The Workplace

The 3 mistakes you're making in performance reviews—and how to fix them


Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Jan. 4, 2019.

By Jackie Kimmell, Senior Analyst

Part five in a series of the seven conversations all managers should be having with their employees

Let's face it: Performance reviews are nerve-wracking—and not just for the employees receiving the review. For managers, preparing reviews often takes up days or even weeks of work time, and delivering the sometimes-difficult feedback to employees can feel emotionally daunting.

Even so, performance reviews are critical. When done right, they're a powerful tool for improving employee engagement and motivating better performance.

So what's the secret to delivering an effective, constructive performance review? It starts with avoiding the mistakes that most managers make in their employee evaluations, according to Advisory Board's Kate Vonderhaar and Craig Pirner.

Here are the three pitfalls that managers most commonly fall into, according to our research—and how you can avoid them.

1. The pitfall: 'All my employees are top performers!'

Delivering difficult feedback to direct reports is inevitably awkward. That can make it tempting, Vonderhaar said, for managers to just give all employees "high" scores and only offer positive feedback.

That's a dangerous road to take, according to Vonderhaar. Inaccurate evaluations make it almost impossible to identify top talent at the organization—as exceptional performance can easily get "lost in the crowd" of high ratings—and can lead to problems in fairly linking merit increases or bonuses to reviews.

What's worse, unduly positive reviews can undermine staff engagement and performance in the long run. Vonderhaar explained that because employees can't get an accurate idea of how they're actually performing, they don't know how to improve, which causes both morale and performance to lag.

The solution: Gut-check your ratings

To avoid inadvertently inflating performance ratings, Vonderhaar recommends rating each team member's performance separately—then reviewing the distribution of ratings across your team and paying especially close attention to how many you've given the top rating.

For each person with a top rating, consider whether the person:

  • Consistently surpasses all behavioral expectations, and acts as a true role model for others;
  • Regularly produces the highest quality of work and continuously strives for improvement; and
  • Requires minimal supervision, demonstrates independent critical thinking, and looks well-positioned for swift advancement.

If your answer is yes to all considerations, these employees should receive the top rating (e.g., 3 on a 3-point rating scale, 5 on a 5-point scale). If you can't answer yes to all considerations, consider lowering your rating a notch or two.

In general, most organizations should aim for roughly 20% of staff to receive the highest rating. However, that's not to say there may not be individual teams that are exceptionally high-performing and have a higher percentage of staff who are top performers. The key, says Vonderhaar, is backing up that higher distribution of ratings with concrete evidence of top performance from the team. For example, if a department has a higher-than-usual concentration of staff with the top rating, do they also have higher quality, service, and/or cost outcomes than the typical department? If so, the distribution could be warranted.

2. The pitfall: When employees become emotional, managers retreat from hard truths

Conversations about performance expectations can quickly become emotional or touchy, and this shift can take many mangers by surprise, leaving them unsure of how best to respond.

While managers might know that they need to stay calm, levelheaded, and keep the review going, it can be difficult to keep the conversation on track when confronted with an emotional employee. If managers instead choose to dodge the topic, the result can be a less effective review that wastes both the manager's and the employee's time.

The solution: Use this scripting to respond to 'apologizers,' 'deniers,' 'tear-jerkers,' and more

When an employee becomes emotional, Pirner said, it's important to keep delivering your message in a way that counters their specific reaction.

To address the most common employee reactions, Pirner recommends managers anticipate how their staff might react to tough feedback—and have a plan for responding. For example, if the employee becomes:

“It's important to keep delivering your message in a way that counters their specific reaction.”

  • An apologizer who jumps to a confession before hearing the message ("I'm so sorry, I can do better!"), the manager should become a clarifier and verify that they still want the employee to hear the message.
    • Try saying: "I appreciate that you are willing to take responsibility for your actions, but I want to discuss the issue further so we both understand what went wrong."
  • A denier who argues with the validity of the critique, the manager should become an investigator and be prepared to present well-researched and succinct evidence of the events.
    • Try saying: "I'm surprised to hear you say you haven't been late. I checked the timesheets and found you've been late five times this quarter."
  • A tear-jerker who responds emotionally to the feedback and struggles to articulate their thoughts, the manager should become a calmer who shows empathy and responsiveness to the emotions, but still keeps to the message.
    • Try saying: "I see this is hard to hear and it's clear how deeply you care about your work and how important it is to you to fix this issue. I'm hoping we can find a way to calmly talk together about how to do that.

3. The pitfall: Focusing on the employee's recent performance—and missing the bigger picture

Many managers can fall victim to the "recency bias" and focus too much on an employee's recent performance. This is only natural—it's easier to remember recent behavior—but the result can be that managers overlook the beginning or middle of the review period.

While recent improvement might be worth noting, Vonderhaar said managers should be careful not to overlook employees' past achievements or missteps during the full review period.

The solution: Create a system for capturing details about employee performance throughout the year

Anyone who has tried to think back to what was happening six or eight months ago knows how hard it is to recall specific details. That's why Vonderhaar says it's so critical for managers to jot down quick notes on staff performance throughout the year—rather than trying to remember everything that happened across the last 12 months when they sit down to write the formal review.

Managers should experiment with different systems for capturing ongoing feedback to see what works best for them. Some like to use the "ongoing feedback" or "notes" section of an online performance management software. Some like to use a simple Excel or Word document file with designated sections for each team member. Others use a designated folder in their email to capture relevant feedback about each employee.

The key is finding a system that works for you and then using it consistently throughout the year. Managers who do this will find not only is it easier to write the annual review—but also (and more importantly) their feedback is more accurate.

If you're going through the trouble to capture feedback throughout the year, Vonderhaar urges managers to share their feedback directly with staff as part of an ongoing dialogue (rather than waiting to deliver it at the annual review).

Vonderhaar suggests managers hold performance-focused check-ins with their employees at least every four months. While health care managers tend to have more direct reports that managers in other industries—which makes these regular check-ins a significant time investment—she said this frequency makes a big difference in engaging staff and providing actionable, accurate feedback.

Learn how to coach your staff year-round—not just during reviews

Join us for a 30-minute webinar on Tuesday, January 21 at 1 p.m. ET to get tips on how often to have dedicated feedback conversations with your staff, keep track of the feedback you're sharing, and more.

Register now