambushing them and not building relationships. These managers are usually the same people who remark after someone left that they are surprised and how they never said anything about being unhappy.

If we just have annual reviews without any Appreciation and Coaching discussions, they will never become conversational.


I found these types of feedback helpful and made it clear where performance reviews have been less than optimal when I had been giving and receiving feedback.

Another component of feedback is to make sure it is specific and actionable. Many times feedback ends up being vague and difficult to understand and incorporate. (Bob, we really need you to show more initiative) If we provide Appreciation and Coaching feedback we will find more specific types of feedback being provided. This is because those types of feedback almost always are grounded in specific examples that have been observed. Then the Evaluation feedback just summarizes what has already been communicated and the Evaluation feedback is less vague.

Of course providing Appreciation and Coaching feedback require time and effort, but the people we work with are worth it.


The role of emotions in performance feedback discussions

Lately I have been reading quite a few blogs on the topic of performance feedback and how to try to make feedback a more valuable process. Recently I came across Bob Marshall’s post:

How to give Feedback

I’ve already had great discussion with @adaptivecoach on the Core Protocols and their potential impact to the communication process. You can see my previous post here:

My Core Protocol Check-in

After reading these different perspectives, I find myself aligned most with Steve Rogalsky’s post. Which is very fortunate since we work together at Protegra and on the same project. 🙂

A Systems Thinking alternative to Performance Feedback

After thinking about all these different approaches, I thought I would add my thoughts to the discussion.

Feedback Guidelines

I try to follow some simple guidelines for my performance feedback discussions. I believe the feedback process should have four simple components:

1)      Agreement on my view of the project’s expectations of you

2)      Feedback on my perception of your project actions versus the agreed expectations

3)      Agreement on your view of the project’s expectations of me

4)      Feedback on your perception of my project actions versus the agreed expectations

Once there is agreement on the expectations, we can have productive discussions in the future. These expectations can be as vague or as detailed as both people desire. The key here is to have a baseline that can be used for future discussions. It is patently unfair to provide feedback to someone if you haven’t previously agreed what was expected. These expectations can be both subjective and objective. I would recommend that at least 50% are objective criteria though. It is very important to have a good percentage of objective criteria for discussion. Subjective criteria are, well, subjective. 🙂

The formality of these discussions can be modified to fit the situation and personalities of the people involved. I prefer to always have them face-to-face via back and forth conversations.

Feedback questions

Steve Rogalsky provided some great questions in his recent post and my questions don’t stray too much from his. The questions I like to have as part of a feedback discussion are:

1)      How do you think you have done?

2)      What is your opinion of how I have done?

3)      What did you enjoy most about your work?

4)      What would you like to do in the future?

5)      What would you like me to do differently in the future?

6)      What are you most proud of that you have done recently?

7)      How should we change the expectation agreements we have with each other?

As you can see, my preferred questions are a bit different from Steve’s in that they don’t have the questions grounded in Systems Thinking. But I think we both find our questions productive in generating a productive feedback discussion.

The role of emotion

The one thought that I had after reading these different sources is that my approach does have one significant difference from the Core Protocols and Bob Marshall’s post.

My perspective is that emotion should be left out of feedback discussions. Unlike the Core Protocols and Bob Marshall’s post, I believe that grounding feedback discussion in the emotions of individuals is inappropriate. It can lead to more subjective review that may be not providing the details required to help the individual improve objectively. It can introduce personal biases and agendas into the discussion.

There is also a subtle difference in the feedback questions I prefer that I believe is critical. I believe my wording change makes the process less hierarchical. Instead of the focus on personal emotions, the grounding is on the project requirements.

How have your actions made me feel vs. How have your actions contributed to the project

I believe this is key. By grounding the expectations and feedback on the project, we can reduce personal bias and hierarchical thinking. (we are both there as peers to contribute to the project)

It should be a true peer-to-peer system where we all evaluate each other and our contributions to the project. I believe having feedback discussion grounded in the project also encourages more feedback as it is more objective and less hierarchical. It is still a perception, but it isn’t how you have made me feel,  it is have I perceive you have delivered to the agreed project expectations. I think it makes the discussions less of a personal, confrontational nature.

It is an un-emotional discussion on this is what we agreed to was important for the project and this is how we perceived each other’s contributions. Let’s work together now to determine how we can improve for the next time.